Mus­ings on Is­land Bio­geog­ra­phy

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY DR. RAN­DALL H. NIEHOFF Dr. Ran­dall H. Niehoff and his wife have lived hap­pily amongst the bio­di­ver­sity of Sani­bel since 1991.

What magic is there in the pro­noun “my” that should jus­tify us in over­throw­ing the de­ci­sions of im­par­tial truth? —Wil­liam God­win, English jour­nal­ist/ po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher (1756-1836)

As far as I know, English is the only ma­jor lan­guage that treats two prom­i­nent pro­nouns un­equally: I is al­ways cap­i­tal­ized and you is al­ways low­er­case. That self-cen­tered bias needs to be balanced; like­wise, the self­ish­ness of God­win’s my can be cor­rected with the pro­noun ours. Just such a de­ci­sion was made here by is­landers al­most a half-cen­tury ago: The zeit­geist of our coastal liv­ing ex­presses the im­par­tial truth that this habi­tat (land and sur­round­ing wa­ter)

be­longs to all who are at home here—the plants and an­i­mals as well as the peo­ple who man­age it. It is OURS.

A re­spect for the dig­nity of life is in­her­ent in all the classic re­li­gions; the ad­di­tional chal­lenge for hu­mans to be stew­ards of cre­ation is cen­tral to the philoso­phies of the Mid­dle East­ern He­braic tra­di­tion and the Chinese teach­ings of Con­fu­cius. While many wish we could do the job, skep­tics th­ese days don’t have much hope for our plan­e­tary or so­cial en­vi­ron­ment. They be­lieve that peo­ple are ba­si­cally self­ish and not al­tru­is­tic. I re­call this pointed lit­tle poem from Beth Lang, an old friend and pro­fes­sional Girl Scout leader: Be kind to all dumb an­i­mals, and give small birds a crumb. Be kind to hu­man be­ings, too—they’re some­times pretty dumb.

Yet we can point to some im­par­tial truths that are hope­ful, in­deed. From non-the­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tives, where first-rate sci­ence is be­ing prac­ticed, come th­ese ob­ser­va­tions:


“Self­ish­ness beats al­tru­ism within groups. Al­tru­is­tic groups beat self­ish groups. Ev­ery­thing else is com­men­tary.” This is a joint state­ment from two sci­en­tists: David Sloan Wil­son,* one of the world’s lead­ing evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gists; and E.O. Wil­son** (no re­la­tion), the “fa­ther” of so­cio­bi­ol­ogy and bio­di­ver­sity.


“Trou­bled as the world may be to­day, it is in­con­testably less poor, less un­healthy, and less hungry than it was 30 years ago. And this pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween world pop­u­la­tion growth and ma­te­rial ad­vance goes back at least as far as the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury.” This quote from po­lit­i­cal econ­o­mist Ni­cholas Eber­stadt is af­firmed by Har­vard pro­fes­sor and cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Steven Pinker (an ag­nos­tic), who ar­gues that vi­o­lence in hu­man so­ci­eties is in steady de­cline. He elab­o­rated on th­ese ideas in his 2011 book The Bet­ter An­gels of Our Na­ture.

3“Hap­pi­ness is not sim­ply de­pen­dent on a per­son’s genes. It is a set of skills that can be taught and, with prac­tice, de­vel­oped over time. Hap­pi­ness and al­tru­ism are in­ter­twined—do­ing good is an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent to be­ing happy, and hap­pi­ness helps spur kind­ness and gen­eros­ity.” Those words are from the mis­sion state­ment of the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter (UC Berke­ley), which stud­ies the psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy and neu­ro­science of well-be­ing and teaches skills that fos­ter a thriv­ing, re­silient and com­pas­sion­ate so­ci­ety.

Off-is­land there are more and more places where self-cen­tered­ness does not pre­vail, and where the pro­noun ours cre­ates a sense of be­long­ing in which the re­al­ity is more than the sum of the in­di­vid­ual crea­tures liv­ing to­gether. Back here we nav­i­gate by what E.O. Wil­son calls “is­land bio­geog­ra­phy”—when it comes to keep­ing in touch with our fel­low flora and fauna, we could go down a Hall­mark Cards aisle and not be sur­prised to find on the dis­play of “I LOVE YOU ONLY” cards, a hand-writ­ten sign that says: “Now avail­able in mul­ti­packs”!

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