Or, what is bio-xenophobia?
(Part I of a four-part series. See also How an ant doctor came to be driving public policy; How the Twin Towers fell on animals too; and Questioning the claims of “crisis.”)
With just six weeks left of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign season, xenophobia, the fear of foreigners, has thus far all but dominated the issues, beginning with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Also of note were the lawsuit filed by five Alabamians early in the Republican primary campaign alleging that then-contender Ted Cruz was ineligible to run because he was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father, and bizarre claims from right-wingers, still echoing, that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton favors allowing immigration by Daesh (ISIS) terrorists.
Somewhat more subtly, xenophobic fear has also long dominated U.S. wildlife policy and politics––for much the same reason.
Nothing, at least since the September 11, 2001 al Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, seems to stampede public opinion more than the hint that something may be an alien invasion, even if it is arriving as gently as blossoms in spring.
Good guys & bad
Consider the words most often used now to describe animals and plants. The “good guys” are “native species,” especially if they happen to be “endangered” but not inconvenient to protect and conserve.
The “bad guys” are “invasive species,” including internationally endangered species introduced to the U.S. from somewhere else.
To the average American, “exotic species,” “alien species,” and “invasive species” all mean more-or-less the same thing.
Yet obscure as the distinctions among these words may be, they evoke responses contrasting enough that environmental advocacy groups and government agencies have spent millions of dollars to bring first the term “alien” and then the term “invasive” into vogue, echoing our fears of other people.
Behind the linguistic politics is a wealth of psychological research showing that terminology tends to shape attitudes.
What’s in a name?
Dave Poulson, associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, maintains an online glossary of environmental terms. A careful lexicographer, Poulson in 2007 asked fellow members of the Society of Environmental Journalists to help him distinguish the differing shades of meaning among “exotic species,” “alien species,” and “invasive species,” as used in news coverage.
Doug O’Harra of Far North Science, in Anchorage, Alaska, offered definitions which reflect most newsroom use.
An “exotic species,” O’Harra pronounced, is any species living somewhere other than where it originated.
An “alien species,” O’Harra opined, is an exotic species which was deliberately introduced to non-native habitat.
Neither exotic nor alien species “necessarily threaten the local ecology,” O’Harra stipulated, but an “invasive species” in his opinion “threatens the ecology of a local habitat” by out-competing or killing off native species. This usually occurs because the native species lack defense mechanisms, “or because the alien/invasive species no longer faces the predators or parasites that held it in balance in the species’ original habitat,” O’Harra wrote.
This is more-or-less what is usually taught in biology classes, nature center visitor lectures, and wildlife documentaries, but O’Harra’s summary missed one key part of the process by which “exotic” or “alien” species become allegedly “invasive.”
Typically, the ecology of the habitat has already been transformed by events that take away the survival advantages evolved by the native species through natural selection. Those events may include climate change, cultivation, deforestation, drought, volcanic eruption, or any of a multitude of other factors that alter habitat.
Whatever happened, though, the adaptations that helped native species in the habitat of long ago are no longer advantageous.
The Australian example
For example, dozens of shallow-burrowing native marsupial species in Australia lost much of their habitat to the introduction of sheep. Sheep compacted the soil, ate the native plants, monopolized the water, and were attended by bored shepherds who often amused themselves by killing wildlife. The brushy dry forests of pre-settlement times had always been vulnerable to wildfire in times of drought, but when burned off even in wet years to make pasture, soon yielded to desert.
Eurasian rabbits, who evolved with sheep, were enabled to take over huge swaths of habitat, along with rabbit predators including feral cats and foxes. Each introduced animal moved into habitat niches which had been made more favorable to them than it was to the native, yet extirpated marsupials.
Thylacenes, or “tasmanian tigers,” also called “Tasmanian wolves,” were large marsupials who evolved to hunt small marsupials in the dry forest. Thylacenes within 100 years of the introduction of sheep crashed toward extinction. Persecuted as suspected sheep predators, thylacenes were finished off by bounty hunters, but probably would have disappeared soon anyway, because their habitat was radically altered and their prey base was reduced.
Thylacenes had persisted for about 8,000 years in competition with dingoes, who arrived with the first humans in Australia, but the coming of sheep irrevocably tipped the balance in favor of the dingo. Dingo ancestors had hunted rabbits––and sheep––in Asia. They rapidly switched back to a rabbit-based diet, eating sheep too when they could, and took over the habitat that thylacenes could no longer hold.
The history of the phrase “invasive species” offers a parallel to the evolutionary process of how species become “invasive,” showing how a misguided belief can wreak havoc when the cultural climate favors it, no matter how wrong it is.
Noted Erica Goode in “Invasive Species Aren’t Always Unwanted,” a March 1, 2016 New York Times science section feature, “Antipathy to foreign plants and wildlife is relatively recent. While the distinction between native and non-native species dates to the 18th century, the term ‘invasion was first used in a 1958 book — The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, by Charles Elton — that drew on the militaristic vocabulary of the post-World War II era.’ But the moniker did not achieve its full derogatory weight until the 1990s and early 2000s, when academic interest in the subject peaked and the number of papers on the subject generated by invasion biologists grew proportionately.”
Tracing the rise of “invasive species” as a political issue, ANIMALS 24-7 ran keyword searches of 1,428 U.S. newspapers indexed 1976-2015 at www.NewsLibrary.com. We proportionally weighted the findings to compensate for the rising frequency with which newspaper content was filed electronically during the 40-year sampling.
Before 2002, non-native animals and plants were usually called “exotic species.” No other term was even frequently used until 1999.
The word “exotic” is most often associated with “different,” “unusual,” or even “erotic.” The positive associations of “exotic” long frustrated ecological nativists, whose environmental philosophy evolved in 18th and 19th century Europe parallel to political nationalism and nativism.
“A religious kind of belief”
“It’s almost a religious kind of belief, that things were put where they are by God and that that’s where they damn well ought to stay,” ecologist Ken Thompson told Goode. A retired senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield in England, Thompson wrote the 2014 book Where Do Camels Belong: Why Invasive Species Aren’t All Bad.
But the notion that every species has a place, ordained by God, is not just “almost a religious kind of belief”; it is a religious belief, closely related to the conservative political notion of “The divine right of kings,” meaning that social and political orders are also ordained by God.
The first wave of thinkers influenced by the Industrial Revolution, and terrified by the changes it introduced, were the Teutonic Naturists, a German literary school including the botanist and statesmen Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832). The Teutonic Naturists were also known by a variety of other names before Anna Bramwell established that name among historical scholars in her 1990 volume Ecology In The 20th Century.
Best known in his own time for scientific and political accomplishments, Goethe is today best remembered as the author of Faust, the story of an alchemist who sold his soul to the devil for help in discovering the secrets of science.
The Teutonic Naturists, privileged as heirs of the pre-Industrial Revolution landed aristocracy, vigorously defended their hunting estates against encroachment and development by the fast-expanding entrepreneur class.
To themselves and others, the Teutonic Naturists promoted their defense of inherited privilege as a defense of nature itself.
Preceding evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin by several generations, the Teutonic Naturists fervently believed in the hierarchy of creation diagrammed by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish taxonomist who invented the system of classification of species by “orders” with Latin names.
Linnaeus’ many insights into how species are related were easily assimilated into Darwin’s outline of evolution, and even in large part into “cladistics,” the system of species classification based on genetic relationship which in recent decades has succeeded use of Linnaeus’ hierarchy in serious scientific study.
Linnaeus himself appears to have been working toward the idea of cladistics, handicapped by lack of knowledge of evolution.
Humans as flawed species
But as Linnaeus’ hierarchy was understood by the Teutonic Naturists, and by many generations since his time, it provided a quasi-scientific rationale for the entire existing order of life, with the European hereditary nobility just below God and everyone and everything else in a fixed inferior position.
Teutonic Naturist philosophy incorporates the notions of a steady-state universe, of nature as a hierarchy defined by God, and of humankind as a flawed species, separate and apart from all the rest of nature, marring nature because humans are uniquely flawed––especially those humans who are not Teutonic Naturists in heritage, education, and outlook.
To this day it is Teutonic Naturism, not a scientific understanding of ecology and evolution, that informs the antipathy of conservationists toward introduced species, as well as toward a human presence amid “wilderness.”
Mourning the Garden of Eden
Emerging first in Germany, Teutonic Naturism soon spread to England, evolving into the literary trend known today as English Romanticism, before jumping the Atlantic to take deepest root in the U.S.
The central theme of Romantic poets and novelists was mourning the loss of times, places, and relationships in a manner echoing the Biblical “Garden of Eden” myth. This idea fused easily with the anxiety of early American conservationists about the effects of immigration, driving expansion of the United States from coast to coast, carrying industrial development with it.
For example, explained Mark Dowie in “Conservation Refugees,” a recent essay for Orion magazine, “John Muir, a forefather of the American conservation movement, argued that ‘wilderness’ should be cleared of all inhabitants and set aside to satisfy the urbane human’s need for recreation and spiritual renewal…
“One should not be surprised to find hardy residues of these sentiments among traditional conservation groups,” including the idea that not only humans but also any species brought by humans should be purged.
Keith Kloor in “The Battle for the Soul of Conservation Science,” a recent essay published by Issues in Science & Technology, traced the influence of Muir upon the mid-20th century forester/writer Aldo Leopold. Building on Muir’s ideas, Leopold as author of Sand County Almanac became arguably the most influential environmentalist between Muir and the emergence of the late 20th century environmental movement.
“The model of stable ecosystems that needed to be guarded against human disturbance (such logic, of course, meant that humans must exist outside nature), gave scientific impetus to the cause of wilderness preservation,” wrote Kloor. “Most ecologists have since discarded the ‘balance of nature” paradigm,” which was central to the work of Muir and Leopold. But as the environmental writer Emma Marris noted in her recent book Rambunctious Garden, ‘The notion of a stable, pristine wilderness as the ideal for every landscape is woven into the culture of ecology and conservation—especially in the United States.’”
Dustbowl environmental politics
The basic idea behind both political and ecological nativism today, as in Muir’s time and for the Teutonic Naturists, is that whatever existed in a particular place at a specific time chosen by the power-holders belongs there, while new arrivals are a threat.
Both political and ecological nativism have waxed and waned repeatedly in influence, tending to gain strength whenever and wherever the dominant culture is challenged by immigration.
For example, California in the 1930s could not legally bar Dustbowl refugees from entering the state, but it could and did set up checkpoints at the state borders to minutely inspect immigrants, especially displaced “Okies” and “Mexicans” from the drought-stricken U.S. Southwest, lest they carry produce that might harbor insect pests.
(This was Part I of a four-part series. See also How an ant doctor came to be driving public policy; How the Twin Towers fell on animals too; and Questioning the claims of “crisis.”)