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Firstly of note is that the closest genetic/evolutionary family of humans, namely the chimpanzee, also engages in an activity once thought to be uniquely human: namely warfare. And just to forestall all the anthropocentric qualms: it seems it is not our fault.

Secondly this tendency to own-species violence might be implicated in the evolutionary process. Homo sapiens may be what it is today because of developing some murderous instincts in the distant past.

It should not be overlooked that the reports cited leaves much room for subtleties such as in-group versus out-group violence and the complexities of the motives. For instance humans display less in-group violence than chimps while achieving stupendous levels of out-group carnage. The take away here is that: 1) humanity isn't alone in organizing a group of own-species individuals to do deadly violence on another group of the same species. And 2) there are evolutionary pressures involved in this behavior, that is, greater social interaction is a driver for greater brain development.

So now we come to the 'ethics' part of this question. Humanity has set itself to the preservation of "Nature", conserving as much of species that politics and economics would allow. Yet the human condition is proof that existence is more that mere survival, it is Art, and Beauty, and transcendence... Does it not follow that we should afford all species every opportunity to evolve to the best of their potential?

Now to make our failure plain through the case study of chimpanzees: we have given them space to live, to survive, but have we given them space to fight? To learn cooperation among themselves? To war? To learn cooperation amongst communities? To learn peace?

If humanity cannot afford its closest relative the chance to reach the next evolutionary milestone. How dire is their failure to allow Evolution to take its course?

Isn't there a conflict between conservation of species and conservation of natural evolution?

Question: Has anyone taken up this line of reason as a critique of human efforts at conservation?

Consider a more extreme example like cattle, the species could be considered one of the most successful ever in terms of population and distribution. But their "adaptations" are forced to suit human needs, were we to return a few cows to the wild they wouldn't be likely to survive. Humans have taken away their evolutionary potential.

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    Evolution always takes its course, there is no allowing or disallowing it. What changes is the environment. And chimpanzees evolved in environments without humans for a long time, now it has changed. I am not sure "the best of their potential" even makes sense. "The best" depends on the environment, and changes with it, there is no "potential", only adapting to the changing environment. The truth is, we engage in "custodianship" for our own (long-term) purposes, and we best stick to that, since those purposes we at least have a chance to make intelligible. – Conifold Jun 4 at 22:11
  • @Conifold In denying chimpanzee the room to expand in number certain restrictions are placed on the kinds of adaptations available\conducive to them. Most notably brain capacity is an adaptation linked to complex social interaction. Given that a large brain capacity is a tremendous evolutionary advantage it raises the ethical question of how human control over the environment is stunting "evolutionary potential" in other species. - Also some edits. – christo183 Jun 5 at 4:49
  • It is not the "advantage" that leads to thriving, but whatever the thriving have that is called the "advantage". Brain capacity, or anything else, is an advantage in some environments, and not in others. And (Darwinian) adaptation is at work in environments "controlled" by humans just as in any others. Evolution needs no custodians, and may well replace us, with all our "control". There would be an ethical question only if we replace Darwinian selection with a teleological one, and admit that it is we who supply the (all too human) teleology. Where some sort of complexity is the goal. – Conifold Jun 5 at 7:50
  • @Conifold 'Adaptability' itself is an advantage, in evolutionary terms as well as environmentally. One might argue that conservation attempts are already teleological with respect to the evolutionary options of a species, i.e. we give adequate grazing area, we provide mating opportunities, everything an animal needs to stay exactly as they are... All while the chimpanzee has great biological potential to gain greater environmental adaptability through evolving bigger brains. So: "...there would be an ethical question only if we replace Darwinian selection with a teleological one" is spot on. – christo183 Jun 5 at 10:08
  • "Everything an animal needs to stay exactly as they are" is unarguably teleological, but it has nothing to do with Darwinian adaptation, or evolution. It is an attempt to freeze it. The purpose of conservation is keeping us as we are, perhaps with specified minor adjustments, and our surroundings are conserved to that end. It is breeding that is an artificial analog of evolution. If we wish to breed chimpanzees with bigger brains that can be arranged in a number of ways, but I do not see why it is particularly ethical, or desirable the way conservation is. It could be a fun experiment. – Conifold Jun 5 at 15:53
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The utilitarian moral philosopher Peter Singer may be one to consider who has taken up similar lines of questioning. Here is Wikipedia's description of Animal Liberation published in 1975:

In Animal Liberation, Singer argues against what he calls speciesism: discrimination on the grounds that a being belongs to a certain species. He holds the interests of all beings capable of suffering to be worthy of equal consideration and that giving lesser consideration to beings based on their species is no more justified than discrimination based on skin color.

However, this focuses on animals deserving our moral consideration. To ask whether animals can "learn peace" assumes animals are able to treat each other with moral consideration as well. Lori Gruen writes:

All animals living in socially complex groups must solve various problems that inevitably arise in such groups. Canids and primates are particularly adept at it, yet even chickens and horses are known to recognize large numbers of individuals in their social hierarchies and to maneuver within them. One of the ways that non-human animals negotiate their social environments is by being particularly attentive to the emotional states of others around them.

This suggests that animals may be able to give moral consideration to each other.

One can then ask is there something we should do to give our "closest relative the chance to reach the next evolutionary milestone"? This depends on whether we assume that there is an evolutionary milestone to reach within a species.

Consider the differences between two contrasting views of evolution, punctuated equilibrium and phyletic gradualism, as Wikipedia describes them:

Punctuated equilibrium (also called punctuated equilibria) is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that once species appear in the fossil record the population will become stable, showing little evolutionary change for most of its geological history. This state of little or no morphological change is called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and geologically rapid events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another.

Punctuated equilibrium is commonly contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the idea that evolution generally occurs uniformly and by the steady and gradual transformation of whole lineages (called anagenesis). In this view, evolution is seen as generally smooth and continuous.

If phyletic gradualism is correct then change is incremental. There may be some value in encouraging such evolution to take its course.

However, if punctuated equilibruim is correct the next "evolutionary milestone" would be a new species not a significant change within a species during its period of stasis. One way to effect that would be for humans to make the environment so hostile to currently living species that they go extinct making room for new species to arise through cladogenesis. This would be the opposite of conservation.


Gruen, Lori, "The Moral Status of Animals", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/moral-animal/.

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, May 31). Animal Liberation (book). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:17, June 5, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Animal_Liberation_(book)&oldid=899699531

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, April 28). Punctuated equilibrium. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:08, June 5, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Punctuated_equilibrium&oldid=894595124

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    So we have three alternatives: 1) No thought to conservation, which might promote cladogenesis. 2) Conservation with respect to survival, which strongly favors stasis/anagenesis. 3) Give a species enough room without intervention, which would be the only way to allow for "natural evolution". One doubts the planet has enough room for that... - I must say this answer exceeded my expectation quite comfortably, I thought 'speciesism' was something from The Simpsons. ;) – christo183 Jun 6 at 6:03
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Firstly I do not find any difference between the conservation of species and that of nature. It is the same thing. There can be no nature without species, well not on Earth anyway. The cow is an interesting example. The original species is extinct, and the present cows are an example of human engineered evolution. If we did not engineer the evolution of species to make them more useful to us there would be even fewer creatures remaining on the Earth than at present. Most people would uphold the right of a species to evolve naturally without being manipulated by man. Unfortunately for the larger species like chimps this is no longer possible, since there is no more room in the wild for large groups of social animals. If we do not let them live among us and socialise as far as possible with us they have no future anyway. I find the assertion "greater social interaction is a driver for greater brain development" very interesting. But I think there is a misconception here. it sounds as if the writer expects every creature to increase its social interaction. Certainly social animals have more brain development, but this is not an on going evolutionary trait. We are not going to evolve bigger brains by socializing more.

  • If you have references they would be a way to support the answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome. – Frank Hubeny Jun 26 at 22:32
  • We have probably stunted our own evolution by approbation of technology. The chimps (specifically) could've benefited (in terms of brain development) from a continent of their own, alas that we do not have a spare. - Welcome to the SE! – christo183 Jun 27 at 5:50
  • The teleological argument is a good one. There was work recently on domesticating silver foxes. Treated like dogs they began to change their appearance and wag their tails. Humanity is evolving by interacting with people they cannot see or smell. This could produce quite a rapid evolutionary change to the species. Evolution is not a slow process. It's speed depends on the rate of change of the environment. – animartco Jun 29 at 13:02

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