The Louvre or a (Bird) Species?

tags: , ,

Woman with a Parrot by Gustav Courbet (1866)
Oil on canvas
51 x 77 in. (129.5 x 195.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [larger view].

A little while ago, I received an odd question from a reader, and I was slow in responding (my bad!), but her question has bothered me ever since I first read it and responded. First, her question:

You have to save the world (and I assume you also want to). You are the only one who can do so, and to do so, you have to destroy one or the other:
The Louvre (with everything inside but people)
one of the many highly endangered island bird species.
You can’t choose the species. It will be a highly endangered one. You can’t go take DNA samples.
Alike, you can’t go into the Louvre and make replicas, or photos or anything.
You have to decide on the spot.
How do you decide? [academia and me: 30 September 2008]

And my response:
first, this is an artificial question, one that will never become a scenario in real life, so the question bothers me for that reason. anyway, that said, i disagree with all of you. my choice: preserve the bird species.
i am an avid art lover, as anyone who reads my blog is aware of, but i am also an evolutionary biologist and quite frankly, i think that protecting the biodiversity of this planet from the ravages of an out-of-control species [humans] is the number one job of all thinking people everywhere.
for example, just speaking selfishly, birds are valuable because teach us about ourselves; how we think, act and react, how our basic biology and neurobiology function. additionally, ethically speaking, birds are not a human creation, unlike artwork, so we have absolutely no right to destroy an entire species for any reason.
not only that, but nature is one of the most powerful inspirations for artwork known to humans. when nature is gone, we, as a species, will have destroyed our connection to the real world and replaced it with an artificial world of our own making, and that artificial world will have robbed us of nearly all of our passion for life, and for creating art, in general.
further, since humans and their creations are not an endangered species (and in fact, humans are experiencing a tremendous population explosion that threatens the habitability and well-being of the entire planet), there is no reason to value humans or our creations more highly than nature, which is becoming vanishingly rare. saving artwork instead of a species is simply .. astonishing, especially considering the hundreds (that we know of) of bird species that we already have destroyed in the past 400 years and the thousands (that we can guess at) of animal species we’ve wiped out since we became “fully human”.
this legacy of mass extinctions, death, and destruction is one that we should be ashamed of and the fact that we, as a species, have no shame speaks louder than all the human-created paint swirls in the world.
So what do you think? You can go to the above cited blog to read the responses there or if you wish to argue specifically with me, respond here (or there).


About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
This entry was posted in Conservation, Endangered Species, Ethics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to The Louvre or a (Bird) Species?

  1. Tziporah says:

    I vote for the birds (always). Additional note: The picture is missing the inevitable bird poop streaming down the arm.

  2. Karel says:

    “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” -the dude
    The bird species has a far greater chance of extinction anyway, whether you chose them or not; the chance that the Louvre ceases to exist is a lot smaller.
    Both are of importance to evolution (cultural / genetic),
    but I don’t think either choice would have a huge impact.
    So I would pick the birds to minimise my impact.
    (afaik, I wont go chaos theory on this)

  3. Jordan says:

    The world will never be saved by forcing people into false dichotomies.

  4. Bob O'H says:

    I would go for the bird too. If it was the Natural History Museum (in London), the choice might harder.

  5. Martin says:

    Ok, I don’t have a simple easy answer for that either and I would find it quite difficult to decide. That said I still strongly disagree with grrlscientist.
    She discusses a decision between *art* and *nature* or *humans* and *animals* in general. But that was not the question, but rather 1 (small) bird species versus 1 building full of art.
    Both are essentially unique and irreplacable in the sense that the exact same combination of genes or color on canvas will in all likelihood never occur again.
    However they *will* both be replaced in the sense that new bird species will evolve and new paintings will be created – what differs is only the time scale.
    I think in the end this is an entirely subjective decision no matter how rational the argument sounds.

  6. heidi says:

    um, people make the Louvre, people can make it again (or something like it) later. birds? far more priceless than art. people will keep making art. people, however, will keep wiping out birds. so keep ’em while you can!

  7. Azkyroth says:

    Can’t we just destroy people who think asking painfully contrived questions about impossibly artificial scenarios makes them clever, instead?

  8. The Louvre wouldn’t be much of a loss. Miles and miles of mediocre painting and sculpture, with the occasional gem. The gems would be a shame to lose, but it’s not like it’s the Orangerie or the Uffizi we’re talking about. I’d choose my neighbor’s dog over the Louvre.

  9. Edgar says:

    The Louvre…mmm, but are yet many replicas of the art inside, perhaps the originals will be destroyed, but they survive as copies…and a extinct species is extinct forever,having the highest priority…( for other side, in the painting looks like the parrot is mating with the woman`s hand ) 🙂

  10. SimonG says:

    Extinction is a natural occurance, even if we’re part of the cause. I think it’s better to worry about the overall ecosystem than any specific species. If the environment is reasonably healthy then new species will continue to evolve and thrive. No matter what we do, some species will become extinct.
    A species cannot be preserved: it’s not a static thing but one that continually changes. (A bit of a generalisation, admittedly: some species don’t appear to change very much over quite long periods.) Attempting to preserve a particular set of genes seems like a pointless exercise.
    In contrast, works of art do tend to be static, (excepting entropy). So they are capable of being preserved; for a while, anyway. I’d choose to preserve the Louvre.