In a recent opinion piece in Slate, Ben Minteer of Arizona State University continues to raise questions of the ethical legitimacy of collecting specimens for biological research. Minteer maintains that the risk to species, where population sizes might be small enough so that collecting represents a probabilistic extinction threat, outweighs the benefits to science and conservation. Unfortunately, Minteer is expressing an opinion, not the results of a carefully weighed and conducted analysis of data or facts. This is best highlighted by his example of the recent re-discovery of a species of New Guinea bat. Minteer states, “No scientist or conservationist today would deny the importance and value of describing a new species or confirming the return of one thought lost to extinction. But scientists also have a powerful ethical responsibility to minimize any and all adverse ecological impacts of their work.” Would that the world be so easily navigated. Today there are larger threats looming to biodiversity than at any time in the past 66 million years, and every one of those threats is the result of human actions. The threat of negative ecological impacts by scientists who are trying to document, explain and ultimately sustain what remains of the natural world pales hugely when compared to the threats of habitat destruction, the over-exploitation of species, and climate change. We will face very difficult decisions in the coming decades, and information is our friend, not our enemy.
Back to Minteer though. I think that his argument amounts to cherry picking and straw men. The reason for my position is best stated in a recent blog post by my colleague at the California Academy of Sciences, Dr. Jack Dumbacher. Jack explores the discovery of that very same bat picked by Minteer as an example, and he outlines very nicely the critical nature of the work. Please read his post. I’ll end here with an excerpt: “This study highlights the value of museum specimens in modern research, and the importance of taking specimens in modern field studies. Ironically, these studies were undertaken to assess the impacts of selective logging. The biggest threat to lowland forest in PNG is due to habitat loss from logging, mining, and oil palm conversion. One of the few things that might slow habitat loss is the fact that one little poorly known female bat was recently collected there.“