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The politics of invasive species

melian          17 December 2015 08:39 AM

Recently the Economist published several articles criticizing irrational animosity towards invasive species. Apparently in many cases the invasive species have proven harmless or even beneficial to the local environment and the obsessive desire of many conservationists to preserve the local flora and fauna completely intact has no scientific rational.

On my first reading I interpreted the articles as an entirely positive development. For years there has been a growing trend of viewing environmental issues through a moralistic (“good vs. evil”) or political (“left vs. right”) prism. Now the fact that a major liberal magazine was ready to criticize the overreaches of environmentalist movement seemed to suggest that the pendulum is swinging back towards a more rational approach.

Later, however, the conspiracy theorist in me suggested a totally different interpretation. Recently many professional historians have radically reinterpreted of the last days of the Roman Empire. Apparently, the fact the Roman civilization was destroyed by barbarian invasions was a myth or at least a gross exaggeration. In reality, the interaction between the natives and the newcomers was largely peaceful and consensual. The following Dark Ages were likewise another myth and instead of being destroyed the Roman civilization simply transformed into a new form, in part by assimilating the cultural traditions of the newcomers.

Vikings. Invasive species in IXth century Britain.

The Arab and the Viking invasions in the early medieval period have been recently reinterpreted in a similar fashion. As it turns out, the Norsemen have been unfairly stereotyped by the xenophobic Christian chroniclers. The new evidence (such as the discovery of female Vikings) suggests that already in the first millennium the Scandinavian culture was more progressive and egalitarian than the rest of Europe.

While restoration of Goths and Vandals’ good name may be an achievement in itself, I strongly suspect that academic historians had an additional motive in publishing these discoveries. Namely, they wished to do their bit in dispelling the fear of immigrants. By fighting against the anti-Vandal stereotypes, the scholars of ancient history are waging a proxy battle against the modern xenophobia and anti-immigrant movements.

The Economist’s advocacy of invasive species may be driven by similar motives. As one of its articles points out, the concern over preserving native species is connected to concerns over a national identity. Consequently, proving the benefits of invasive species may seem to the authors a good way of demonstrating the benefits of immigration and multiculturalism.

Eastern gray squirrel. Invasive species in XXth century Britain.

The interference of politics in science is hardly a new thing. Many people understand that scientific publications on politically controversial topics, such as biological causes of homosexuality or the link between the IQ and genes, are likely to be affected by author’s political biases. However, this example suggests that we may need to beware political biases even in questions that at first glance have nothing to do with politics.

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aliad 13 February 2016 10:11 PM

I think any question that sets out to evaluate whether some phenomena is 'good' or 'bad' is going to be referencing cultural values. It's pretty straightforward to ask something like does introduced grass Y become more than x percent of the grass present if left undisturbed, and the answer does not depend on what you value. But asking whether that answer is good or bad requires a subjective judgment that is going to reference the culture for context. And as American culture becomes more divided and politically polarized how value questions are answered are going to differ based on what segment of the population is answering.

For a segment of the population that is doing a lot virtue signally about how much they welcome incomers there is going to be some positive affect spillage onto incoming plants and animals too. A little more positive affect around invasive species is a totally normal part of cultural dynamics.

So this isn't primarily 'oh-no, there's politics in my science,' It's more that once you get into evaluating a broad process as 'good' or 'bad' you wander out of pure science into the interface between science and human values where you have to take a lot more things into account.