Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation

When I was studying biology human-animal relationships (…no giggling at the back!) was something I really wished I’d had an opportunity to learn more about.

A recent paper, ‘Understanding nuanced preferences for carnivore conservation: to know them is not always to love them’ by Macdonald et al. reminded me of quite why I found our human relationship with the natural world so interesting.

Humans are weird, in nature. Our notions of the world around us are not necessarily instinctive. They can be shaped and informed. We can learn them. This is hardly a ground-breaking statement, it is basic psychology.

More than that, though, we are (as far as we are aware) the only species capable of conscious thought. Consciousness is a tricky topic, difficult to define, but roughly speaking we are able to think about thinking about things. This process is adaptive. It can take in new information and change instructions based upon it. It can see a bigger picture. For example it can see the value of protecting a grubby little dung beetle if that beetle is a keystone species in a unique habitat. Humans have that power.

And yet!

What this paper shows is a huge level of bias in our valuation of species as conservation targets. That is to say even though we are capable of seeing a bigger picture we are not making judgements based on bigger pictures and we are not distributing resources based on bigger pictures. We are making unconscious decisions.

White tigers scored very highly in the survey as a conservation priority despite them being of little conservation value. There are no known wild white tigers, and the approximately 200 in captivity are the result of significant, multi-generational inbreeding. (Credit: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK, CC-BY-2.0)

Now this is not news to anyone involved in conservation! It’s not even news to a first year ecology undergrad! It’s taught very quickly. But it may be news to someone from a wider audience reading this and while there’s no guarantee it will change anyone’s thinking I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to just give information!

You see this study demonstrates that the relationships between humans and animals are subject to the same levels of bias, misunderstanding, preference and prejudice as our relationships with people, other groups, other nations etc. They are just as subject to myth and stereotype.

This was a thought that I had for a long time and that was cemented in my brain when I wrote my ‘Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals’ articles. We – the general public – do not see animals for that they are, nor the general role they inhabit. We invent a ‘story’ version.

Some of these stories may be very old! The relationship between humans and snakes, or humans and lions, for example, are likely as old as the human species itself. It may even be a tale that pre-dates us! Some of them have some history; our disregard for rats, for example. Others, like our dislike of pigeons may actually be very modern.

The brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, has a reputation as a filthy disease spreading invader. However zoonotic transmission of diseases from rats to humans is surprisingly rare outside of people who regularly handle them. Find out more in my article about why we hate rats here. (Credit: AnemoneProjectors CC-BY-SA-2.0)

What these stories attempt to do is condense a complex relationship into something very simple, a ‘this thing good, this thing bad’ framework. Invasion seems a common theme in animals we appear to generally dislike. Spiders, rats, mice; these animals that can sneak through our defence and get into our homes all seem to end up with bad reputations, end up disliked, despite whatever positive roles they may also play.

But these things far removed from us may have different myths and reputations in different parts of the world. Some animals that are unfavourable on your doorstep may be very well regarded elsewhere. Where your experience of lions in your home is a Disney flick you probably think differently to those where lions in your home is a loss of livelihood, cattle, or human life – an actual danger.

And this is where this becomes hugely relevant to conservation! Because many of these big, pretty species highlighted as favourable conservation targets in the paper are not all that great when they’re on your doorstep. Many of those less favoured may not be so bad. What they all have is a very complex relationship with the people who live with, and around, them.

Each species has its own unique beauty, but each also brings its own troubles. Each species is valid for conservation but few, if any, species are saints!

Understanding this complexity, and communicating it, is going to be key to conservation moving forward. Human-wildlife conflict has become a major conservation issue, but it is also a highly emotive topic, especially when it comes to how those conflicts may be managed.

But it is only so because of these biases, these myths and reputations. There are people shielded from the realities of how nature and humans interact; many of them in communities that have few, if any, dangerous species on their doorstep.

Some of these people genuinely believe that animal life should be prioritised over human life. This is not sustainable.

Likewise there are an awful lot of people (and I’m sad to say I know some) who believe any animal encroaching on a human-dominant habitat is fair game for being killed. This is also, obviously, unsustainable.

There is a literal multi-billion pound industry devoted to killing wildlife that often perpetuates misinformation, disinformation and myth. While some degree of wildlife or ‘pest’ control may be necessary to ensure human safety, there is a huge part of the wildlife control industry built upon preying on people’s fears, worries and misunderstandings for profit. In some cases promoting ineffective, cruel or environmentally damaging practices and products with little regard for the disturbances it can cause. (Credit: Alan Stanton CC-BY-SA 2.0)

And science, knowledge and understanding are not informing the bulk of these ideas and opinions. Instead it’s heuristic, it’s bias, it’s simplified narratives, it’s myths, folklore and fairy tales, documentaries, movies and literature. It’s OUR CULTURE informing so much of animals’ reputations. Not their own lives or behaviours, but our stories about their lives and behaviours.

The relative values of conservation targets are not being assessed by the public based upon any innate qualities of the animals themselves or their roles in the ecosystem. That much is shown in the study by the ridiculous popularity of the white tiger as a conservation target! But that’s a whole different article.

No, the values of animals are being determined by our values – by how pretty we find them, or how our ideas, myths and stories represent them.

This is a BIG issue for conservation.

Let’s go back to that dung beetle I mentioned earlier. This small creature could be a keystone species, moving seed-containing dung around a habitat, promoting new growth of vegetation, providing food for the grazers who provide food for the predators. This could be an endangered keystone species that ensures the safety and security of an entire ecosystem.

But who’ll donate money to an endangered shit-munching beetle?

A Geotrupid beetle – known to engage in caprophagy – or eating dung. This unassuming little thing could very well be vitally important to particular species’ or habitats’ health and sustainability and yet a lack of research and understanding of that importance could lead to its neglect. Lack of research funding, inspired partly by the same biases that inform public opinion, could prevent capable and willing researchers from finding out. Scientists and science funding bodies are, themselves, not immune to these biases. Would you fund research or conservation of this? Would you prioritise it over, say, a cat, even if loss of this species meant loss of an entire ecosystem? The research suggests not. (Credit: jhenning via Pixabay)

So then we must ask what place do these statement species, these popular species, hold in conservation? Can conservation organisations use those species to draw funds to distribute elsewhere, to fund protection of beetles, invertebrates, less popular species? Or would the public perceive that as dishonest? If they didn’t want to fund protection of a beetle but a big cat, would they feel cheated?

What is it people want to protect? Is it the species itself? Is it the ideas of what the species represents to them? Or do they actually want to protect the mucky, bloody, savage, weird, wonderful, gorgeous, unique and endlessly complex habitats that let those species be what they are on their own terms?

This is why this is such an important topic to discuss and understand! Our ecosystems are chaotic, small changes in one species, in one nutrient, in one plant or invertebrate can dramatically upset a whole system.

Conservation scientists are trying to work things out but they are often meeting a wall of misunderstanding from people who don’t realise their understanding of the natural world comes from a storied version. Or else they are getting caught up in disputes between local-led conservation initiatives and movements thousands of miles away from people in no danger but who have a mythologised view of nature.

Conservation is a messy business. It’s people handing you chainsaws demanding you juggle them successfully to a specific pattern they saw on telly, and then blaming you when you slip and cut your own hand off, or tell them to piss off!

And it all starts with the simple necessity of our brains using the information they take in to form a view of the world around us. It is based on how we craft the information into an internal model and what that model represents to us.

But does it represent reality? Or is that model just a story?

I genuinely feel for today’s conservation scientists because tackling that seems an insurmountable task.

In the social media age information can be spread rapidly, but this information may not be true. We are able to generate new myths and perpetuate old ones faster and more powerfully than ever before! Misinformation and disinformation about the natural world are rife.

This twitter thread by marine biologist and part-time shark, Dr. David Shiffman, is well worth a read to understand the power of social media for spreading misinformation and how harmful it can be to conservation efforts.

Even our finest nature documentaries rely heavily on anthropomorphising (giving human traits to) animals they present in order to get an audience to relate. They must craft a story, in so doing building their own myths, or perpetuating existing ones.

These documentaries use framing devices; particular subjects, dramatic music, specific shots and lighting, to emphasise these stories. Often the story will be framed by human emotion, family, friendship, parental responsibility etc. that fails to connect with those animals behaviours on their own terms or accurately reflect the nature of the relationships.

Even when you are being ‘factually’ informed you are being sold a myth!

Consider the 1958 Disney documentary White Wilderness – Famous for ‘creating’ the myth of lemming suicide. However the narration actually disputes the suicide myth and instead dramatises lemming migration. They did, though, use faked shots – possibly even pushing non-migratory lemmings into a river! But also the myth of lemming suicide perpetuated anyway! How this happened and why this happened is what we need to think about.

Or consider how you think of the relationship of lions and hyenas. Do you believe, as so many nature documentaries present, that lions are noble hunters being endlessly pestered by the grim scavenging hyenas? Because hyenas are very successful hunters in their own right and lions often steal and scavenge kills from hyenas. But so many lion-centric documentaries, as well as Disney’s The Lion King, have made a villain from the beautiful hyena. And as the study shows, we have a huge preference for lions. That myth perpetuates and hyenas are considered unfavourably in terms of conservation.

Hyenas fared poorly as a target for conservation in the study. Given these are beautiful, social, intelligent predators, surely their reputation, their popular presentation, plays some part. But if people knew more about them, would that overcome the deeply instilled prejudice? (Credit: flowcomm CC-BY-2.0)

So is this okay? Do these documentaries and how they present nature do enough good? Or is this, actually, harmful? Are we failing to present species correctly? And what difference would correct information do anyway when it seems, as with the lemmings, people will frame the drama, create their own myth, anyway?

I wish I had answers, but I don’t. Few, if any, individuals do. This is one of the most pressing matters in the world today and to truly understand it requires significant academic crossover. This is psychology, ethology, ecology, conservation, anthropology, business, marketing, economics and politics all rolled into one.

And even knowing that it’s getting funding for all the cross-discipline research in those fields! It’s having the free researchers to do the research in the first place! It’s finding the organisational harmony! It’s forging the trans-national cooperation!

This is the human complexity behind “tiger pretty, give money, save tiger.” The natural complexity is so much greater!

The simplicity behind public decisions regarding their conservation priorities betrays a truth. The tiger does not stand alone. It is part of a much wider ecosystem, supported by numerous other species, themselves supported by numerous other species.

And the ugly deserves protection too.

This article is adapted from the twitter thread below.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - https://www.patreon.com/WeLackDiscipline Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) - https://ko-fi.com/welackdiscipline

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