a day at the zoo

Nanny and grandad are staying with us this weekend. So today the whole family went to the zoo. As zoos go, we all agreed it was well-managed and maintained, and the animals didn’t look as scrawny or uncomfortable as we’ve seen elsewhere. The kids had a fun day out, and an educational one to boot. But zoos make me angry. For lots of reasons. Some are the obvious ones, such as the total ignorance of the Upright Pink Ape, herding in their thousands today in the hot sun. If I hear anyone else say “I love seeing the orang-utans cos they’re so funny”…

Chester Zoo itself is a leader in the preservation of endangered species, and many of the animals on show were being sheltered from the brink of extinction by the good offices of the zoo’s breeding experts – and the deep pockets of the gawping pink apes. At first glance this seems to be a laudable enterprise, and the plucky scientists should be applauded for attempting to preserve the current richness of the ecosphere, the gene pool and, er, the food chain. Their efforts seem all the more worthy each time they fail and we see another species go the way of the dodo.

But hang on a minute – what are they trying to achieve? Surely nothing less than holding back the tide of evolution. My understanding of natural selection (I’m on thin ice here) suggests that populations evolve in response to changing external influences, and sometimes that means that a whole branch of the current tree of life expires because it’s niche disappeared. Why should we want to prevent that happening? What makes it appropriate for us to pluck the last few Amur tigers from their natural habitat, encourage them to have babies in the UK, and then re-implant them back into their disappearing niche? Surely by doing that we’re altering the niches of everything else that lives around there. Why can’t we let Nature run its course, even if that does mean that man’s actions reduce the variety in the higher species? After all, it isn’t just us that alter the animals’ environments, or hunt or kill. What’s wrong with change?

It seems to me that change will occur whether our environmental Canutes like it or not. And that in fact their attempts to ‘preserve’ some things are just another kind of change, both for what they ‘save’ and for what they trample over in the attempt. Maybe the full richness of complex changing systems is difficult to comprehend. Maybe there aren’t enough mental tools around to enable most people to see the dynamics of those systems in simple terms. Maybe folks sometimes see only some of the changes and miss others, and fail to understand the inevitable flux of the system as a whole. Maybe that’s why the waterfall in software development had such appeal…

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