Black and White and Extinct All Over?

In major zoos around the world, the top attraction is usually the giant panda. These members of the bear family, with their distinctive black and white markings, are what biologists call "charismatic megafauna," that is, large animals that people care about. People like pandas so much that groups like the Friends of the National Zoo and the World Wildlife Federation use them as part of their logos. Biologists regard this endangered species as a symbol of man's relationship to nature. They're correct, but not in the sense they think. Biologists estimate that there are, at most, 1,500 giant pandas living in the wild, all of them in southwestern China. The most common explanation given for the panda's plight is human encroachment on their habitat. It's not quite that simple, as careful viewers of a recent Discovery Channel program, "Panda Nursery," learned. Important aspects of panda behavior make it especially vulnerable to changes in its habitat. Unlike other bears, who will eat almost anything, giant pandas only eat bamboo leaves and stems. Not only is bamboo not very nutritious, but the panda's digestive system -- designed for meat -- cannot digest more than 20 percent of what it eats. As a result, giant pandas must spend most of their waking hours eating the huge amounts of bamboo they require to survive. Panda reproduction also poses problems for its survival. Compared to other bears, panda pregnancies are rare. And, in the case of twins, a panda mother will abandon one sibling, leaving it to die. The species' ineptitude at reproduction has forced humans to intervene and essentially to take over the process, breeding and raising the young of a species that can't do it on its own. In other words, if the giant panda survives, it will only be because human beings made its survival a priority. Human beings will refrain from activities that hurt the panda's chances of survival and will take active measures, like breeding programs, to perpetuate the species. This is the right thing to do, but it's not the Darwinian thing. It wouldn't be happening if human beings were, as Darwinists like Richard Dawkins tell us, "just another animal." If we took Dawkins's worldview seriously, the giant panda would merely be another species that was out-competed into extinction by a more adaptable contender. There would be no more reason to regret the panda's demise than there is to lament that there are no wooly mammoths in downtown Denver. Among the millions of species on Earth, only humans ponder their obligations to other species. As Leon Kass of the University of Chicago has written, this fact is the obvious reply to people who insist that we are "just another animal." We intervene for animals like the panda because we instinctively know that man has a moral obligation to act as a steward of nature -- an obligation that arises from a biblical, not a Darwinian, understanding of man and our place in the world. On a recent broadcast, I called Dawkins's views "dangerous." I meant to humans, but as the panda's story reminds us, pure Darwinism isn't good for the rest of creation either. For further reading and information: See Roberto Rivera's "Notes from the Wasteland" column titled, "Panda Man." See this article on the plight of the Giant Panda and its trouble with mating. BreakPoint Commentary No. 040325, "No Respect: 'Darwin's Pit Bull' Doesn't Get It." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030527, "Abusing Our Power: Do Christians Sanction Cruelty to Animals?" BreakPoint Commentary No. 030403, "Balancing Act: Caring for the Creation." Wesley J. Smith, "Kass, in the Firing Line," National Review Online, 5 December 2003. Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (St. Martin's Press, 2002).


Chuck Colson



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