Huston identifies a few ways that these have, historically, given us bad or misleading data:.
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They abduct random humans from across the world and put them in groups of various sizes. The aliens notice that the human civilizations have walls. They give their groups of abducted humans blocks and instruct them to build simple walls. It turns out that larger groups of humans can build, on average, proportionally longer walls. The aliens conclude that wall-building is a property of larger groups of humans. The aliens also notice that human civilizations have radios.
They give their groups of abducted humans spare electronic parts, and instruct them to build a radio. Once again, it turns out that larger groups of humans are proportionally more likely to be able to build a radio. The aliens conclude that radio-building, too, is a property of large groups of humans.
But when it comes to building radios, a larger group just increases the chance that at least one human in the group will be an engineer. How about abundance the number of certain organisms of some kind present? Or biomass the combined weight of organisms? Or environmental conditions, like the input of energy? Or the amount of biomass turnover, or the amount of predation, etc. I started wondering about this while doing one of my several projects that relate to abundance in nature.
We should still study biodiversity, sure. But the degree to which biodiversity has been studied compared to, say, abundance, has lead us to a world where we know there are 6, species of mammals , but nobody has any idea — even very roughly — how many mammals there are. A lot of recent work focuses on functional biodiversity. This is the diversity of properties of organisms in an environment. Instead of just recording the number of algae species in a coastal marine shelf, you might notice that some algae crusts on rocks, some forms a tall canopy, some forms a low canopy, and some grows as a mat.
Functional diversity seems to better describe ecosystem effects than diversity alone as described e. Every species has some functional properties that separate it from other species — some different interactions, some different niche or physical properties, etc.
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Who would have thought? Firstly, I think biodiversity is easier to measure than, say, individual properties, or abundance. Looking at the individual properties and traits of each species in the environment is its whole own science, specific to that particular species and that particular environment. It would be a ridiculous amount of work.
But when we try to get the measure of an ecosystem without this really deep knowledge, we turn into the alien scientists — replacing a precise and intricate interaction with a separate but easier-to-measure variable that sort of corresponds with the real one. What about studying one of the other ecosystem properties, like abundance?
Secondly, a lot of people believe that species and ecosystems are a special moral unit independent of any effects or benefits they might have on humans. I get it. Environmentalism is compelling and widespread. It was the background radiation of virtually almost every interaction with nature I had growing up. It was taken for granted that every drop of biodiversity was a jewel with value beyond measure, that endangered species were inherently worth going to great lengths to protect and preserve, that ecosystems are precariously balanced configurations that should be defended as much as possible from encroachment by humans.
Under this lens, of course the number of species present is the default measurement — the more biodiversity preserved from human destruction, the more intricate and elaborate the ecosystem introduced species excepted , the better. Where else could we draw the moral lines? Personally, I realized my morality required me to treat animals as moral patients.
Currently, I put individual animals and species in mostly-separated mental buckets. We value aesthetics, and interpretations, and certainly the world would be worse off without a piece of beauty like this one. But an individual matters morally because it feels. It cares, it thinks, it feels joy, it suffers. We know because we are one, and because the same circuits and incentives that run in our brains also run in the brains of the cats, chickens, songbirds, insects, earthworms, whale sharks, and bristlemouths that we share this lonely earth with.
We might say many of the individuals in the collective suffer. Or we might mean that the species is degraded somehow the way art is degraded — lessened in quantity, less likely to survive into the future, changing rapidly, etc. But it seems like a stretch to call that pain , in the way that being eaten alive is pain. Obviously, at some point, you have to make trade-offs over what you care about.
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One study on a German nature reserve found insect biomass e. So this news begs a very important and urgent question:. This is an honest question, and I want an answer. Readers will know I take catastrophic possibilities very seriously. Insects are among the most numerous animals on earth and central to our ecosystems, food chains, etcetera. Try to convey how confident you are and what your sources are, if you refer to any. I believe, and think most other readers will agree, that various parts of ecosystems worldwide are obviously being degraded, but not to the degree that I would expect by drastic global declines in insect numbers especially compared to other well-understood factors like carbon dioxide emissions or deforestation.
If you have reason to think otherwise, let me know. An apocalypse for another day! Or hopefully, no other day, ever. If you like my work, consider incentivizing me to make more! Image from NOAA , in the public domain. Last updated on March 16, I just finished a large project trying to estimate that.
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Most of this is distributed roughly evenly among small land arthropods, fish, and nematodes, or possibly dominated by nematodes with the other two as significant contenders. For land arthropods, we multiplied the apparent number of animals on earth by mostly springtail-sized animals, with some small percentage being from larger insects modeled as fruit flies.
For nematodes, we looked at studies that provide an average number of nematodes per square meter of soil or the ocean floor, and multiplied them by the number of neurons in Caenorhabditis elegans, an average-sized nematode. For fish, we used total estimates of ocean fish biomass, attributed some to species caught by humans, and used two different ways of allocating the remaining biomass. See, relatedly: What happens to cows in the US? Julia Galef , Brian Tomasik , and William MacAskill have made different versions of this calculation, with different metrics, and have come to the same conclusion.
These three calculations include only the animal used directly for production. Details about the calculations and my modifications are in the long version below. I wondered if including these animals would significantly change the amount of suffering in various animal foods.
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Day-old male chicks are used for pet and livestock food , and male dairy calves are raised for meat. For instance, if there is less demand for dairy and thus fewer male dairy calves, it seems like one of the following should happen:. Reframed: It depends whether demand for dairy increases the meat supply and makes it less profitable to raise meat cows, or whether demand for meat makes it more profitable to raise dairy cows, or both.
That said, it seems likely that the actual expected number of animal lives or days of suffering is somewhere between the initial numbers and my altered values for each source. The most significant change I find from the original findings suggest that meat cows cause a fair bit more suffering over a longer period of time than the original calculations predict, only if demand for meat is significantly propping up the dairy industry. Compare that with the fact that most chickens are raised in extremely unnatural and unpleasant conditions, and you have a framework for directly comparing the suffering that goes into different animal products.
Galef compares calories per life. She includes the male chicks killed for each egg-laying hen. With pigs and meat chickens, the case is straightforward — both sexes are raised for meat, and suppliers breed animals to sell them and retain enough to continue breeding. The aged animals are eventually slaughtered as meat as well. But only female hens lay eggs.
Meat chickens and egg chickens raised at scale in the USA are two different breeds, so when a breeder produces laying hens, they wind up with more male chicks than are needed for breeding. Similarly, dairy cows have to give birth to a calf every season they produce milk. The average dairy cow gives 2. The male egg chicks and male dairy calves are used for meat.
Aged dairy cows and egg-laying chickens are also sold as meat. Other sources claim pet food or possibly just going to landfills.
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Pet food sounds reasonable, but landfills seem unlikely to me, at least for large operations. My intuition says it ought to shake out one way or the other — either decreasing demand for dairy cows results in the price of meat going up, or decreasing demand for meat results in demand for dairy cows going down.
Without this otherwise unused source of protein, would pet food manufacturers increase demand for some other kind of meat? It seems possible that both this would happen and that the price of pet food would increase. Then, maybe less would be bought to make up for the difference, at least in the long term — cheap pet food must be somewhat inelastic, at least in the short term? My supply and demand curves suggest that both demand should decline and price should increase. At the most, though, dairy cows bring an extra 1. I ignored things like fish and krill meal that go into production.
But this seems to be mostly from wild forage fish, not farmed fish, and wild populations are governed by a different kind of population optimum — niches. I also only looked at egg-laying chickens, meat cows, and dairy cows.