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Selfish Genes

Kellert has to conclude, however, that there are but “weak biological tendencies” toward biophilia. Cultural “learning and experience exert a fundamental shaping influence on the content, direction, and strength” of the values he has defined, he writes. For instance, adult respondents with only a sixth-grade education have very high negativistic attitudes toward nature; those with some graduate education evince very low negativistic attitudes. Most Botswanans think that intervening to save wildlife may bring the wrath of the gods; educated Botswanans form a “striking exception” to the general view.

There is, in other words, as much di-versity about biodiversity as there is biodiversity. Yet Kellert is still determined to make his argument that “underlying values remain constant.” Thus after eight chapters that survey the riches biodiversity offers us by examining the vast array of human responses to it, Kellert, in a ninth chapter on education and ethics, concludes his book quite bluntly. “Every person possesses the ability to mine this creation and thereby enrich his or her experience,” he tells us. “This represents the ultimate self-interest of an ethic of respect and reverence for the value of life.” The author stretches toward a vision of richness for 200 pages and then backs away in the last sentence, collapsing everything into our “ultimate self-interest.”

The truth seems to be that the biophilia hypothesis is connected with the sociobiological hypothesis, also made famous by Edward O. Wilson. And within the framework of this particular theory, all phenomena, whether in nature or culture, is interpreted in terms of self-interest. Our deepest motivations are always buried in our selfish genes. But over the centuries, philosophers have seriously questioned the idea that ethics can be reduced to enlightened self-interest, and those classical worries return to bring doubt about whether an adequate environmental ethic can hold that humans should value nature only for what they can get out of it.

Kellert can say that he is enlarging the category of self-interest, and indeed, there is nothing narrow about his thinking; he wants all 10 million or so species embraced in “a broad anthropocentric ethic of life.” Still, it never seems to sink in that such ever-enlarging self-interest would “ultimately” (to use his word) pass over into something else-into a respect for life in which people would value something other than their personal well-being.

Interestingly, the results of a six-year study sponsored by the National Science Foundation and documented in Environmental Values in American Culture by Willett Kempton et. al. (MIT Press, 1995) suggest that such a mindset is not uncommon. Testing the claim that “we need to be as fair to plants and animals as we are towards people,” the study found agreement not only among 97 percent of Earth First members but also among 63 percent of sawmill workers from the Pacific Northwest. And even Kellert’s own research points to the conclusion that human beings are not entirely consumed by self-interest. Again and again, people have registered for him a value “especially associated with concern for the ethical treatment of animals and nature”-a value whose “more central focus is right and wrong conduct toward the nonhuman world.” Might this mean that people find intrinsic value in nonhuman life? Doubtful, thinks Kellert. The “highly abstract notion of awarding all species an inalienable right to exist” is too weak to motivate people into “denying their own self-interest,” he says.

But it is at least worth considering that what is needed to preserve biodiversity is not better surveys detecting biophilia in our selfish genes but moral vision and courage. And it is also worth considering that such qualities may already be more widespread than Kellert is prepared to realize. To be sure, The Value of Life is an excellent and important work. It is the best account available of the good reasons for preserving biodiversity, which are reflected in the values of millions of people. Would that Kellert could also have envisioned the best reasons, and perhaps found these operating in the values of people, too.

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