What is wrong with extinction?

What is wrong with the BBC article below?


Reading this BBC article a few days ago deeply distressed me. Not because it induced some terrible revelation or caused any dark new ideas to surface: what distressed me was its appalling quality, especially for the standards of the BBC. This is an article which is cast into the domain of the public as informative; and those without a better understanding of the subject may see sense in it.

However, the subject of the article was either very poorly researched or completely misunderstood by its author, for the reasons I express below and more I will not entertain myself exposing. This is not a case of opening a well-reasoned debate or expressing all possible points of view, but an attempt to challenge profound ideas with some absurd superficial arguments, perhaps in hope his conclusion will appear fresh and controversial. At least he nears the right track toward the end, even if his tone is lamentable, and finishes advocating that we need to protect species.

What is wrong with extinction?

It is not the first time I have come across this question. Indeed, I spent part of my childhood questioning this myself. Occasionally, whilst campaigning or simply discussing conservation issues, I have encountered people who think they are clever to point out that in the past, long before humanity there have been extinctions. Most people are referring to the mass extinctions that wiped out huge proportions of life on Earth, such as that which obliterated all non-avian dinosaurs. Less frequently people bring up the so called "background extinctions" which are an important aspect of evolution: species die out all the time, and we can be sure that about 99% of all life on Earth has gone extinct. These extinctions can be a little harder to grasp because it is difficult to define a point where one species has deceased and given rise to another. However, this too is independent of humanity.

Of course extinction is a natural phenomenon. So why worry about it? Even if humanity is responsible for the demise of a great number of species – are we not constantly being taught humans are part of the animal kingdom as well? Why is it less "natural" for us to obliterate species as we progress, than any other creature causing the disappearance of a less adaptable one?

Because what humanity is doing is unparalleled in the history of life. We are not talking about "background extinctions" right now. The current rate of extinction is racing along with the Mass Extinctions of the Ordovician, the Cretacious, etc; perhaps it will be another Permian-Triassic scale extinction — the most devastating thus far in the history of life, wiping out 90% of living species at the time — by the time we have finished with the world that bears and breeds us. Whichever event the present is compared to, the current mass extinction is set apart by being consequence of a single species, ours.

On another note, at one point in the article the author mentions saving the cute, the cuddly, and economically important: Yes, it is lamentable such a spot-light is focused on a number of species which, although important, happen to be attractive. However, in most cases (and I say most because I could number a few examples of less useful and genuinely focused conservation methods), by conserving these big pretty animals you conserve their entire ecosystem. Additionally, one may find that even researchers interested in the "uglier" products of evolution will always emphasise the practicalities for conserving or researching their subject matter, whether that is truly why they conducted the study or not. Why? Well, because science's makes our lives better with such knowledge and potential practical applications and economic gains. But also because most universities are state-funded, and the public does not often tolerate the use of their tax money on blue-skies research (that which is conducted to sate humanity's innate curiousity in the world around us).

If you have read the above article without being aware of the two points I have mentioned, then I ask you to now read it again with these in mind. I don't expect everybody to take as strong an interest in this subject as I do or, therefore, be as informed about it; but the person who wrote the article should have taken it upon himself to research it properly.

PS - If velociraptors had not gone extinct, we either would never have evolved, or we would have evolved alongside them and be adapted to survive (you could argue that we'd be so different we would not be "us", and so it is the same as "us never having evolved"); or perhaps we would have evolved in a separate part of the world from them.

PPS - Lonesome George was a variety of the Galápagos giant tortoise, not a separate species. His species is not quite lost yet. The passing of his subspecies was regrettable, but there is still time to save his species if appropriate conservation measures are implemented.


People read...

Happy World Tapir Day!

Twelve and a half months in Ecuador

Hips Don't Lie #1 - Hip hip, hurray!