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Nathan Winograd's "Biological Xenophobia"

Published on his blog on January 8, 2010 by Nathan J. Winograd 

In Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle column, “Ask The Bugman,” a letter writer asked The Bug Man the following question:

Why shouldn’t we use pesticides to control invasive species such as the light brown apple moth? If we don’t do anything, it will ruin all of our crops.

In his response, Richard Fagerlund aka The Bugman questioned the very concept of “invasive species”:

How do we decide what is an invasive species? If animals and insects are competitive and adapted to the environment they are in, they will thrive. If they can’t make a living, they will move on. If you call a species invasive because it moves to new areas, then our species, humans, are probably the most invasive species on the planet. Certainly, we have done as much or more damage in some areas as all the other species combined.

“Invasive species” is a term used for economically important (or destructive in our minds) organisms. If an insect or other animal weren’t destructive, they wouldn’t be considered “invasive.” If a beautiful butterfly invades an area, it is a wonderful event. If a moth that feeds on a few crops comes along with it, it is a menace to society.

When we talk about native species, we are referring to species that have been around as long as we can remember. We don’t want to see them displaced by other species we may not know as well. When an “invasive” species becomes adapted, it becomes part of our ecosystem. When we start using pesticides to control the “invasive” species, we are going to affect everything living in that ecosystem, including our own species. We found that out when they started spraying those chemicals to control the light brown apple moth. Many people complained of adverse health effects.

I would imagine that after Wednesday’s article, Fagerlund is getting a whole lot of crazy from the hyperbolic, hysterical “invasion biology” crowd. Yet he is not alone in the views he shared regarding the troubling growth of this harmful ideology. As an environmentalist, I have anxiously watched the spread of this dangerous mindset over the last several years which condones the use of poisons, killing and the destruction of natural places in a vain attempt to stop the natural – and inevitable – processes of life on earth. It is true that the determination as to which species are “invasive” are based on subjective human aesthetics and narrow commercial interests, and that by the invasion biologists’ own logic, humans are “invasive” species #1. Fagerlund’s rational, common sense discussion of the issue is a welcome departure from the jingoistic fear mongering which increasingly characterizes the discussion of migration and natural selection, even among those who should know better, such as scientists and environmentalists.

In both Redemption and again in Irreconcilable Differences, I also challenged the concept:

The idea that some animals have more value than others comes from a troubling belief that lineage determines the value of an individual animal.  This belief is part of a growing and disturbing movement called “Invasion Biology.” The notion that “native” species have more value than “non-native” ones finds its roots historically in Nazi Germany, where the notion of a garden with native plants was founded on nationalistic and racist ideas “cloaked in scientific jargon.” This is not surprising. The types of arguments made for biological purity of people are exactly the same as those made for purity among animals and plants.

In the United States, Invasion Biologists believe that certain plants or animals should be valued more than others if they were at a particular location “first,” although the exact starting point varies, is difficult to ascertain, and, in many cases, is wholly arbitrary. Indeed, all plants and animals were introduced (by wind, humans, migration, or other animals) at some point in time. But regardless of which arbitrary measure is used, Invasion Biologists ultimately make the same, unethical assertions that “introduced” or “non-native” species do not have value and are not worthy of compassion. They conclude that these species should, therefore, be eradicated in order to return an area to some vague, idyllic past.

Trying to move the world to a mythical state that probably never existed lacks a moral or logical foundation. Nature cannot be frozen in time or returned to a pre-European past, nor is there a compelling reason why it should be. To claim that “native” species are somehow better than “introduced” species equally or better adapted to the environment is to deny the inevitable forces of migration and natural selection. No matter how many so-called “non-native” animals (and plants for that matter) are killed, the goal of total eradication can never be reached. As far as feral cats are concerned, they will always exist. To advocate for their eradication is to propose a massacre with no hope of success and no conceivable end. They exist and have a right to live, regardless of how and when they arrived or were “introduced.” Their rights as individuals supersede our own narrow, human-centric desires, which are often based on arbitrary biases, subjective aesthetics, or commercial interests.

The ultimate goal of the environmental movement is to create a peaceful and harmonious relationship between humans and the environment. To be authentic, this goal must include respect for other species. Tragically, given its alarming embrace of Invasion Biology, the environmental movement has violated this ethic by targeting species for eradication because their existence conflicts with the world as some people would like it to be.  And in championing such views, the movement paradoxically must support the use of traps, poisons, fire, and hunting, all of which cause great harm, suffering, and environmental degradation.

Equally inconsistent in the philosophy of Invasion Biology is its position—or, more accurately, lack of a coherent position—on humans. If one accepts the logic that only native plants and animals have value, human beings are the biggest non-native intruders in the United States. With over 300 million of us altering the landscape and causing virtually all of the environmental and species decimation through habitat destruction and pollution, shouldn’t Invasion Biologists demand that non-native people leave the continent? Of course, non-profit organizations that advocate nativist positions would never dare say so, or donations to their causes would dry up. Instead, they engage in a great hypocrisy of doing that which they claim to abhor and blame “non-native” species for doing: preying on those who cannot defend themselves.

In the end, it is not “predation” that Invasion Biologists object to. Animals prey on other animals all the time without their complaints. In fact, they themselves prey on some birds by eating them, and they prey on animals they label “non-native” by eradicating them. For Invasion Biologists, predation is unacceptable only when it involves an animal they do not like.

Like Fagerlund, I agree that it is wrong and obscene to label any species an “alien” on its own planet and to target that species for extermination. Disguised under the progressive mantle “environmentalism” , this emerging field of pseudo-science should more accurately be labeled “biological xenophobia.”

Visit Nathan J. Winograd's blog.

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Comment by C. Anderson on January 24, 2011 at 23:26


There is a long recongnized tension between environmental concerns with ecosystems and the members of the ecosystems and the sentient individual animals within the ecosystem. Although  re-introduction of wolves into yellowstone was instrumentally beneficial to maintaining the balance between certain ungulates and their food sources, if I'm not convinced that food sources have moral rights and if I hold that if humans have moral rights then some animals have rights (at least the ungulates in question), then I don't find the introduction of wolves into the ecosystem to be justifiable morally.


I do wonder, however, about severe ecological degradation. The elk were placing a burden on certain plant species, but had been doing so gradually over the 75 years since the wolves were hunted out of yellowstone. What if the burden was creating a situation more dire, and the choice was predation or complete collapse of the elk population? Here I struggle. If the elks have rights as individuals then it implies that they should not be used for the interests of others including other elk. So therapeutic hunting/predator introduction would still not be justifiable. Unless there is some other means of addressing the problem we seem to be in a moral quandry.


All things being equal, I find the idea that we have a responsibility to "wash out" human transformation of the ecosystem where possible plausible, but I can't see that that responsibility overrides our responsibility to respect the rights of sentient individuals.


Feral cats, in Australia, have done a great deal of ecological damage as I understand it with something like a 3 to 1 ratio of feral cats to pets. So this might be a case where such severe ecological damage might lead some (of the Singerian stripe) to support therapeutic hunting of feral cats. The question for people who disagree with Singer's view that death is not a harm for most mammals is whether there is an alternative that doesn't involve killing but might reduce ecological damage of feral cats. What would a massive TNR program do in Australia? Could it restore some balance?

Comment by Nath Miles on January 24, 2011 at 14:20

This shows how fragile an eco system can be. So when you throw a domestic cat out there in the millions of course it is going to massacre animals by the millions as the eco system has not evolved to deal with it.

There is no chance that the domestic cat is going to ever become extinct. There is every chance though that hundreds or thousands of other species will due to domestic cats being introduced into a country or eco system they have not evolved in.

This problem has been caused by humans and as such we have a responsibility to fix it and consider ALL species. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to fix eco systems and amend the problems we have caused through mankind’s ignorance.

The Paradise parrot once was found in Australia, It is now EXTINCT mostly because of cats.

Where are the rights of the Paradise Parrot?

Comment by Nath Miles on January 24, 2011 at 14:09

Wolves were and are part of the natural eco system C Anderson in Yellowstone National Park. Wolves were hunted to extinction in Yellowstone. However science found that the flora started to suffer.


What was happening in Yellowstone was that the herbivores were eating all the tree seedlings as they were able to graze without having to worry about wolves. So certain species of trees, shrubs and plants were no longer growing. They reintroduced the wolves a few years ago and since then the flora has been able to recover and is growing once again.

Comment by C. Anderson on January 24, 2011 at 12:05

I can't speak for Winograd, but I take it that the difference between feral cats killing birds and humans killing feral cats is that the first is amoral while the second involves violating a right.


Whether Trap-Neuter-Release of feral cats involves complicity in cat predation is a difficult question that I, for one, go back and forth on. There is, I think, a difference with re-introducing a predator into the wild, such as wolves in yellowstone. In the latter case we are causing predation where it wasn't occurring before TNR does not increase or decrease predation, assuming that we don't add to the feral population, since it capture already feral animals and re-releasing them. Actually I suppose it does decrease predation over the long term, since neutered populations of feral cats no longer reproduce.

I take Winograd's point that often under the guise of restoring ecosystems and eliminating alien species we kill many animals. I'm not an ecologist, so I can't comment on the ecological theory and evidence supporting various extermination policies, but it seems to me that Winograd's point places a substantial burden of argument on the defenders of ecological nativism, to show that the needs of the ecological community override the rights of the individual members of the invading species.

Comment by red dog on January 24, 2011 at 11:45
^ If this were my website, I'd delete the above comment.
Comment by Nath Miles on January 24, 2011 at 9:33

Winograd really is a narcissistic, self serving human being. 

Invasion biology is actually based on sound science.

Eco systems take thousand and in some cases millions of years to evolve. You can’t just put a species of flora and fauna in an eco system that has not adapted it with it. The result is all species in this eco system suffer.


Why is it Winograd always love to use "Nazi Germany" as some kind of example. It’s become tiresome. I think it is because it dramatizes what he is trying to talk about and he knows it will suck people in, especially those who are not capable of well informed critical thought.

Winograd uses these exact same arguments when it comes to feral cats. Comparing "Nazi Germany" and saying hey they should be desexed and dumped back out there to roam because they may not be able to rehomed.


But what Winograd fails to inform you is that feral cats are responsible for the decimation and destruction of over 1 billion birds in America every year. Birds that have adapted over thousands and millions of years without domestic cats.


So let me get this straight it’s ok for feral cats to kill over 1 billion birds in America every year but it’s not ok for a single cat to be put to sleep?


We should all be advocating for the way of least suffering. If this is our aim which it should be then we need to respect eco systems and understand the science behind them.


We have destroyed these eco systems all over the world by bringing in not indigenous flora and fauna to them. We have a responsibility to try and fix them.

Comment by blackpanther on January 15, 2011 at 5:09

the only invasive species is.........MAN!

and one more example showing man should stop intervening in nature:

Tagging penguins by putting a band around their flippers significantly limits their chances of survival and ability to raise chicks, according to a study just released in Nature.

And why did it take a scientific study to demonstrate that having a band around your feet could interfere with your ability to get around?

Comment by C. Anderson on January 14, 2011 at 6:01

Kate and Eduardo,

Thanks for continuing this interesting conversation. I'm a bit behind and hope to add some further thoughts this weekend, as both of you have given me a lot to think about.


I saw that Nathan Winograd had a new post on this topic over on his blog: "There are no 'Alien' species on Planet Earth."

Comment by Eduardo Terrer on January 13, 2011 at 7:23

In English:


Hi Anderson: 

You say that if an ethical theory means impossible obligations, then that ethic has problems. 
However, one involving ethical theory does not contain obligations abstract obligations impossible. This ethical theory implies certain obligations to situations where an individual clearly out injured. The issue is that the theory is abstract obligations, and when trying to specify by example (what could be called also "individual cases") will always be those obligations impossible. 
For all criteria, there are hundreds of cases which become impossible obligations.Ethics is always subject to the limitations "technical" or, put another way, the difficulties we have in a particular time and place to avoid a conflict. 

In my opinion, there are some issues that are not very clear. Everyone has duties. But if someone does not respect these obligations, then why have a duty to intervene? 
I think it is possible to have an obligation not to harm without being required to prevent other harm. I think in our society that required the delegate to certain government agencies in charge of preventing individuals from harming others, that would prevent an individual who needs help, get help ... (eg police, hospitals, government financial assistance, ...) 
If no such organizations exist, each individual should do their share. If we did not, our society could not sustain. An ethical society requires ethical standards and control mechanisms. 

We understand that we have no obligations because organisms are controlled by the state, which has other powers and other characteristics that make breaking us on an ethical level of our duties. 
There are limitations to the potential ethical. Child abuse is unfair. We should not abuse children, or allow others to abuse children. However, everyone is constantly happening.In the "third world" injustices committed (according to our ethical criterion) continued.The limitation of our society and the assumption that other companies in other countries, it is our responsibility to mix ethics and other issues. If we only ethics, surely we would have duties beyond the flags and nations. 

If we stick to our technical ability to solve ethical injustices of the world, we realize that we have duties impossible. Because we have an obligation to prevent someone harms another person if you have no justification. That can not be done. Perhaps you could in some future time. 

If we see a man trying to kill a dog, we have an ethical duty (anti-speciesist, of course) to avoid it. If you see a dog trying to kill a cat, have a duty to avoid it. 
If we saw a cat trying to kill a rat, we should avoid it (and incidentally give the cat a vegan I think). 

All this we could do if it happened before us. And agencies should have shared in a structured way I think vegan in nature to prevent predators had to hunt for food. Continue hunting, but many deaths might be avoided by not having that need. 
That could be achieved at a time. Obviously, avoid kill another individual (human or nonhuman) is very complicated. Especially in the case of non-humans. 
S ever there technical means to achieve this would be unfair not to. 
The differences between ethical theory and concrete cases are technical limitations, constraints to any criteria and does not invalidate such an approach. 

Technical limitations are a goal to overcome. The question is not what limitations we have, if the question is what can we do today to make this world a more just world.Whatever the ethical standard which established the general welfare will increase gradually. 

My conclusion is that the impossible obligations are specific cases in more technical, and only tell us how unfair the world is. Technical constraints tell us about the degree of injustice. But it makes no sense to give up those duties to think that the world is more just than it really is. 

A theory formulated to waive certain rules and obligations we must renounce impossible ethical principles (ethical theory is like an equation, and those obligations are the result impossible to apply certain values to the variables of the equation). 
The equation is valid, keeping these rules, when the variables result in a situation where we can intervene (humans trying to hunt a deer), and therefore the problem is not the rules, if not a few difficulties with the time, we will be solved. 

An anti-speciesist Greeting 

Comment by Eduardo Terrer on January 13, 2011 at 7:22
Hola Anderson:
Dices que si una teoría ética implica obligaciones imposibles, entonces esa ética tiene problemas.
No obstante una teoría ética que implique obligaciones abstractas no contiene obligaciones imposibles. Esta teoría ética implica unas obligaciones ante situaciones donde un individuo sale claramente perjudicado. La cuestión es que la teoría tiene obligaciones abstractas, y cuando se intenta concretar mediante ejemplos (lo podríamos llamar también “casos concretos”) siempre va a haber esas obligaciones imposibles.
Para todo criterio existen cientos de casos concretos que se convierten en obligaciones imposibles. La ética siempre está sujeta a las limitaciones “técnicas” o, dicho de otro modo, las dificultades que tenemos en un momento y un lugar concreto para evitar un conflicto.
A mi entender, hay algunas cuestiones que no quedan muy claras. Cada individuo tiene deberes. Pero si alguien no respeta dichos deberes, entonces ¿tenemos el deber de intervenir?
Creo que no es posible tener obligación de no perjudicar sin tener obligación de evitar que otros perjudiquen. Creo que en nuestra sociedad esa obligación la delegamos en ciertos organismos públicos que se encargan de evitar que algunos individuos perjudiquen a otros, que evitan que un individuo que necesita ayuda, reciba ayuda… (por ejemplo la policía, los hospitales, ayudas económicas gubernamentales,…)
Si no existiesen dichos organismos, cada individuo debería hacer su parte proporcional. Si no lo hiciésemos, nuestra sociedad no podría sustentarse. Una sociedad ética requiere unas normas éticas, y unos mecanismos de control.
Entendemos que no tenemos obligaciones porque los organismos los controla el estado, que tiene otras atribuciones y otras características que hacen que nos desvinculemos a nivel ético de nuestros deberes.
Hay limitaciones para las posibilidades éticas. Es injusto abusar de menores. No deberíamos abusar de menores, ni permitir que otros abusen de menores. No obstante, en todo el mundo se sucede continuamente. En el “tercer mundo” se cometen injusticias (según nuestro criterio ético) continuas. La limitación de nuestra sociedad y la asunción de que otras sociedades, en otros países, no son nuestra responsabilidad mezclan ética y otras cuestiones. Si atendemos solo a la ética, seguramente tendríamos deberes más allá de las banderas y las naciones.
Si nos atenemos a nuestra posibilidad técnica de solucionar las injusticias éticas del mundo, nos daremos cuenta de que tenemos obligaciones imposibles. Porque tenemos la obligación de evitar que alguien perjudique a otro alguien si no tiene justificación. Eso no lo podemos hacer. Quizás se pueda en algún momento del futuro.
Si vemos  un humano intentando matar a un perro, tenemos el deber ético (anti-especista, claro) de evitarlo. Si vemos un perro intentando matar a un gato, tenemos el deber de evitarlo.
Si viésemos un gato intentando matar una rata, deberíamos evitarlo (y de paso dar pienso vegano al gato).
Todo esto lo podríamos hacer si sucediese delante nuestro. Y debería haber organismos que repartiesen de forma estructurada pienso vegano en la naturaleza para evitar que los depredadores tuviesen que cazar para comer. Seguirían cazando, pero quizás se evitaría muchas muertes por no tener esa necesidad.
Eso se podría lograr en un tiempo. Evidentemente, evitar que cada individuo mate a otro (sea humano o no-humano) es muy complicado. Especialmente en el caso de los no-humanos.
S alguna vez hay medios técnicos para lograrlo, será injusto no hacerlo.
Las diferencias entre teoría ética y los casos concretos son las limitaciones técnicas, limitaciones que existen para cualquier criterio y que no invalidan dicho criterio.
Las limitaciones técnicas son una meta a superar. La cuestión no es qué limitaciones tenemos, si no que la cuestión es qué podemos hacer hoy para lograr que este mundo sea un mundo más justo. Sea cual sea el criterio ético que se instaure, el bienestar general aumentará de forma gradual.
Mi conclusión es que las obligaciones imposibles son los casos concretos con mayores limitaciones técnicas, y que solo nos dicen lo injusto que es el mundo. Las limitaciones técnicas nos hablan del grado de injusticia. Pero no tiene sentido renunciar a dichas obligaciones para pensar que el mundo es más justo de lo que realmente es.
Una teoría formula ciertas reglas y para renunciar a las obligaciones imposibles debemos renunciar a principios éticos (la teoría ética es como una ecuación, y dichas obligaciones imposibles son el resultado de aplicar ciertos valores a las variables de la ecuación).
La ecuación es válida, manteniendo esas reglas, cuando las variables dan como resultado una situación en la que podemos intervenir (humano intentando cazar un ciervo), y por tanto el problema no es de las reglas, si no de unas dificultades que, con el tiempo, deberemos ir solventando.
Un Saludo anti-especistas



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