Sunday, 24 June 2007

Guest article: Decision-making

Our guest writer this week (well, maybe this will become weekly) is Christina Ieronymides, student and aspiring thylacine hunter. Hailing from Cyprus, she has just completed her BSc in Zoology at Imperial College, and will be doing her MSc at the Institute of Zoology (London Zoo) starting this autumn. Without further ado...


As a guest writer on this blog I feel the need to point out that my grasp of genetics does not extend much further than the basics, and molecular biology, in fact, is one of the subjects I tend to steer clear of. This does not mean I dislike the field; it merely indicates that I may find myself in need of a molecular geneticist friend at some point in my career.

In this article I’d like to introduce a couple of my pet subjects. The nature-nurture debate is well known to most people involved in the biological sciences, and despite all the controversy, “a bit of both” is the answer. This gives rise to the phenotypic gambit: that there is a genetic element in animal behaviour, and as such what you see is behaviour that is adaptive and under selection. This is the basis of behavioural ecology, a field to which I was first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his classic work The Selfish Gene.

In his book, Dawkins uses game theory to look at the evolutionary outcome of social interactions between individuals adopting different behaviours, and more specifically to explain how cooperation can evolve amongst social conflicts. He explains how cooperation results in the best overall outcome for the individuals involved, when a win-win outcome is possible. Cooperation is, however, a fragile state, dependent on small population size, repeated interactions over time and communication. These conditions are vulnerable to outside influences, such as immigration, population growth and change in the social circumstances.

Externalities imposed on such a system of reciprocal altruism inevitably lead to the break down of cooperation. This is the root of the Tragedy of the Commons. Open-access resources are doomed to overexploitation because people only think in the short term, and this is what we see happening in the world’s fisheries today.

Achieving sustainable resource use is only possible in the light of the incentives that individual resource users face. In the case of the bushmeat trade, conservation, development and animal welfare collide. Overexploitation of tropical forest fauna for food has both biological consequences and consequences for people. This bio-economic system operates at a number of scales (from the decisions made by an individual hunter to consumer demands and the wider economy) and is dynamic and heterogeneous (species abundances and population dynamics within the forest), and is therefore particularly difficult to tackle.

Resource management is in general complex and policies put in place to ensure sustainability are usually unsuccessful, as conservation clashes with the human element. In many cases, it is necessary to convince the public that management is worth while. Scientists are generally quite poor at communicating their knowledge to the people they are serving. This lack of communication between science and the public carries much of the blame for the distrust towards science that we see growing among lay people. Laurie Marker’s work on conservation of the cheetah in Namibia is an excellent example of understanding the social, economic and biological issues and cooperating with the locals in such a way so as to introduce acceptable and effective solutions. Marker’s work highlights the fact that accessible information, education and the fostering of trust are paramount for the successful implementation of any resource management scheme or policy.

3 comments:

James Lloyd said...

I think a lot of the time (especially in Britain) the public just don’t trust scientists, no matter how hard they try. No body is willing to listen to the numbers over fishing, after all politicians will be out of power by the time it really becomes a problem so let the next guy deal with it. Old fishermen don’t was to cut down and lose money, why should they when they have been doing it for years, make the others stop. People are selfish, who can blame them, the world isn’t very fair so take what you can.

Menelaos Symeonides said...

Ah, another pessimist. I would respectfully disagree, knowing the numbers of people that are now aware of the global warming issue and are even beginning to look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Pretty much anyone you speak to will, for one reason or another, aknowledge the fact that we are using our scarce resources very carelessly. Perhaps people aren't yet aware of the scale on which overfishing is going on, but remember that a few years ago people didn't know that whales were being over..whaled?

Anyway my point is that at a certain point in time, people like us (scientists) will know about more ways in which the human species is destroying this world than people who are not scientists. Whether that is because everyone else is not informed well, or not informed at all, or misinformed, is a whole other issue. What usually happens though is that the scientists' voices are eventually heard, and the people who start caring reach a critical mass for it to become common sense to care, and this happens all the time.

Christina said...

I have actually noticed that on overfishing and bushmeat specifically (coz that's the two I know a bit about) people really have no idea of the scale of the problem. Plus you get cultural pressures in both issues (try convincing a Brit to eat parrot-fish instead of cod at a chippie, or an African that frozen beef is better than freshly caught duiker).
I also know that the scientific committee on European fisheries has been asking for zero total allowable catch of cod for years, but the politicians are effectively ignoring them.
Here's another point: Cod is critically endangered on the Red List, and elephants are listed as vulnerable (on a global scale - in some places they're critically endangered and in other they're a pest). Politicians and other stakeholders get really pissed off about this coz they don't feel that an exploited species with a market should list as more endangered than elephants which are traditionally seen as species worthy of conservation effort.
Go figure.