Tuesday, April 05, 2011

An Invasive Response to Mother Nature’s Melting Pot

    A purposely emotion-ladened essay 'Mother Nature's Melting Pot' [New York Times April 2011] that purports to connect invasion biology to extreme political agenda was recently published by the New York Times in what must only be an attempt to stir up controversy where little to none exists. Without a doubt the scientific community will write a strong science based reply which will attempt to present fact without emotion. However facts without the value system of philosophy are prone to interpretations such as the one we have just been offered. The ideas behind the Times essay are less of a factual nature and more of a philosophic based valuation. The introduction of novel species both plant and animals has a long history. There once was no certainty that colonists clinging to the Atlantic coast could survive against the seemingly infinite forces of nature that were asymmetrically arrayed against them. The introduction of novel species was deemed a necessity for survival and the society of early Americans was focused on reducing the deathly hold of nature upon man's existence. Nature was something to be harvest, constrained and controlled for the well-being of the newly arrived colonists. However to say that all species should be welcomed is akin to a farmer saying that all species are welcomed. They are not; weeds and crop pests are most assuredly not welcomed, and invasive species are simply another name for natural area weeds and pests.

    Nature was and still is perceived as a resource from which human well being is extracted. Nature was not seen as something to be protected until the 1830s when a few began to notice that the asymmetrical arrangement was beginning to change in favor of industrious Americans supported by technological advancements. This idea that nature is a resource to be exploited is ingrained with many. It underlies the philosophic reaction to any attempt to control or manage novel species introductions. Invasive species are seen as potential sources of economic gain at the expense of natural areas which themselves are seen as systems with resources that must be extracted for the benefit of humanity.

    Invasive species impacts are the result of externalizing costs of human activity onto ecological systems. The assumption at some level is that a human managed system is far more productive and therefore far more valuable then a disorder unmanaged natural system. From this line of reasoning then would follow that the occasional escape and establishment of stray non-indigenous species does no harm to the greater good and such harm as may be found to manage landscapes are subsumed with in the general cost of living in human societies. The concurrent assumption is that a managed system is more productive and beneficial to human life in the short term than the unpredictable and complex systems of natural areas. This is the equation that allows for the political conversation that surrounds drilling for oil in the Gulf or in Alaska. Do the benefits outweigh the potential or measurable harm to the established ecological system is the political and philosophic question which is wrapped in science. Science tells us how the introduction of a novel biological system can change an existing system, just as science lays out the disruption of oil onto either terrestrial or aquatics systems.

    Added to the contorted debate are the related problems of scale in time and space. Moreover there is the general problem of understanding the chaotic nature of complex emergent systems. In other words, invasive species issues are a form of a wicked problem and, as I have written about for many years, present a wicked inconvenience to all who try to formulate the problem and solution in a straight linear fashion. Invasive species that alter ecosystems do so because of human activities. This is demonstrable science. The goodness or badness of invasive species is a value statement wrapped in the confining garb of Aristotlean logic. And to make matters worse there is the unanswered question of how much harm is acceptable versus how much harm is avoidable.

    The idea that like humans, "plants and animals travel, often in ways beyond our knowledge and control' is a false comparison. The plants and animals described as invasive species are those moved because of or as a result of human activities which make possible repeated introductions which in turn make more probable the eventual establishment whether intentional or accidental. None of this is a conversation about native versus alien per se. The question is one of harm to human well being in the near term and the ecosystem around it upon which mankind depends. 

    An invasive plant in a natural system is analogous to a weed in a managed crop system. The species of concern are there because of human actions, and it is through human choice that they remain or are removed. The weed in the corn field alters the resource production of the crop system, and an invasive species alters the ecosystem service resources of a natural system. The newly established stink bug, Halyomorpha halys, and the not so recently introduced Asian carp, Hypophthalmichthys nobilis, are both pest species that are non-indigenous, and impact human well being through the changes they bring about to complex biological systems. To confuse intentionally the issues of 'invasiveness' with the challenges of 'nativeness' is to reach for notoriety at the expense of knowledge.

    Invasive species impacts are local in scale. One and only one invasive species in a controlled environment is usually not a problem. Repeated introductions over time across wider geographical scales can create major regional ecological system problems that translate into after-the-fact costs of control and removal. Invasive species alter biological and physical interactions among species. They disrupt complex systems and dramatically reduce expected services and resources. The introduction of a new species disrupts or alters multiple existing relationships resulting in an overall pattern shift in the ecosystem as a whole. A hard wood forest may become grassland or a barrens. Just as we determine whether the forest becomes a parking lot so we have the power to affect to some degree its present state but weeding out or preventing the introduction of ecosystem changing species. The intentional generalization of facts and opinions in the New York Times piece easily grabs attention even as it presents a composition of fallacies. The article applies the properties of selected parts and pieces of invasive species attributes and then applies these attributes to the whole interconnected field of invasion biology.

    The entire essay is an exaggeration of false analogies, and conveniently allows two unrelated premises to be stated as one. The first premise is that invasive organisms are not a problem and therefore implicitly suggests that there is no problem; and the second premise is that professionals in the field are political crusaders on a non-science based mission to convert unsuspecting virtuous defenders of American Manifest Destiny. The social and political issues surrounding human immigration are deftly conflated with the problems and challenges of managing ecological systems.

    The use of derision through generalization is found in the headline-grabbing first sentence of the article entitled 'Mother Nature's Melting Pot'. The premise that 'nativism' runs deep from a social perspective is used in this instance to set up a petitio principii, by assuming in the beginning of the article the conclusion that those involved, concerned and working with invasive species issues and polices are part of an extremist minority a premise that will be substantiated by the writer and thus is a classic rhetorical species of circular reasoning.

THE anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country, from draconian laws in Arizona to armed militias along the Mexican border, has taken many Americans by surprise. It shouldn't — nativism runs deep in the United States. Just ask our non-native animals and plants: they too are commonly labeled as aliens, even though they also provide significant benefits to their new home.

    A comparison of nationalistic and politically extreme constituencies to the dedicated professionals as well as volunteers working with ecosystems both natural and managed serves only to inflame passions and further confuse the facts and science with extremes of values and convolutions od political philosophies. The idea put forward suggests that categorization is somehow evil, bad and wrong. Notwithstanding the author's and editor's opinion, humans model the world by means of set creation. Human compare one set with another in order to learn about both. The science of taxonomy is built on creating categories which aid in understanding the complex systems being studied. The assumption that there is something wrong with identifying the system in which a species evolved and thrives is speciously misleading.

While the vanguard of the anti-immigrant crusade is found among the likes of the Minutemen and the Tea Party, the native species movement is led by environmentalists, conservationists and gardeners. Despite cultural and political differences, both are motivated — in Margaret Thatcher's infamous phrase — by the fear of being swamped by aliens.

     "Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes', wrote Voltaire. The author of the article goes out of his way to prove the great philosopher right by implying that animals and plants have developed infrastructure systems that enable the transportation of other species across multiple ecosystems in time and space. The idea seems to be that plants and animals have the same breadth of control of their environment and are therefore exactly alike producing an idea that boggles the imagination in the process of making the case. Humans manage or perhaps better put geo-engineer for better or worse the landscape in which they live. This is not to say that plants and animals to not also geo-engineer their immediate piece of the world, but it is on a different order of magnitude and complexity.

    Agriculture for example is the artifice and science of controlling the shape of the land and the species that exist upon it. At its core it is about using knowledge and technology to decide which species will stay and which will be removed or prevented. Most of us refer to this mundane task in part as weeding, something that the writer seems to be suggesting is unnecessary and too costly to bother with. To point out that farmers have no control is both a statement of the obvious and a dangerously silly supposition. If farmers really thought that they could not control their fields most of us would starve. What the author means but does not say is that the world is not deterministic even as he readily generalizes and tries to create a direct linear relationship between humans and the other species of the world. Yes the world is full of random events that are chaotic in nature that ultimately defy control but knowing that does not lead to doing nothing.

But just as America is a nation built by waves of immigrants, our natural landscape is a shifting mosaic of plant and animal life. Like humans, plants and animals travel, often in ways beyond our knowledge and control. They arrive unannounced, encounter unfamiliar conditions and proceed to remake each other and their surroundings.

    Having already denied the importance of set theory, the author returns to the world of taxonomy where he is seriously under-informed. The state of genetics allows taxonomists to construct in detail the intricate evolutionary relationships among related species and to determine the ecosystem of origin. It is misleading specifically because it presumes the unimportance of research in the field of systematics. Both Linnaeus and LeClerc would have been mortified.

Designating some as native and others as alien denies this ecological and genetic dynamism. It draws an arbitrary historical line based as much on aesthetics, morality and politics as on science, a line that creates a mythic time of purity before places were polluted by interlopers.

    This idea that an indigenous species may not be suited to its natural environment is a logical proton pseudos remarkable only for how close it to an invalid syllogism. The operative idea seems to run as follows: Species A is native. Species A is not thriving in its natural ecosystem. Therefore native species are not necessarily the nest suited for their indigenous range. Bordering on a tautology the entire paragraph is rife with assumption and implicit self-justified outcomes. The question of a species faring poorly in its own native range immediately raises the question of altered states and interactions of the ecosystem almost always in the short term due to the chronic disturbance regime of mankind and his evolutionary hitchhiking cohorts some of which are notorious for being the very invasive traits the author seeks to downplay.

What's more, many of the species we now think of as natives may not be especially well suited to being here. They might be, in an ecological sense, temporary residents, no matter how permanent they seem to us.

    It might have been helpful had the editors referred the writer to the US federal definition of an invasive species somewhere along the line. While there are numerous alternate working definitions, and while it is self evident that to some extent the author and the editors are playing on the vagaries of the common lay definitions of invasive species, the author does manage to point out that species moving from their recent ecosystems into new ranges with altered physical and biological condition can cause harm. Harm is the operative word that the writer studiously avoids. In fact the author and the editors seem intent upon using a false scientific emotive based formula to make a case for the analogy between immigration issues and ecosystem management.. This is an artful display of the power of communication based upon emotion rather than substantive fact-supported logical argument.

These "native" species can have serious effects on their environment. Take the mountain pine beetle: thanks to climate change, its population is exploding in the West, devastating hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest.

    After working up the crowd, the author finally notes that there are problems caused by the introduction of non-indigenous species. He seems to be making the unintended case that since Japanese multi-flora roses are beautiful when in bloom and have some ornamental value their presence in a farmer's pasture should be over looked. This is yet another fallacious syllogism. Species B cause harm. Species B has some economic value. Therefore the harm of B is inconsequential. What the author is picking up on is the tendency to simplify complex issues by assigning the issues a good or bad value in terms of absolute ad extremes. The federal definition explicitly points our that there is a dynamic ongoing calculation of weighted benefit against potential harm. However the editors of the New York Times failed, intentionally perhaps to point this out by failing to cite the definition or any definition for that matter.

It's true that some non-native species have brought with them expensive and well-publicized problems; zebra mussels, nutria and kudzu are prime examples. But even these notorious villains have ecological or economic benefits. Zebra mussels, for example, significantly improve water quality, which increases populations of small fish, invertebrates and seaweeds — and that, in turn, has helped expand the number of larger fish and birds.

     Next we are treated to a fallacy of division by attributing to the honey bee by exception an implicit societal perception which is then attributed to the entire category of non-indigenous species. What may be true of one species does not make a persuasively explicit argument which defines all species in all situations. Further more the appeal to the honey bee as a core example of purported outrageous views and polices, is nothing more than the use of the rhetorical device of ignotum per ignotius. The author is avoiding criticism of his premise that invasive non-indigenous species, while perhaps harmful, are more often than not wonderful contributors to human well being, and so thereby smoothly deflecting potential damaging counter arguments..

Indeed, non-native plants and animals have transformed the American landscape in unmistakably positive ways. Honeybees were introduced from Europe in the 1600s, and new stocks from elsewhere in the world have landed at least eight times since. They succeeded in making themselves indispensable, economically and symbolically. In the process, they made us grateful that they arrived, stayed and found their place.
But the honeybee is a lucky exception. Today, a species's immigration status often makes it a target for eradication, no matter its effect on the environment. Eucalyptus trees, charged with everything from suffocating birds with their resin to elevating fire risk with their peeling bark, are the targets of large-scale felling.

    The section that follows is so muddle and confused that we must deconstruct it phrase by phrase. First, the popularity of a species is not a necessarily valid reason for non-concern. Pit bulls and pythons are popular but management is recommended. The issue of a nextar source for honey bees is a statement without foundation and begs the question as to what the honey bees did before the explosive spread of the non native trees. And finally the appeal to the fans of preserving the native butterflies is yet another use of petitio principia which is to say an assumption in the premise of an argument the conclusion of which is to be substantiated later and which in itself is a species of circular reasoning.

Yet eucalyptuses are not only majestic trees popular with picnickers, they are one of the few sources of nectar available to northern Californian bees in winter and a vital destination for migrating monarch butterflies.
Or take ice plant, a much-vilified Old World succulent that spreads its thick, candy-colored carpet along the California coast. Concerned that it is crowding out native wildflowers, legions of environmental volunteers rip it from the sandy soil and pile it in slowly moldering heaps along the cliffs. Yet ice plant, introduced to the West Coast at the beginning of the 20th century to stabilize railroad tracks, is an attractive plant that can also deter erosion of the sandstone bluffs on which it grows.

    The return to some semblance of normalcy should have led the writer and editors to the NISC ISAC White Paper on Invasive Species Definitions. Had the editors been less interested in stirring up unnecessary controversy for the purpose of selling newspapers they would have noted that the ISAC made this point several years ago. There are plenty examples of non-indigenous species that provide benefit to human societies and enhance human well being. Perhaps because I am one of the authors I am biased, but this seems to be a good place to provide an extract for the Definition White Paper which the New York Times failed to consider.

"Complications concerning the concept of invasive species arise from differing human values and perspectives. Differing perceptions of the relative harm caused or benefit gained by a particular organism are influenced by different values and management goals. If invasive species did not cause harm, we would not be nearly as concerned. Perceptions of relative benefit and harm also may change as new knowledge is acquired, or as human values or management goals change.
For a non-native organism to be considered an invasive species in the policy context, the negative effects that the organism causes or is likely to cause are deemed to outweigh any beneficial effects. Many non-native introductions provide benefits to society and even among species that technically meet the definition of invasive, societal benefits may greatly exceed any negative effects (for example crops and livestock raised for food). However, in some cases any positive effects are clearly overshadowed by negative effects, and this is the concept of causing harm. For example, water hyacinth has been popular in outdoor aquatic gardens but its escape to natural areas where its populations have expanded to completely cover lakes and rivers has devastated water bodies and the life they support, especially in the southeastern U.S. And, there are some organisms, such as West Nile virus, that provide almost no benefits to society at all. Such organisms constitute a small fraction of non-native species, but as a consequence of their ability to spread and establish populations outside their native ranges, they can be disastrous for the natural environment, the economies it supports, and/or public health. Because invasive species management is difficult and often very expensive, these worst offenders are the most obvious and best targets for policy attention and management." [Invasive Species Definition Clarification and Guidance White Paper. Submitted by the Definitions Subcommittee of the Invasive Species Advisory Committee (ISAC). Approved by ISAC April 27, 2006 http://www.doi.gov/NISC/global/ISAC/ISAC_documents/ISAC%20Definititions%20White%20Paper%20%20-%20FINAL%20VERSION.pdf

    The article's author and editors are simply restating what is clearly already known and followed when they continue with there less controversial examples even as their conclusions for ecosystem enhancement goes without citation. An ecosystem is more than a few strong interactions between a limited number of species.

There are plenty of less controversial examples. Non-native shad, crayfish and mud snails provide food for salmon and other fish. Non-native oysters on the Pacific Coast build reefs that create habitat for crab, mussels and small fish, appearing to increase these animals' populations.

    The author now continues with another extraordinary statement, stating that because landscapes change through time we should do nothing! As Mencken noted and the collaboration of this author with the editors of the New York Times reinforces, "For every problem there is one solution which is simple, neat, and wrong." Herodotus would have been amazed. His investigation into the structure and processes of plants created the disciple or study of horticulture which became that deals with gardens and the dynamism that is a garden whether ornamental, industrial or natural. Natural areas are, in a sense, large gardens that need to be managed because of the constant impact of human activity. Like gardens the species choice at this point involves humans as does the level of care and concern to be invested.

    The once-more intentional conflation of ideas into a simplistic premise hides any possibility of a useful dialogue. Of course ecosystems change and of course as science through research learns more, definitions of pristine and natural will be altered to meet the new information. The specious premise that invasion biology is the provenance of a restoration mission to some idyllic form is unsubstantiated, but such a possibility as any gardener will say, is not beyond the dream and reach of horticulture. It is interesting that the writer now brings up environmental harm in a post hoc ergo prompter hoc unsubstantiated argument that implies that if some projects caused harm all project will cause harm.

And in any case, efforts to restore ecosystems to an imagined pristine state almost always fail: once a species begins to thrive in a new environment, there's little we can do to stop it. Indeed, these efforts are often expensive and can increase rather than relieve environmental harm.

    By every standard this article fails the logical argument test; the premises are not valid, sound or persuasive. He knows that many people when faced with information not supporting their views, will choose to doubt the facts but not their opinions, and lays out his case in the full knowledge of the controversy in a tea pot that he can make if invasion biologists, ecologists and other scientists take the bait. This is an exercise in an emotional appeal to a feel good sensibility laced with occasional facts that lend credence to a vague supposition that we can simply have a better world by doing nothing that distracts us from short term self interest, privilege or greed.

An alternative is to embrace the impurity of our cosmopolitan natural world and, as some biologists are now arguing, to consider the many ways that non-native plants and animals — not just the natives — benefit their environments and our lives.

Last month, along with 161 other immigrants from more than 50 countries, I attended an oath-swearing ceremony in Lower Manhattan and became a citizen of the United States. In a brief speech welcoming us into a world of new rights and responsibilities, the presiding judge emphasized our diversity. It is, he said, the ever-shifting diversity that immigrants like us bring to this country that keeps it dynamic and strong.
These familiar words apply just as meaningfully to our nation's non-native plants and animals. Like the humans with whose lives they are so entangled, they too are in need of a thoughtful and inclusive response.

    The entire essay is an highly effective appeal to the disinterested and marginally involved citizens who can in turn dramatically impact policy makers and legislators. It is a powerful story that goes directly to core emotions intentionally skirting wickedly inconvenient facts. While science builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world, the writer and the editors know that belief systems do not have to bother. In the end a Law of Logical Argument seems to be at work here: Anything is possible if you don't know what you are talking about.