11/10/2012 14:50 BST | Updated 11/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Should We Save the Panda?

The very question is outrageous! What gives humans the right to decide consciously, wilfully, the fate of another species that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years alongside humans and our primate forbears? How would we feel if, in a parallel universe rich in bamboo where environmental conditions have led to slightly different evolutionary outcomes, a group of intelligent and articulate pandas was engaging in a serious debate about whether or not they should save humans?

Possibly what's most shocking about the question is the issue of wilfulness. It implies that it might be morally acceptable to decide that we should deliberately allow the panda - or any other species - to become extinct. Allowing such a thing to happen by mistake, through omission or ignorance, is one thing. One can imagine a moral argument to defend humans driving another species to extinction in order secure their own survival. But that is not where we are in respect to the panda.

They and thousands of other endangered species represent no threat to humans except as obstacles to the continued, unbounded growth of human populations on earth. The failure of humans in the past 20 years to respond adequately to the current extinction crisis, to climate change or to the erosion of ecosystem services as reported in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment ten years ago, along with the increasing resource consumption linked to economic development in some of the world's largest countries, suggest that human growth will continue until the global environment is so degraded that it simply cannot sustain a single species in such overwhelmingly large numbers.

Perhaps the poor panda's problem is that it is neither directly useful to humans like cows, sheep, potatoes and apples (whose populations have thrived alongside those of humans), nor has it ever been simply domesticated like tulips, roses, cats and dogs. Does another species need to be directly useful to humans in order for us to justify its survival?

Certainly the utilitarian argument is one of those that has been used to justify the conservation of particular species or ecosystems: tropical forests because they are the lungs of the planet, plant species because they may possess valuable pharmaceutical properties, hedgehogs because they keep the slugs down in our gardens.

But the usefulness of many, indeed most species to humans may be less direct. Most ecosystem services, for example, depend on the existence of entire, complex webs of life: tropical forests serving as buffers against climate change or providing protection against catastrophic floods; coral reefs, coastal mangroves and salt marshes protecting coastal communities from storms, tsunamis and sea level rise; and oceans - despite many decades of abuse by humans - still providing food every day for hundreds of millions of people.

Removing single elements from those webs - top predators or key seed dispersers, for example - may lead in the medium to long term to unforeseen imbalances in the species composition of those ecosystems that then compromise the services they provide to humans. Our understanding of how most ecosystems function is incomplete at best, and we tamper with them at our peril.

Returning to the panda, do we really want to limit our concern for the survival of other species to those that are directly or indirectly useful to humans? Do they not have some intrinsic value of their own that justifies our efforts to safeguard their remaining populations? If we cannot assure the survival of an iconic species like the panda, what hope is there for the millions of less charismatic plant and insect species that remain as yet unknown to humans? Are we as a species really so selfish, ultimately so ignorant as to consign all those others to the evolutionary garbage heap, mindless of the consequences both known and unforeseen? For the sake of our human descendants, let's hope not.

To hear more about Matthew's views on this debate, you can listen to the Society of Biology's Biology Week podcast 'Should we save the panda?'