Theseus: Dialogue on Conservation

OUTIS: Socrates, hi. I’m Outis.


OUTIS: English, please.

SOCRATES: Er—hello. You said you were Outis? As in Nobody?

OUTIS: Yes! You might say I’m a Ulysses enthusiast. I’ve taken you out of the flow of time for a moment to ask you a question concerning the Earth, even if it is two thousand years older than you’re used to.

SOCRATES: Is this—is this a demon-summoning circle we’re standing in?

OUTIS: What? Of course not. It’s a Socratic circle. Socrates, can you tell me whether true conservation is possible, insomuch as it concerns nature? And if not, can it be approximated?

SOCRATES: Outis—if that’s really your name?—to begin with,  I have no idea what on earth “conservation” means. 

OUTIS: It’s the practice of protecting nature from human damages, like making nature reserves or stopping deforestation.

SOCRATES: You say these damages are already occurring?

OUTIS: Yes, Socrates, since the 1880s at least—that’s around two centuries ago. For example, the hermit ibis is now so rare it no longer exists in Greece.

SOCRATES: Hmm. Well, Outis, I knew an old man who, when inebriated, would beat his dog with a stick. This happened with such regularity that whenever the dog smelled wine, it would hide in its kennel. Eventually the man died and passed the dog to his son, who didn’t have the same habits. The dog, however, continued to hide in the kennel whenever wine was brought out. Do you follow?

OUTIS: I think so. Don’t beat your dog and drink wine?

SOCRATES: No. If you have been abusing the biosphere for a hundred and fifty years, then the damage has been done, just as the impact of the harm to the dog continued well after the harm had ceased. You cannot truly protect what has already been harmed.

OUTIS: Surely some level of protection is possible.

SOCRATES: Protection, yes, but of what exactly? Is the dog with no fear of wine the same dog who hides in a kennel at the slightest whiff of spirits? Or a candle that’s been set over heat: is that melted wax and burned wick still the same candle? At this point, whatever it is you are protecting when you speak of “conservation” has changed irrevocably, so much so that you might not be protecting the same ecosystem anymore.

OUTIS: Well, it’s not just protecting the environment, you know. It’s also helping to restore ecosystems to their natural, original state—like bringing the hermit ibis back to Greece.

SOCRATES: Well, I’m not sure how you’re going to do that. You are trying to restore a species—well, a number of species—to their true state, in their true habitat, which consists of a specific distribution of species, right?


SOCRATES: Have you read any Darwin?

OUTIS: Have you?

SOCRATES: This is not the first time I’ve been pulled out of time, you know. Anyways, in Darwin’s  Origin of Species, he argues that living things evolve, partly through genetic chance and partly through adaptation. Over a series of generations, certain individuals in a species develop genetic mutations, and some of those mutations give them an advantage. These advantages lead to longer lifespans, which lead to more chances at reproduction, until eventually the species changes as a whole.

OUTIS: Right, and those changes can happen remarkably fast, depending on generation time—the period between one generation and the next.

SOCRATES: Yes—some insects have generation times of only a few weeks. You would agree that so long as species are living and reproducing, evolution is taking place?

OUTIS: I would.

SOCRATES: And these changes in species behavior lead to changes in ecosystem behavior and composition, like an enormous trail of falling dominos?


SOCRATES: So, when you talk of an ecosystem’s natural, original state, you’re talking about a system that is always in flux.

OUTIS: I suppose, yes.

SOCRATES: So when in history does this natural, original state occur, given that it is something that cannot be static?

OUTIS: Well, before the ecological damage started—maybe late 1800s.

SOCRATES: So you’re saying that the evolution and change in today’s existing ecosystems should be reverted to what it was two hundred years ago.

OUTIS: I suppose.

SOCRATES: So, how are you protecting wildlife if you’re planning on dismantling current ecosystems? In reinstating the hermit ibis in its rightful Greek habitats, which birds are you going to be forcing out of their homes?

OUTIS: Socrates, I don’t know what you want me to say. First conserving current ecosystems is not enough, and then conserving natural ecosystems is not enough, either. What sort of answer are you looking for?

SOCRATES: Don’t despair, my dear Outis! Since you’re so dedicated to Hellenic literature, have you heard of Plutarch’s paradox of Theseus’s ship?

OUTIS: Yes—he describes Theseus’s ship upon its return from Crete, fully intact, made of wood, equipped with thirty oars. The Athenians took it upon themselves to preserve the ship: every time a plank began rotting, they replaced it with a brand-new wooden plank. In this way they preserved the structure of the ship.  

SOCRATES: Precisely. And this went on so long that, at a certain point, the whole ship had been repaired, one plank at a time. So, the question is: was that still Theseus’s ship?

OUTIS: You’re more suited to answer that than I am.

SOCRATES: You flatter me. Well, let’s consider a few points. First, you would agree that the ship, after its full restoration, was not the ship that Theseus set out on?


SOCRATES: And when do you suppose it ceased to be Theseus’s ship?

OUTIS: Well, to be technical, I guess the moment changes were made.

SOCRATES: You mean the removal of the first plank.

OUTIS: Yes. But I’d still consider it Theseus’s ship until most of it was gone. Maybe even until the last plank.


OUTIS: I mean, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck, right? The ship’s still a ship.

SOCRATES: Yes, if the restoration was faithful. Let’s assume it is. Therefore, the new ship still has the structure of Theseus’s ship. It still serves the same purpose. Theseus could sail that boat off the face of his wine-dark sea just as easily.


SOCRATES: Then does it matter whether the ship is really Theseus’s original ship? Let me put it this way. You’ve heard of taxon-or-analogue replacement, right? It’s a conservation method where the primary goal is to keep the integrity of the ecosystem. If the organism that would usually take up a niche is extinct or in some way inaccessible, then you would find the organism that is as functionally close to the original as possible and use it instead.

OUTIS: Right.

SOCRATES: So, like Theseus’s ship, the original form is gone, but the structure and function remains: Theseus can still sail, and the ecosystem continues to propagate itself. Does that sound good?

OUTIS: Of course. But there’s still the problem that the ecosystem is changed—like you said at the beginning of all of this, it can’t be true conservation if, at some point, the ecosystem was harmed—

SOCRATES: And with the need for replacement comes the necessary assumption that something wrong has occurred, I know.

OUTIS: I don’t understand.

SOCRATES: Outis, you can’t preserve something that doesn’t exist, whether because it’s transformed into something else while you weren’t looking or because it’s constantly changing. The problem with your idea of conservation is that you seem to see the environment as a living museum—but the point is that it’s alive.

OUTIS: So, what, you propose we just leave everything as-is? Leave the birds to fend for themselves?

SOCRATES: What, you would let Theseus’s ship rot? We’re constantly evolving, not only as a species but also as a planet. Protect and preserve all you want, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the primary priority is to keep the ship afloat.

OUTIS: At whatever cost? That seems a little brutal.

SOCRATES: Not as brutal as setting the world on fire.

OUTIS: It’s not as if it’s my fault. Like Billy Joel said, we didn’t start the fire.

SOCRATES: I don’t know who Billy Joel is, but conservation is not about who is at fault, in the end. Call yourself Nobody all you want—if you’re human enough to care, you’re human enough to act, even if it’s just spreading the word. You’ve taken the first step. Don’t stop now.

OUTIS: That’s dangerous thinking, you know. It might get you killed.

SOCRATES: I’ll risk it. Go save the hermit ibis.

OUTIS: I will.

SOCRATES: Ready to send me back in time, now?

OUTIS: I might not feel ready, but I’ll do it anyway.

“Theseus: Dialogue on Conservation” is the fifth of six pieces in ROOTED, which won the Gold Medal Portfolio Award for writing sponsored by the New York Times in the 2023 Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards.

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