The Superman Complex: Why do we feel the need to save everything?

Humans are amazing. We have become the most successful species on the planet, managing to evolve out of the food chain, rising above all others species due to our superior intellect. Industrial and technological advances have helped us to progress at an ever-increasing rate. However, a flaw in our species is our insatiable appetite to interfere in nature. Whether this is because of issues that we ourselves have caused through greed and desire or a natural occurrence that we think is preventable, our consistent intervention in nature is rife.

The superman complex is defined as an “unhealthy sense of responsibility” and a constant need to ‘save’. But why do we feel this need? On one side of the argument is guilt. Many conservationists feel that we as a species need to be held accountable for the actions that we take and that our progression should not be reliant on destroying other species, which by many accounts were established first.

The Panda Paradox

One such example of the superman complex in action is the desire to save the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). It is undeniable that the panda is a charismatic species that brings in money and interest. This is made evident when the WWF symbol is that of a panda and has been since 1961. However, WWF states that the reason to save the giant panda is ‘because we are the ones who have driven it to the edge of extinction. And because we can’[1]. Just because we can do something, does not mean we should. And more to the point, do we need to? While saving species such as the panda is obviously a positive action, it could be seen as both futile and wasteful. Many pandas outside of china are ‘rented’ and come with a loan rate of €1m per annum. There are a finite number of causes that we can actively involve ourselves in to affect the outcome; I am just unsure whether the panda is worth the investment. It is a species that has become herbivorous and whose main preference of foodstuff is so nutritionally poor that one adult panda must eat 10 to 20 kg of food each day to survive[2]. It is also highly susceptible to disease and has largely failed in captive breeding programmes. In a Darwinian sense, might the Giant Panda just be ‘unfit’ for survival in our time?

WWF evolution

Figure 1 – Evolution of the WWF logo; What is next? (Photo: PA)

There has been much argument for conserving the panda especially because it is a charismatic species and it has been suggested that we need these kinds of species to encourage conservation support, so that large areas that they habit can be conserved. But it can be used as a smokescreen to hide more unsavoury actions, exemplified in 2011 to divert attention away from Chinese authorities’ oppression. This is not just about the giant panda though, as this applies to other megafauna being overtly protected such as the elephant, lion, apes, tigers and polar bear.

It is obvious that there are negative effects that have resulted from the human race, and while it is noble to attempt to save species committed to extinction, it is naïve and arrogant to think that the worldwide faunal issues are small enough for us to save single-handedly. Pragmatism is synonymous with every aspect of human life and conservation is no different. We are in a war against extinction, and while there is still value in fighting the good fight, casualties are not only a part of it, they are to be expected.

The Past is Not the Future

There is far more to conservation than beautiful charismatic species such as the tiger and the panda, although they do play a part. The biodiverse habitats that contain species such as the Aquatic Scrotum Frog (Telmatobius coleus) (Fig 2) are the key to saving as many species as possible. However, in many cases these animals are deemed too ugly for mainstream success because of superficial ideals on animals.

Scotum frog

Figure 2 – Aquatic Scrotum Frog (T. coleus); critically endangered and endemic to Lake Titicaca in Peru (Photo: PA)

It is understandable for us to want to conserve the aesthetically pleasing, but we must shed this emotion from our mission at hand. Saving as many species, as much habitat and as much biodiversity as we can should be the focus of conservation efforts, especially as we become hard-pressed to utilise our resources more effectively.  The aquatic scrotum frog is Critically Endangered under IUCN classification and in addition is endemic to Lake Titicaca. Surely protecting the entire lake would preserve not just this species but all others in its food web? It is a strange concept to me that with so many critically endangered species, 4,898 currently, the ones which we endeavour to save are purely driven by whether we like them or not. All the science behind classifications and threats, population decreases and models projecting future decline, and somehow we are standing in a playground watching the big kids get picked first (Fig 3)[3].

Top 5

Figure 3 – The five most funded species for conservation (see reference 3)

The World Keeps on Spinning

The financial backing that charismatic species have could be put to much greater use, but the plan needs to be broader; stop targeting individual species and step back to look at the bigger picture. 25 hotspots around the world that take up 1.4% of the land surface of Earth contain ‘44% of all species of vascular plants and 35% of all species in four vertebrate groups[4]. It is regions like this that need our attention.

The realities of the world are ugly, so let’s take a look at more than the face of the problem.



[2] Zhao-hua, L.I. and Denich, M. 2001. An approach on the survivorship of giant panda in wild. Journal of Forestry Research, 12(1): 59-62


[4] Myers, N., Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C.G., da Fonseca, G.A.B., Kent, J. 2000. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature, 403: 853-858




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