Meddling with Nature

In the 1930s, the Australian government imported a hundred cane toads from Hawaii. Cane toads are very large. The biggest one on record tipped the scales at an impressive 5.84 pounds. Bufo marinus is also not very attractive. Its skin is dry, warty and unappealing. But the Australians weren’t interested in the toads for their looks or size. They wanted them to prey on cane beetles that were destroying the local sugar cane crop. In principle, the idea makes sense: If you have an unwanted pest, bring in a predator to decimate its population. In practice, biological pest control isn’t that simple. The cane toad experiment is a particularly well-known example, given its spectacular failure. As it turned out the toads couldn’t jump very high and the beetles were safe in their natural habitat atop the tall stalks of the sugar cane plants. The invaders preferred to prey on frogs, skinks and smaller insects anyway. And since their skin is coated in a strong toxin the toads killed any larger animals that tried to eat them, including many rare reptiles. The cane toads’ population increased exponentially. Scientists believe they currently number over 200 million. The toads have since become a bigger problem than the beetles ever were.

We love to believe we can quantify, measure and predict the phenomena of the natural world. But ecosystems are too fragile and the interactions between species too complex for this sort of outside meddling. More often than not, we simply mess things up even more. There are some success stories: Smaller predators work well. Tiny Braconid wasps, for example, do an excellent job of wiping out harmful flies and caterpillars. Mongoose, on the other hand, not only failed to eradicate rats when they were introduced into Hawaii in 1872 but also hunted rare bird populations to near extinction.

Human beings are perhaps the most dangerous pest control predator of all. In the 1980s, the United States and our allies Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan trained an army of mujahideen, holy warriors, to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Washington’s defense policy intellectuals wanted to give the Russians their very own “Vietnam,” a brutal war of attrition with no chance of victory. The mujahideen, mainly young men from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, were as foreign to Afghanistan as Bufo marinus to Australia. But they were far more effective. The bloodied Russians withdrew in 1989 after accomplishing little and losing a great deal of money, manpower and prestige. The pest had been controlled. Now what would happen to the predator? No one in the West had bothered to plan for a post-Soviet Afghanistan. The mujahideen, trained by the CIA and armed with the latest weaponry, were left to fend for themselves. Some stayed to help the Taliban conquer Afghanistan. Many returned home, anxious to continue the jihad against Israel and their own repressive, American-sponsored military governments. A few joined a little-known group called Al Qaeda. Most Americans wouldn’t hear of these men again until the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 1998 and the September 11th attacks of 2001. Our government was less than eager for its role in all this to become public knowledge, and even less eager for the public to learn that many of Al Qaeda’s leaders met and were radicalized in the torture chambers of our Egyptian and Saudi Arabian allies.

What do you do when a pest control predator gets out of control? In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Bart introduces bird-eating lizards into Springfield as a prank. With no natural predators and an abundant supply of pigeons, the lizard population soon spirals out of control. Mayor “Diamond Joe” Quimby imports a batch of lizard-eating snakes as a solution. But the snakes soon multiply and begin to invade the homes of local residents. Not to worry, the town’s scientists say, they are preparing to arrange a shipment of snake-eating gorillas. And so it continues, ad absurdum.

Faced with the challenge of radical Islamic terrorists, America’s political scientists believed they had little other choice but to follow a similar path. And so after September 11th our nation increased its support of military regimes and monarchies across the Muslim world, forgetting that the very existence of these repressive governments had radicalized many Muslims in the first place. First, we “sic-ed” the mujahideen on the Russians, then the military governments on the mujahideen. Now, America has belatedly realized that Mubaraks and Ben Ali’s are just as dangerous as Osama ever was to our long-term interests, and actively encouraged revolts against them. So far, the protests seem to be made up of disaffected young people, angry at the lack of jobs and political freedoms in their countries.


These revolutions are not “invasive” in the same way as Bufo marinus or the mujahideen. But how friendly will the new governments of the region be to America? Whether they become co-opted by anti-democratic radicals remains to be seen. A recent New York Times article reported that a few of the commanders of the Libyan revolution spent time in our prison at Guantanamo Bay, and so it seems we are turning our old enemies against our newest ones. Biologists have demonstrated that the best way to eradicate a pest is not to create a new one. Will politicians ever learn the same lesson? If we are in fact creating a new predator to eliminate the Arab autocracies, let’s hope we have some sort of plan for what comes after. But if history is any indication, we won’t. We’ll just look for a bigger, badder, meaner monster when the old one gets out of control.

Nicholas A. Nehamas ’11, is a classics concentrator in Mather House.