Captain Paul Watson, environmental activist and founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society explains interdependence of species and why a biocentric approach is what the world needs.

A commentary by Captain Paul Watson

Is a human life worth more than a gorilla, a whale or any other species?

I’m going to tread on some very sensitive toes with this commentary but I think it needs to be said.

My perspective is biocentric, whereas most of humanity looks on reality from an anthropocentric point of view. I do not expect the anthropocentric mind to understand my position. My position is that a human life is not more important than the life of a gorilla or a whale.

This is is going to make some people angry as hell, but that does not concern me. What concerns me is the reality of our relationship with the natural world.

Columnist Dave Bry recently wrote in The Guardian:

As much as I love animals – and I love them very much – the idea that the life of a cat or a dog or a lion or a gorilla is as important as the life of a human is a terrible one, a wrong one, an insulting one. [There] are powerful, important things about being a human being … Yes, I would save the life of Ted Kaczynski, Idi Amin or Donald Trump over any animal you could name. (Yes, even my beloved childhood pets: the cats Love and Honey, the dog, Yvette. Sorry, guys, RIP.)

Personally I think this statement by Bry is asinine, insensitive and absurd. Idi Amin was a mass murderer. His life was not worth the life of a mosquito and if someone had shot the bastard, thousands of people’s lives would have been spared not to mention the slaughter of African wildlife under his authority. Would Bry say the same about Hitler, and if not, why not, how is he any different than a mass murdering dictator like Idi Amin? So I think Brys’ position has not been thought out, and if it has, it is he who holds a terrible idea with a wrong position and insulting to every person who was slaughtered in WWII or in Africa under Amin. Bry is saying his cats and his dog are expendable but a vicious dictator is not, simply on the basis of being a member of the human species.

The reality is that some human lives are simply not worth more than other humans and also not more important than many animals.

A few years ago when I was teaching at UCLA I asked my students this question:

If you had to choose between a human life and the survival of an unknown species, what choice would you make? And to make the question a little easier for them, I said the human life is a cute little baby and the species is a type of bacteria.

“So,” I said, “Does the baby live in exchange for the eradication of the species or do we save the species and allow the baby to die?”

They answered without hesitation and chose the life of the baby.

“What if I ask you to save 200 species of unknown bacteria in exchange for the baby?”

Again they chose the baby.

“Can anyone tell me why you made that choice?” I inquired.

“Because human lives are more important.” One student answered. Another said, “The life of a baby is more important than some germs, how could you even ask such a thing?” she said with a look of disgust.

“Congratulations everyone,” I said. “Your choice just caused the extinction of the human race.”

This is because there are anywhere from 700 to 1,000 different species of bacteria residing in the human gut and without them we could not digest our food or manufacture vitamins for our bodies.

This was part of a lesson I was trying to teach on the law of interdependence, that all species need each other and without some species we cannot survive.

Are phytoplankton and zooplankton less important than human lives? If it was a choice between diminishing human numbers and diminishing worldwide populations of phytoplankton what choice would we make?

Again I put the question forth, this time to some die-hard anti-abortionists. If the choice is between forcefully preventing abortions and allowing the births of millions of unwanted babies or watching the disappearance of phytoplankton, what choice would you make?

They said that the lives of the babies were more important even if it meant the babies would not be properly cared for, nurtured, educated and loved.

One person asked me what a phytoplankton was?

Photo: Sailors for the Sea
Phytoplankton. Photo courtesy of Sailors for the Sea

“It’s a tiny marine plant,” I answered.

“You mean like seaweed?”

“Yes but much smaller.”

“So you’re saying that seaweed is more important than babies?” The man asked with a look of disgust on his face.

“Yes, that’s what I am saying.” I answered.

“You’re a sick man,” he literally shouted at me.

And of course he was not interested in my explanation.

And the truth is that we have already made that choice to eradicate phytoplankton in exchange for increasing human populations.

Since 1950, the Ocean has suffered a 40% decline in phytoplankton populations and phytoplankton produces over 50% of the oxygen for the planet.

This is a serious problem but one which most people remain blissfully ignorant of.

Phytoplankton has been diminished because of pollution, climate change, acidification and the slaughter of the whales.

Why the whales?

Because whales provide the nutrients essential for the growth of phytoplankton, especially iron and nitrogen. These nutrients are spread to the phytoplankton in the form of whale feces similar to a farmer spreading manure on his crops. A single Blue whale defecates three tons a day of nutrient rich fecal material which makes the whales the farmers of the sea and a key species for the survival of phytoplankton.

Diminishment of whales means diminishment of phytoplankton means diminishment of oxygen.

There are many species much more important that we are. Bees and worms, trees and plankton, fish, ants and spiders, bacteria, whales and elephants amongst many others.

They are more important for a very simple reason. Most of them can live quite happily without humans but humans cannot live without them. A world without bees and worms would be a world where we could not feed ourselves. A world without phytoplankton and trees would be a world where we could not breathe. A world without yeast (an animal) would be a world without beer and wine which I mention only because this is a loss that may get some people’s attention.
Nature has three very basic ecological laws. 1. Diversity, meaning that the strength of an eco-system is determined by the diversity within it. 2. Interdependence, meaning that the species within an eco-system are dependent upon each other and 3. Finite resources, meaning that there is a limit to growth, a limit to carrying capacity.

As human populations grow larger they literally steal carrying capacity from other species, leading to diminishment of other species which leads to diminishment of diversity and diminishment of interdependence.

In other words, no species is an island entire unto itself and that includes our own human species.

Humans have created a fantasy world called anthropocentrism, the idea that all of reality, all of nature exists only for humanity, that we are the only species that matters and human rights take priority over the rights of all other species.

In other words we look upon ourselves as divinely created superior beings when in reality we are simply overly conceited arrogant, ecologically ignorant, naked apes who have become divine legends in our own limited minds.

This anthropocentric view of the world has made us selfish, self-centred and extremely destructive to all other forms of life on the planet including our own. Our fantasies have allowed us to destroy the very life support systems that sustain us, to poison the waters we drink and the food we eat, to amuse ourselves with blood sports and to eradicate anything and everything we do not like, be it animal, plant or other human beings. We demonize each other and we demonize the entire living world.

This fantasy world we have invented has witnessed our creation of Gods out of whose mouths we can give voice to our fantasies with the moral authority to justify our destructive behaviour.

Over the years I have risked my life and my crews have risked their lives to protect whales and seals, sharks and fish. I am often asked how can I ask people to risk their lives for a whale?

Very easy, is my answer because fighting for the survival of whales or fish means fighting for our own future.

The mystery however to me is how people can question risking our lives for a whale yet accept that young people are routinely asked to risk their lives for real estate, oil wells, religion and for a coloured piece a cloth they call a flag.

Apparently risking their lives to protect property is acceptable whereas taking risks to defend non-human lives is not.

This was very neatly summed up once by a ranger in Zimbabwe who was attacked by human rights groups after killing a poacher who was about to kill an endangered Black rhino.

The accusation was, how could you take the life of a human being to protect an animal?

His answer revealed the hypocrisy of human values. He said, “If I was a policeman in Harare and a man ran out of a bank with a bag of money and I shot him dead on the street, I would be called a hero and given a medal. My job is to protect the future heritage of Zimbabwe and how is it that an endangered species has less value than a bag of paper?”

Humanity slaughters some 65 billion animals every year for meat and takes even greater numbers of lives from the sea, much of which is discarded callously as by-catch. We kill animals for fun or because we consider them to be pests. There has never been a species as mercilessly destructive as the human primate. We kill wilfully, viciously and relentlessly and we do so because we feel entitled to do so.

Anthropocentrism is an incredibly delusional conceit by a single species to lift ourselves above in value and importance over all other living things.

Humanity is so entrenched in this view of the world that we have stifled all empathy to the feelings and interests of all other species. We view them as expendable, as property, as nuisances, as sources of amusement, as slaves.

In an anthropocentric world only humans matter and this has absurdly led to beliefs that this entire planet was created just for us, that we are the pinnacle of evolution and the masters of the universe.

Every single anthropocentric religion places human beings at the centre of everything and above all other species. We have fashioned God in our image in order to justify our superiority and woe be it to any one of that questions this fantasy.

Anthropocentrism is a form of ecological insanity and is leading us towards self destruction, because only so many species can be removed before the laws of diversity, interdependence and finite growth lead to our own extinction.

Are humans the most intelligent species on the planet? Yes. because we define what intelligence is and therefore declare ourselves to be the most intelligent species. We define ourselves as moral, ethical, benevolent and wise despite the fact that our actions reveal that we are anything but moral, ethical, benevolent and wise.

I would define intelligence as the ability to live in harmony with nature and within the boundaries of ecological laws. We wilfully ignore that dolphins and whales have larger more complex brains and we dismiss any speculation that animals think, make choices, dream and have emotions. We also dismiss the reality that trees communicate through chemicals and fungal networks. We pride ourselves on our art, our science, our religions, our politics, our cultures and totally reject that other species have their own cultures, their own realities completely independent of our hominid vanities.

Recently a 17-year old gorilla named Harambe was shot dead because zoo-keepers determined that he was a threat to the life of a four year old child despite the indications that the gorilla was actually attempting to protect the child.

The primary justification was that the life of a gorilla is of less value than the life of a human child and thus expendable without hesitation.

Never mind that in two previous incidents, one in Chicago and another on the island of Jersey a child’s life was saved by a captive gorilla.

Levan Merritt after he tumbled 12 feet into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo, falling unconscious before being saved by Jambo the silverback gorilla. Photo courtesy of Big Wave Productions
Levan Merritt after he tumbled 12 feet into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo, falling unconscious before being saved by Jambo the silverback gorilla. Photo courtesy of Big Wave Productions

The Cincinnati zoo was most likely motivated by the threat of a lawsuit unless they shot Harambe and ended the drama with a bullet to the head of a sentient being that although confused and disoriented was displaying real concern for the child that fell into his prison cell.

Very few thought of the trauma this would cause to the other gorillas or the fact that the killing was a horrific betrayal to the good intentions of Harambe. After all he was just an animal and no animal is worth the life of a single human.

Instead of acknowledging that her child was not hurt by Harambe, the mother of the child thanked God for the child not being hurt with the assumption being that her God could not have cared less about a gorilla. Harambe and the child were together for ten minutes before Harambe was murdered.

There are 7.5 billion of us and every year there are fewer and fewer of everything else except for the slaves we breed for food and amusement.

Gorillas do not contribute to climate change, to pollution of the ocean to deforestation, to war and habitat destruction. They are gentle, vegetarian, shy, and intelligent self-aware sentient beings whose existence benefits the planet and gives hope for the future.

What human being can equal a gorilla for the virtues of harmlessness, sustainable living, peacefulness and ecological intelligence?

Not one of us. So in my opinion the life of a gorilla is not only of more value than the life of a human being, it is a hundred times more valuable, as are whales, and snails, bees and trees.

Why? Because we cannot live on this planet without them.

This article was originally published as a Facebook post on Captain Paul Watson’s page

Feature Image © Meesha Holley (Amphiprion Perideraion also known as the Pink Skunk Clownfish, spotted at a diving spot off the coast of Koh Tao, Thailand. The sea anemone and clownfish share a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. Sea anemones provide a safe and ideal home for clownfish, and in return, clownfish keep sea anemones clean, provide nutrients from its waste and help catch prey).

20 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Paul Watson, the voice of reason and full equality for all species. Humans need to understand that we are a part of this planet, and not the reason that this planet exists. Humans that understand science, nature and civil rights, understand that it should be extended to all, regardless of sex, race, class, ability or species. All animals feel love & pain, have families and homes, this needs to be fully recognized.

  2. This article points to a genuine ethical quandry- a habit of species leads us to value humans higher than other organisms. Religions and ethical philosophy tend to provide a theoretical basis for this habit – whether because made in the form of god, rational, have free-will, or moral (the last three of which many other animals share). Generally these positions can be simplified as humans are (more) valuable because they’re humans – no qualification.

    I agree with a lot of the sentiments in this piece but I’m not sure if the attitude is sound. The king and the tyrant have always been valued more than the common human – because they contribute more to the society. The struggle against this type of thinking has been to anoint humans with intrinsic worth.

    It’s absurd to argue that a caged gorilla in a zoom is contributing to the world 100x more than any human (what calculation leads you to 100x?) – yes, perhaps it would have lived in ‘harmony’ with nature if it weren’t caught, but this misses the point. Shouldn’t we value the gorilla irrespective?

    There seems to be two sources of value in this article: (1) is moral value (the gorilla was intelligent, with feelings and friends (like us)); (2) utility value (how much does it contribute to the continued existence of life?)

  3. Bravo. I’m currently reading Frans de Waal’s new book (a bit cumbersomely entitled “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”) and in it he does a rather thorough job of demolishing human exceptionalism. We may be, in some specific ways, smarter than most other animals, but if so it’s by degree, not by some fundamental difference in kind. Science is less and less able to justify an attitude that human life matters so much more than any other, and that’s before even considering the ecological fact that all life on this planet is interdependent.

  4. Derrick Jensen just came out with an excellent book on this subject: The Myth of Human Supremacy. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in a rigorous philosophical analysis of the issue…or those wanting help articulating and making arguments to others what they already instinctively know to be true.

  5. Well said, and I agree.

    Recall what the Pope said, “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly”–how odd, I can find multitudes of exceptions! In animal rights terms, the Pope’s language about “needless” suffering and dying is a welfarist smokescreen unless he follows it with a clear declaration that animals are not property for humans to enslave and kill for their flesh, eggs, milk, skins, and everything else we are currently doing to them and with them for anything we choose. As long as animals are considered “property” and “resources,” this will not change, no matter how many encyclicals the Catholic Church releases talking about the value of animals in the eyes of the Lord. It is lip service, it is political, it is empty. Besides Harambe’s murder, let’s not forget the Copenhagen Zoo’s murder of Marius.

    I’m no fan of religion, which fosters the worldview of “human exceptionalism” and is antithetical to animal liberation. It is a device used repeatedly to legitimate devaluation of animal dignity.

  6. I love this. What an amazing article. We humans are extremely destructive species…and we will not admit to it, on top of it we reproduce like a plague taking everything else with us. We ARE the cancer cell on this planet.

    Will we ever change our ways? Will we ever treat earth and other species with care?

  7. Simple scenario:
    You see this=> one a guy holding a knife to the throat of a 6 year old child, another guy holds a knife to the throat of a pig.
    Neither of those guys can be swayed not to cut the throats. The ONLY WAY you can stop the cutting is to shoot the guy with your Pistol.
    The problem is…you only have ONE bullet.
    Make your choice…tick-tock-tick-tock.

  8. This article speaks of a profound subject. Reminds me of a thought I had back in 2004 and wrote down. Haven’t shared this but with a few friends and family members:

    About respect
    I once saw a member of Greenpeace on TV, telling why the whale hunting should be banned: he explained how smart these animals are, and therefore it would be better to have them as free inhabitants of the oceans than to slaughter them for their meat, fat and oil. I’m sick of hearing that we should preserve Nature only because by destroying it we destroy ourselves.
    I agree that whales – along with all living creatures – must be preserved, and it is obvious that harming Nature equals self-destruction. But it is also clear to me that this argument is only good to show how self-absorbed we humans allow ourselves to be.
    It is a shame that by the time our grandchildren come to be, many species we see today will be extinct. But the fact that our heirs will be deprived from the company of such magnificent beings is the very least of harms. We should preserve the creatures of this Earth not only because of their intelligence or because they have a quality we admire (one that usually resembles ourselves), but because each species has earned, through evolution, the right to live, and we should acknowledge that, and realize that we humans do not own the Earth: we are to share it with other beings.
    It is also sad to realize that most of us are not able to grasp the true concept of respect. Most people preserve others’ rights not because of the conscience that this is the right and fair thing to do, but because in the back of their minds they want to assure that their own rights are preserved in return: it is a simple matter of not wanting to have one’s aggression turning back at oneself. That is not respect. That is fear of retaliation and self-preservation instinct. And that is also a hypocrite act, something that only we humans, from the top of our intellectual superiority, are capable of.
    So what is respect, then? I believe that respect is the act of acknowledging one’s rights simply because they are truly valid – regardless of any collateral implications. Many things do stand above our personal needs, tastes and beliefs, and we should let other species live in peace, not because they have something in common with us, not because we can benefit from their existence. But simply because Nature has granted them the legitimate right to live, and by exterminating life for a purpose other than immediate self-defense or feeding, we are claiming ourselves rights that don’t belong to individuals: it is Nature’s exclusive prerogative to determine which ones are fit to survive others, and this is to be observed and truly respected.

  9. Paul believes that certain humans need to be eliminated in order to save the world. How would he feel if it required leading by example? What if someone decided that Paul was not benefitting the world. Paul would want the ability to defend his right to live, wouldn’t he? He would object and point out that he is a productive and self-sufficient adult (a very green one too, I’m sure. Do those ships of his run on sunshine and giggles while emitting little vapors of hugs?). He would much prefer that we all discriminate against people based on their age. Would Paul say only infants should be sacrificed for the sake of the rest of the human race. Maybe the elderly, sick and disabled too? How old is Paul? Will that “elderly” range slide a little to make sure he isn’t included in the category of expendable life? Or maybe we should just eliminate the people who are too much of a burden and cost too much for our national healthcare system to handle. Stay healthy everyone.

    Oh, and the tricky scenario he presented to his college students: So all the essential bacteria in every human stomach in the entire world, be eliminated instantly? At least that is what the “bacteria” scenario requires. If it were to happen over time, science, medicine and normal biological adaptation would be introduced to the scenario and could throw the big surprise out the window. That is still assuming Paul can demonstrate how to eradicate the bacteria from every human digestive tract. It seems like a carefully crafted scenario, which ignores all the variables that would invalidate it, just to manipulate the young and impressionable minds of students. That seems dishonest to me. I hope the course was free. Even then the students were cheated of an intellectually honest discussion. But I suppose this is par for the course in our universities and colleges these days.

    The funny thing is, anthropocentristic type behavior isn’t limited to humans. Each species behaves as if all of nature exists only for that species, that they are the only species that matters and the species rights take priority over the rights of all other species. What Paul calls anthropocentrism the rest of us call nature. Deer don’t care where they get their next meal, nor do fish, lions or bears (just ask Timothy Treadwell). I suppose Paul wrote about it when the authorities hunted down the grizzlies that ate Mr. Treadwell and his girlfriend. How did those grizzlies feel about that whole incident. Did they feel remorse? Did they consider writing apologies to Mr. Treadwell’s parents for their temporary lack of judgment? There is a difference between humans and these other forms of life and it is called the ability to reason (something which seems to be lacking with Paul).

    Paul’s entire article is an exercise in circular reasoning which becomes undeniably evident with his last sentence. He believes all life forms are more important than humans (not just equal, but more important), “Because we cannot live on this planet without them.” Who is the “we” in that delusional statement? The lucky ones who are not a burden, those in the womb of a mother who is not pressured into an abortion she will regret the rest of her life? Or maybe just those of us who try our darnedest to make sure we don’t use too much electricity when we cook our meat products?

    In the end, Paul is pitting the hypothetical extinction of the human race against the certain elimination of a human life. The Gutmacher Institute estimates that about 56 million babies are aborted each year by induced abortion. Paul applauds that and would probably like to see many more abortions each year. I’m sure he doesn’t want to see every human life ended, probably just 100 million next year would satisfy him? Is there a perfect number of humans that the earth should have in Paul’s opinion? Maybe he should set a specific number for us and we can make sure that we always stay just below that number so as not to endanger any worms or bees or bacteria.

    Outdoor Journal should be ashamed of publishing such a poorly conceived (pun intended) piece of propaganda. Paul is looking for publicity and he’s found it, but Outdoor Journal has checked their integrity at the door in publishing it.

    Who agrees with me and who agrees with Paul? Keep in mind that people who reason like Paul would prefer to see you dead if it meant the difference between the survival of nearly anything else on the face of the earth, except you. I’m not sure they would really care how you are killed. Maybe they would want you injected with poison, submerged in a saline solution that would basically burn you alive or they might opt for a dismemberment procedure so a certain “women’s health” organization could harvest and sell your organs for scientific experimentation. If you are lucky you will get to choose or it will be at least a very quick procedure. Babies don’t get that choice and the elderly, disabled and others won’t get that choice if the culture continues to progress the way it seems to be progressing.

  10. Wow Bob, your rant makes no sense at all, I can’t even argue any of your so called “points”, they are so delusional. You clearly have a deflective agenda and really do not have the reasoning capacity to understand anything Paul has said. Are you one of those destructive humans grasping for redemption in your own mind…”

  11. Well Bob , I can only agree with Dominique , you seem to be incapable of understanding even the simplest statements : “human lives are not more important than animal lives” ; or “they can live without us , we can’t live without them” . As for the “tricky scenario” do you actually beleive what you’re saying ? Paul is not talking about bugs in our stomach ! Anyway it’s easy to see that the only point you’re making is about your anti abortion stand ; talking about propaganda …!!! not to forget the grizzlies that killed 2 people out of a” temporary lack of judgement” , why don’t you ask hunters if they feell sorry about all the millions of animals they massacre all over the world for fun , “sport” or profit ! as for the sadistic obsession over what would be the best way to kill , burn , dismember or poison Paul Watson … you’re really showing the extdend of your stupidity ! I can’t be bothered to “analyze” any further your senseless diatribe …

  12. Bob I can only agree with Dominique about you senseless “speech” ! You seem to have no understanding at all of what Paul is saying ! it’s quite simple though “Human lives are not more important than animal lives” , “they don’t need us to live we need them to live” How dare you twist everything round , cheat with facts like you do ? it’s not funny it’s pathetic . Between your anti abortion propaganda and the sadistic way you talk about what would be the best way to kill Paul Watson , wether to poison , burn or dismember him (?!) ,there isn’t much to analyse or argue with you . maybe a quick reminder : around 100,000,000 sharks massacred for their fins or for fun last year and yet if the ocean dies we die ! And that’s a fact .

  13. To Bob: you are perfectly right, all other animals are also ‘selfish’ and only care about themselves, although there are exceptions to the rule (dolphins have been known to help other species for no material reason). But their ‘selfishness’ doesn’t matter, because, unlike modern humans, no other animal has the ability to change and destroy the environment it lives in. All non-human animals adjust their own behaviour to the environment they inhabit, and even if they happen to overuse and overkill their feeding base, it is all balanced out eventually by Nature. Modern humans are the only species that possess the ability to dramatically change and even completely destroy the environment they live in and share with non-human life forms, and also the only species that only take from Nature, but give nothing back.
    All non-human life-forms, including the most powerful predators, have some positive role in Nature (tigers and lions, for example, control other animals’ populations, and even gadflies have a role as a food source to birds and insects). Modern humans’ role is completely destructive, they only take and give nothing back. In the past humans could be relatively harmless to Nature, and the example of the U’wa people can show what it used to be like, but most modern humans have long stopped living like that and have no idea of such a life style.
    Without modern humans Nature would have had an infinitely long and balanced existence (barring some catastrophic event beyond any control). With modern humans Nature doesn’t stand a chance to retain balance even into the next century. That’s why non-human lives are much more important than ours – they live within Nature, not outside of it (except, of course, those hapless animals that we have domesticated and turned into our slaves and toys).
    Personally, I don’t care much how long I live, and I would be quite willing to exchange my useless life for a continued existence of, for example, Maui’s dolphins, or the pangolin.

    • I agree – humans are the only real manipulators and destroyers of nature, especially since industrialisation.
      “Personally, I don’t care much how long I live, and I would be quite willing to exchange my useless life for a continued existence of, for example, Maui’s dolphins, or the pangolin.” – Again I agree, though you can make your life worthwhile by raising awareness and fighting for this world, nature and these other species.
      Personally I think that if all people, who would be willing to die to save an animal, would actually die, then the world would only be left with all those self-centered, conceited people Paul is talking about. Nature would be even worse off.

  14. Sorry, but I reject the premise. If a moral value is to be given as one, it can -easily- be rejected. Rather, the consumption of meat is a neutral position. You’ll have to make a case for the argument of animal consumption as immoral to shift the paradigm.

    The strong argument to make is for environmental concern, not the moral one.

    • It can only be rejected if you choose not to have any morals, and consumption of “meat”, flesh, if you are looking for a only a human centric reason, try real science that proves humans are not designed to eat flesh. All your supposed arguments are so delusional and narcissistic, you do not accept the “moral” argument because you have no morals. You are typical of the humans this planet does not need.

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