Monday, May 08, 2006

Superstition drives species to extinction

In light of a recent report issued by the World Conservation Union that concluded 16,000 species now face global extinction, I thought I'd briefly highlight how skepticism might help save some of those species.

In No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species, Richard Ellis writes that rhinoceroses, saigas ("a funny-looking antelope of the Russian and Mongolian steppes), and tigers are being driven to extinction (among other reasons) by a black market for the horns of the rhino and saiga, and for the bones of the tiger, which are sold in China, where according to traditional medicine, these parts have empirically verifiable magical pharmacological properties.

In a two part series, the Skeptical Inquirer described traditional Chinese medicine thusly

Practitioners of TCM consider it an empirical "science" of healing that has proved its worth in Asian countries for more than 3,000 years (Wallnšfer and von Rottauscher 1975). According to Chinese government figures, there are now more than 2,000 TCM hospitals throughout the country (Hou 1991). Unlike Western scientific medicine, which aims to identify and counteract specific pathogens for different disease states, TCM views all illnesses as the consequence of a unitary cause, namely an imbalance of vital energies in the body. The term Qi, which translates roughly as "divine breath," refers to these putative energies, which are assumed by TCM to permeate everything in the universe. With respect to biological organisms, Qi is rather like the concept of elan vital, a hypothetical "life force" that was abandoned in Western medicine when scientific discoveries made it apparent that there is no essential difference in chemical constituents or processes between living and inanimate matter.

TCM's advocates assert that herbs, moxibustion, massage, breathing exercises, acupuncture, and certain foods are able to restore the balance of the Yin and Yang, variants of Qi energy, which are supposed to flow in invisible channels in the body called "meridians." By balancing Qi in this way, they say, health is maintained or restored. Some of the means for achieving this balance can look rather strange to those accustomed to scientific medicine. Take, for instance, something widely sold in China, the "505 Magic Bag." It is "shaped like an apron and, containing 50 [herbal] ingredients, [it] can prevent and treat many diseases of the stomach and intestines . . . [when] the bag [is worn] close to the navel" (Hou 1991).

Critics have pointed out that TCM relies, even today, on an ancient philosophical view of the body that was formulated during an era when the Chinese, for religious reasons, were forbidden to dissect cadavers. Thus the organ systems referred to in the ancient texts that still underlie TCM's practices are merely metaphors that bear little relationship to the anatomical systems revealed by Andreas Vesalius, William Harvey, and the other pioneers of scientific medicine. Chinese medicine of 3,000 years ago was certainly no more primitive than the folk practices from the same era that evolved into Western medicine; but just as we no longer rely on the astronomy of ancient Greece, it would seem that progress in anatomy, physiology, pathology, and therapeutics has rendered most ancient medical practices obsolete.
And in part 2 of the series, SI concluded that TCM "seems to perform a similar role to those of vitamin supplements, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy, and therapeutic touch, our homegrown Western pseudomedicines."

Here we see how education and elevated awareness of the scientific method might help to prevent the loss of these species.

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