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The New Paganism of Biodiversity

Why do people say things that they cannot, on a moment’s reflection, possibly believe? Mainly, I suppose, to congratulate themselves on their own moral grandeur and to appear right-thinking in the eyes of their peers. Truth is the least of their worries.

What would those who wish to preserve a maximum diversity of species, as a good in itself, make of the announcement in the latest New England Journal of Medicine of the trial of a vaccine that is a step towards the elimination in Africa of the worst and most dangerous kind of malaria? Will they form a society for the protection of Plasmodium falciparum, the causative organism of that malaria? I suggest as a name for the society Friends of Falciparum,  or Friefal.

The vaccine, tested on children in malarious areas of Africa, was in fact only 55 percent effective in protecting against all episodes of malaria, and still less effective, at 35 percent, against severe episodes. In addition, children given the vaccine had an increased number of cases of meningitis, which might or might not prove to be a chance finding.

Further research is likely to improve the protective quality of the vaccine, though no one currently believes that malaria, which causes about a million deaths per year, will be totally eliminated by vaccine alone. But if the malarial parasite could be eliminated by a conjunction of vaccination and other preventive measures, would it be desirable?

Presumably those who believe in the benefits of biodiversity per se would have to say no; and it is indeed possible, even likely, that the elimination of the malarial parasite would have unforeseen consequences. But unforeseen consequences are the Promethean bargain of mankind that it made leaving its “natural” state behind; and it would be a pretty inflexible ideologue of biodiversity who insisted upon the survival of mankind’s malarial parasites.

Just as I suspect that multiculturalists have a lot of different restaurants and cuisines in mind when they praise multiculturalism, so I suspect that most of those who espouse biodiversity as a good in itself are thinking mainly of attractive or at least of harmless creatures, rather than, say, Ascaris lumbricoides, the giant (and repellent) roundworm that infects children and can cause intestinal obstruction, or Dracunculus medinensis, the Guinea-worm that, once it emerges from the skin of the foot, must be wrapped round a stick and pulled out slowly  and painfully over weeks or months. It is not difficult, in fact, to think of many species that would not much be missed.

The espousal of biodiversity as a good in itself, then, is a form of pagan theodicy, in which Nature is ultimately benevolent and knows best, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. It is the belief that organisms such as Taenia solium, the pork tapeworm, fulfill a function in the great, but unspecified, scheme of things. No one wants this kind of biodiversity in or for himself, of course.

None of this implies that the destruction of species is never, often, or even usually regrettable; but that is quite another matter from the new paganism of biodiversity.

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