Thursday, September 13, 2007

american megafauna

in Alan Weisman's new book The World Without Us, he tells the tale of the early inhabitants of North and South America (the so-called Clovis people) and their disasterous effect on the local animal population. The same story is told in Jared Diamond's, Guns Germs and Steel. When these first American humans arrived they found a hemisphere filled with an amazing variety of large animals, that Mr. Weisman calls "megafauna." And because these megafauna had evolved separately from human beings (unlike the megafauna in Africa), they had never developed defenses against us and the humans quickly killed them all.

At first reading that story makes one gasp. At it's sad to think of the diverse, fascinating creatures we'll never get to meet. But is it far to judge the Clovis people morally for the mass extinction? And is it fair to judge the human species as a whole, morally, for the extinction we're currently inflicting on the planet?

We can only hold people morally accountable for their actions if they are free to act other than they did. Although it seems as though human beings ought to be able to freely choose not to destroy the planet in the many ways we are, perhaps we're not really free to make those world-savings choices. Perhaps there's something in human nature that makes us incapable of making the choices we would need to make. If we're really not capable of making better choices the result is equally as tragic, but not morally culpable. Perhaps we have no more power to change our ways than a volcano can choose not to erupt, or a meteor choose not to strike the earth.

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