Ethical questions in SF

Last night, I posted the hypothetical question on Twitter:

If cane toads were seriously endangered in Hawaii, how would you feel about people killing them in Australia?

To which the replies suggested:
– the Hawaiians are welcome to ours!
– the Australian ecosystem is no less important than Hawaii’s. Kill them!

But, I wondered, what if transporting cane toads to Hawaii was prohibitively expensive?

People still felt that the cane toads should be eradicated, and never mind, because cane toads were disgusting and ugly and not very conservation-worthy.

OK. The European rabbit has almost become extinct. In Australia, we’re killing them by the thousands.

Shipping them back should be easy, but… the Australian rabbit is not exactly the same creature as the European rabbit. There are probably no detectable differences in DNA, but the Australian rabbit lives in the desert. Oh, there are city rabbits, too, but they tend to be heavily contaminated with genotypes that are white, black or grey and don’t look like the European wild rabbit at all.

The place where you will find wild, non-domestic rabbits is in central Australia. These rabbits have excellent desert surviving skills and they’re tough.

Fortunately, shipping them back to Europe is easy and you might give it a go. That said, the rabbits you re-import may no longer be suited to the mild climes of temperate Europe. They might die, or might become a pest of themselves. You could happily continue eradicating rabbits in Australia, because the species does not belong here.

But now imagine a cute animal in an environment that has no native state, such as an environment that has been terraformed, in which all plants and animals are imported. The cost of transporting the animals back would be hideous. The animals may not be genetically the same. And in their native habitat they’re almost extinct. Would eradicating them still be OK?

Some time far in the future, humans are terraforming Mars. Because bamboo is such a successful and hardy colonising plant that stops erosion, there is lots of it. But some dimwit has decided to bring across giant pandas, and the things have gone berserk.

Since transporting them back to Earth is going to be expensive at the very least, do you think it would be OK for people to *gasp* kill them, tan their sorry black-and-white hides and even eat them?

It’s an ethical question to which I don’t propose giving a clear-cut answer. There probably isn’t a clear-cut answer, but it’s fun to think about.


5 comments on “Ethical questions in SF

  1. Bamboo! That makes sense. I was wondering where the pandas came from ;-p

    And since you might know enough to have an informed opinion, a question for you: do you suppose gum trees could work on terraformed Mars? And yes, this question brought to you by The Australian Desert is a Similar Colour to Mars (and hence high in iron…)

    • I have been wondering that myself. One of the things that’s only mentioned in passing, and no one addresses in any kind of detail is the composition of Martian soil if ever it came to terraforming or even simply using the stuff in glasshouses. Since high concentrations of iron are toxic to almost all plants, I suspect there might be problems. I also suspect there could well be problems with high concentrations of salts, which plants also don’t particularly like. All I’ve seen in books is that people have mentioned that the soil ‘is similar to Australian soil’, but few, if any, of these astronomers are familiar with plant physiology, and most wouldn’t recognise a carrot plant if they fell over it. They’re talking about appearance of the soil, which is fine, but even on Earth plants only use soil to anchor themselves. Which is why I grow orchids in blue metal. What matters to plants is soluables, and there is no way we have that type of detail on Martian soil. With one exception: Mars is severely nitrogen-deficient. So you’re going to have to ship in nitrogen because the one element that makes plants grow the most is nitrogen. I’m unsure about any of the other major elements required for growth. I’m guessing you’re going to be OK for potassium and phosphorus, but like Australian soils, Mars might be deficient in sulphur. I am also suspecting that one or two elements, along with iron, will be present at toxic levels. Given the fact that Mars used to have water, which has presumably gone elsewhere, and might have retreated underground, and evaporated throug capillary action, I’m strongly suspecting that Martian soils will have a huge sodium surplus, which will have to be flushed before you can grow serious crops.

      But no one addresses these questions, because at the moment, we can’t begin to guess the answers.

  2. Good hypothetical! I’d ship embryos back to Earth for implanting into genetically close relatives, and domesticate the Mars animals for meat & fur. Yes, I’m a heartless pragmatist and I eat kangaroo…. 😉

    • So would I. But you can imagine that discussion over this subject could get quite heated.

      Same as that people seem to have trouble divorcing the issue of eating whales for food from the issue of hunting whales as endangered animals. Loads of stuff to say about that.

      There’s the emotional angle and the population numbers angle. Some people eat cats and dogs. While I wouldn’t do it, I don’t have a problem with it. There seem to be plenty of the damn things. Then again, I used to keep rabbits…

  3. =) – interesting post. I think that asking ethical questions is something that SF does really well.

    With regards to this ethical question, well, if that does happen then they would have to be very different pandas to the ones we have at the moment. There is no way, due to the way they breed, that they will go beserk in the same way rabbits might, in which case I don’t think we should import them back (because they’re a different species and may become a pest).

    Rabbits on the other hand haven’t changed much. The fact that they can survive in dry conditions isn’t because they’ve changed, but is something native to the species (that’s how they took off in the first place). The diseases they have will be different though, and exporting them to Europe may cause more harm than good (think of how many Aboriginals died of the common cold when white people came to Australia).

    Then there has to be a reason that the European rabbits are nearly extinct. Lack of habitat, and over hunting being the main two I can think of. In which case sending back rabbits will be next to useless, because the underlying problems remain the same.

    So no, let’s not send rabbits back =). Or at least do so under controlled conditions.

    I have no problem with hunting pandas for food (I also eat Kangaroo). I do have a problem with raising them, and domesticating them for the process though.


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