Are we prioritising the aesthetic?
By Asher Collins
Everyone loves a panda; it’s very hard not to. According to Simon Watt, a British evolutionary biologist, conservation charities may be biased towards a few of the most visually appealing animals and not focussing equally on the protection of some of “mother nature’s more aesthetically challenged children”. A study from the University of Kent backs up this finding -of the 1200 or so threatened mammalian species in the world only 80 are used by conservation NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) to raise funds, nearly all of which “can be described as large, furry, and cute” .
It seems this desire to protect the animals we find aesthetically pleasing is hard wired into our brains. Janek Lobmaier, a psychologist at the University of Bern tells us “the reason we are so attracted to cute animals appears to be the same mechanism that drives us to protect our babies”. The mechanism Lobmaier is referring to is the brain’s reward system, a complex combination of chemicals and neural pathways that when triggered make us feel good. Typically, when we see a baby this system is triggered; neurones activate and chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin are released into our brain. The positive feeling this produces makes us want to stick around and care for our offspring. Daniel Langleben from the University of Pennsylvania has observed how our brains react to cute pictures using an MRI scanner. The results showed that the ‘cuter’ the image the more our reward system is triggered and the more we want to care for the subject.
It’s this system that can leave some animals left out despite a strong scientific case for prioritising their conservation. Take for example the Cape Vulture. This creature fulfils a vital role in its eco system; removing carrion and in so doing preventing the spread of disease to some of Africa’s larger more photogenic wildlife. Yet, despite its endangered status it receives very little conservation funding. Another case is the Aye-Aye, a type of lemur found in Madagascar. It helps protect the island’s forests by keeping the population of wood boring beetles in check, however, to put it kindly, its good looks take a while to appreciate. Again, the Aye-Aye is endangered but receives relatively little attention.
Ernest Small, an agricultural scientist from Canada, sums up the case for a more rational approach to conservation funding very nicely, “the things we find unattractive still have roles to play in nature. We need to learn to make our conservation decisions on scientific facts and statistics rather than visual cues. While some animals’ looks might not seem particularly attractive to us, the world would be a much uglier place without them".
Check out Simon Watt and the Ugly Animal Society at http://uglyanimalsoc.com/
Smith, R.J., Verissimo, D., Isaac, N.J.B., & Jones, K.E. Identifying Cinderella species: Uncovering mammals with conservation flagship appeal. Conservation Letters 5, 205-212 (2012).
“Ugly Animals: We Can’t All be Pandas” Ernest Small, Trafalgar Square Publishing (2014)