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Defending the Weak

Linda Schmalbeck

Harmony and Conflict in the Living World. Alexander F. Skutch. Illustrated by Dana Gardner. xii + 288 pp. University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. $24.95.

Sociable weavers and their cooperativelyClick to Enlarge Image

No savvy ecotourist headed for Central America would think of shouldering his backpack without a well-worn copy of Alexander Skutch's classic, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Skutch has for the past 59 years lived on a farm in a lush and secluded Costa Rican valley. Through a dozen books and more than 200 papers, he has documented the birds of the neotropics with a thoroughness that has been compared to Audubon's work on North American birds. Although this would seem to qualify Skutch as a spokesman for scientific orthodoxy, he has, in several of his tracts, unabashedly rejected commonly held scientific views. In The Minds of Birds, Skutch committed near-heresy by declaring that birds demonstrate consciousness and intelligence that goes far beyond instinct.

In his latest book, Harmony and Conflict in the Living World, Skutch combines orthodoxy and heresy in a moral tract outlining a bold approach to conservation. He offers, in support of his position, a review of natural ethics, science and bird lore. He developed his views on conservation while experimenting with a preserve for birds on his own farm:

With the troublesome exception of the nest-stealing Piratic Flycatcher, all dwelt peaceably together, singing their songs and rearing their young. But predators, chiefly snakes, small mammals, and an occasional raptor, invaded the garden to capture the adults or plunder their nests.

. . . After much thought, I adopted the principle of harmonious association. I would do all that I could to protect the creatures that dwelt harmoniously together, taking measures to remove those that disrupted this concord.

Skutch argues that, rather than seeking biodiversity at all costs, we should consider it our responsibility to control the diversity of life on the planet. His reasoning is as follows: "Biodiversity has certainly become excessive, and is responsible for a major part of the sufferings of animals including humans. In addition to all the predators that strike down living victims and too often begin to tear them apart before they die, an immense diversity of parasites torture, debilitate, and kill their hosts." Thus he maintains that reducing biodiversity greatly, by 50 percent or more, "would make life much more pleasant."

Using biocompatibility, the management principle he advocates for reducing biodiversity, humans would actively support species that can survive cooperatively and would consciously withhold that support from species that are destructive to the maintenance of this cooperative. In some cases carnivores and parasites would purposely be eradicated.

Consistent with this position is Skutch's opposition to breeding programs aimed at the reintroduction of raptors and large carnivores into the wild. He dismisses the obvious concern that eliminating predators might lead to the uncontrolled expansion of prey populations. He maintains that, although population control is needed for large browsing and grazing animals, the positive role of parasites and predators is otherwise much overrated—and that, in any case, the control of large grazing animals could be achieved more humanely "by expert marksmen." As for the rest, Skutch believes that in general, the laws of supply and demand would limit the overgrowth of biocompatible species.

Skutch writes with a lyricism and passion for his world that is reminiscent of some of the great naturalists of the last century. In the end, it is difficult to remain unaffected by the compelling image of this venerable scientist amid the splendor of his tropical retreat defending the weak and exorcising evil from our fragile planetary garden.—Linda Schmalbeck, Chemistry, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics


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