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Not Junk After All

Not Junk After All


Imagine that you found a hockey card. The pictured individual looks just like most other hockey players but you don’t recognize the name. It doesn’t look that exciting does it? You might be tempted to throw the card in the nearest garbage can. Your friend however advises caution. Why not investigate the value of the card? Suppose for the sake of argument that your card turns out to be extremely rare and worth a lot of money. Suddenly, what previously looked like junk, has now become a wonderful possession. The card has not changed, but your appreciation of what the card represents, has changed drastically. Such situations sometimes occur in real life. Not all of these instances involve things, some involve living creatures.

Let’s turn our attention, for example to Borneo, the third largest island in the world. Only Greenland and New Guinea are larger. Greenland, of course, lies off the coast of eastern North America and except for attempts to claim nearby islands in the Canadian Arctic, does not concern us here. For those who are as geographically challenged as I am, Borneo and New Guinea both lie in an archipelago of islands off southeast Asia. Indonesia controls part of New Guinea, while the rest is an independent country called Papua New Guinea. Similarly Borneo is split up between three political jurisdictions: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Apparently in the northeast of the island, in territory belonging to Indonesia and Malaysia, there exists a small population of elephants. The closest population of elephants is 1300 km away on the island of Sumatra. Many people wonder if the Borneo elephants are good for the island or not. After all, big animals have big appetites.

Most people have assumed that these animals were introduced to Borneo from India within the past few centuries. If this were true, these animals are not native to the region and thus are basically newcomers or intruders into the local ecology. Perhaps the local ecosystem would do better without them. An alternative hypothesis proposes that these elephants have lived on the island for many thousands of years since a time perhaps when land bridges linked these islands to the mainland. If the elephants have lived on the island that long, then they are indeed as native as other animals. In that case, this elephant population would extend the native range of the Asian elephant by 1300 km. Presumably elephants once roamed throughout the region, but since then have died out in the area between. In this case the elephant population could have been isolated for a long time. Such a distant population of elephants would have been unable to interbreed with other elephant populations of the same species. Their pedigree or line of genetic descent would therefore long have been unique to this area. The elephants could well be genetically distinct from other populations and therefore scientifi cally very interesting. As a result the Borneo elephants would constitute, in the eyes of secular scientists, an “evolutionarily significant unit” and they would enjoy a high priority for conservation. Thus either the elephants are valuable or they are not, either they are worthy of preservation or worthy of extermination. The value depends upon their genes.

In order to answer the question of value of the Borneo elephants, an international team of scientists undertook to sequence several pieces of DNA from the Borneo population and to compare these with the gene sequences of other elephants from other countries.

What the scientists found was that the genetic information of the Borneo elephants, while roughly similar to other Asian elephants, was nevertheless quite distinct. Such differences could not have developed within a few hundred years. Conclusions about biological value do not depend upon the elephant’s role in the ecosystem or their appearance, but on their presumed lengthy evolutionary history. This seems an artificial way to value anything, and certainly one which we would not condone. The attempt to eliminate non-native plants and animals is found in many political jurisdictions these days. The case of the Borneo elephant illustrates how artificial this criterion can be. Nothing intrinsic to the animals has changed except man’s opinion as to their source. Mans objective is to assist “evolution” in its work. Perhaps biologists should instead adopt the motto “Don’t fix what isn’t broken.” Leave nature alone. Of course it is still prudent to eliminate invasive organisms which devastate the local ecology. That list includes such animals as rabbits and cane toads in Australia and weedy plant species everywhere.

So what are we to conclude about the genetic differences of these elephants and other populations of the same species? Does this demonstrate evolution in action? No! What we see here are accumulating small variations in detail. These small changes never lead to new information, just variation on the same elephant theme. In this case the elephants even look the same. Biologists could not tell the difference between a long isolated population and a recent introduction. Mutations and natural selection lead to small variations, never to new kinds of organism. The Borneo elephants are not on their way to becoming anything else, just more elephants.

June 2004

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