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April 4, 2013

Books, Journals & More

A closer look: Edward McCord

ed mccordAll of Edward McCord’s career  — in fact, all of his life — has been building up to his new book, “The Value of Species.”

“I grew up as a naturalist in north Florida,” says McCord, director of programming and special projects for the University Honors College. “I was outdoors in the wetlands and lakes and rivers and the marshy coast all the time. We had all kinds of creatures as pets. I became at an early age fanatically interested in carnivorous plants.” Before college, he transferred his fascination and study to the native orchids of his Tallahassee region, the Everglades and across the state, exploring the land and the subject with prominent botanists.

When he got to Princeton, however, he moved away from outdoor pursuits, majoring in philosophy, then coming to Pitt for a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, a PhD in philosophy and a law degree.

After joining the University staff as a research associate for the senior vice chancellor of Health Sciences, McCord’s work on melding applied science and business at Pitt attracted the attention of the chancellor’s office, where Wesley W. Posvar hired him as an assistant. When the Environmental Protection Agency named Posvar chair of its National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology in 1988, McCord was Posvar’s assistant there as well. He helped the council’s members — business people, journalists, environmental organization representatives and others — advise the EPA about communicating better with the public.

“I found myself in the thick of issues of environmental protection,” he recalls, as the group examined the challenges of developing laws and regulations that can be effective despite society’s complex and varied interests. Afterwards, a stint practicing law gave him more experience with environmentalism’s legal issues. Then he was drawn back to Pitt, and to the honors college, in 1995.

The timing was fortuitous. Just a year later, the Department of Geology and Planetary Science established an environmental studies program that included a Yellowstone field course each summer. It focused on three areas: ecology; geology, and the intersection of law, politics and ethics. McCord began teaching that third section, and in a few years was in charge of the course.

“Without realizing it was going to happen, I wound up engaged in environmental issues,” he says.

Soon he began asking himself two questions: Was there a way to pull all his ideas into a simple text for the Yellowstone course? And why weren’t naturalists and other environmental writers being honest about the reason we should value all species? Surely they must feel the sense of curiosity and wonder McCord had felt as a child. As he writes in “The Value of Species”: “Individual species are phenomena in this world of such intellectual moment — phenomena so interesting in their own right — that this alone gives them a value meriting human embrace.”


Today, McCord finds it a “great frustration” to see people resort to arguments such as: We need to save the rain forest because there may be a cure for cancer out there, or We need to preserve a certain species because it is necessary for the biodiversity of the planet — for humanity’s benefit.

“That was never for me the sense I had of the value of a species,” he says. Rather, to McCord, the plain and simple reason all species are valuable “is that they are so amazing. As you learn about them, it is the staggering marvelousness of them — that is their value.”

Before even beginning his book, however, he realized the difficulty of his task: Proving that species should be valued apart from any practical use humans might make of them. “If you want to defend a view that you hold strongly and do that defense justice,” he says, “you must use all your wits to design an opponent who disagrees with you,” then meet the challenge of the opponent’s point of view. McCord aimed his arguments at those who say they just don’t care about endangered spiders, or some woodpecker they never knew existed. Valuing a species is just a matter of taste, they claim — like preferring chocolate to vanilla ice cream.

“What could be the reason to care that is independent of all our institutional needs or independent of all our human” preferences and aesthetic judgments, McCord wondered. If he couldn’t answer this question, then he feared his fundamental philosophy — that all species are worthy of appreciation, and thus preservation, by humans — would be proven false. “It became a deep, urgent, personal crisis for me,” he says.

He began working on the book at Yellowstone, provoking sleepless nights. Finally, the book emerged. He had argued on paper from beginning to end, without knowing whether he’d win the argument  until he finished.

Then he spent five years refining the argument, with “wonderful support,” he says, from Pitt colleagues. “This to me is a book that stands for making the rewards of life come from learning.”


value of speciesIn “The Value of Species,” McCord’s arguments against valuing property rights, the free market and other social forces above the value of species can be heard in every line of the slim volume:

“A wholesale destruction of other species in the family of life that has evolved over billions of years would represent an incalculable loss of the earth’s heritage for mindful generations of the future.”

“ … many people are inclined to give individuals the right to reduce the living heritage of the earth for all future generations no matter how briefly they own a piece of property — even if it’s only for a week. That is not just surprising, it is absolutely astounding.”

“We do not let markets determine permissible pollution … We do not willingly let markets provide the sexual services of children or trade in slavery. … We do not let markets determine our spiritual pursuits … A passive reliance on markets to determine goals for our civilization in the absence of direction from the public interest removes the public interest from the table.”

“Here is an opportunity and an irony perhaps never to be repeated in the universe, that a species of life has evolved with the ability to contemplate in wonder the miracle of life itself, and is knowingly engaged in the destruction of that miracle. Our own seeming defects of reason and motivation trap us in a limited range of pursuits that maximize market-driven results for short-term gratification over character-driven results for long-term fulfillment.”

“ … a failure to appreciate other species of life on earth is a failure to appreciate ourselves.”

McCord realizes his task is tough: He is relying on humans to value a sense of wonder and curiosity above more basic needs.

“That’s exactly why you don’t find people around who are making this argument,” he says. “It’s a very hard case to make. The natural world, in the way we live our lives today, it’s background. It’s also something that we don’t think about; we don’t explore it. It’s only by learning what a form of life is and setting oneself aside … it’s only by that that you become amazed.

“That canopy of stars in the sky has no practical value,” he adds, “yet what kind of person would not experience a loss if we looked at the sky and could not see the stars?”

He realizes that his argument “is not synchronized with the mindset of most people.” He recalls an evening when, immersed in writing the book, he ventured out, only to overhear tourists disparaging some of the wildlife all around them in Yellowstone National Park.

“And it was so crude and unappreciative to me that I began to lose my will for the book,” he says. “I was walking back to my room and I paused and looked up and it was a clear night and the stars were overhead. The unfathomable mystery of creation sank deeply back inside of me.

“We may be going to lose everything” if we wait too long to act for the benefit of species other than humans, he allows. “But I need to be able to make the case. Wouldn’t it be a shame to lose everything … and never to be able to articulate why that loss was anything more than losing chocolate ice cream?”

—Marty Levine

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