Is mass extinction unimportant? (Updated)

A biology professor says the sixth mass extinction is no big deal because other species will evolve to fill in the gaps. History, ecology and ethics say he’s dead wrong.

Reposted, with permission, from Louis Proyect’s blog, The Unrepentant Marxist.

UPDATE: On November 30, on Facebook, Dr. Pyron responded to widespread criticism of his article:

“In the brief space of 1,900 words, I failed to make my views sufficiently clear and coherent, and succumbed to a temptation to sensationalize parts of my argument. Furthermore, I made the mistake of not showing the piece to my colleagues at GWU first; their dismay mirrored that of many in the broader community. As I’ve explained to their satisfaction, and now I wish to explain to the field at large, my views and opinions were not accurately captured by the piece, and I hope the record can now be corrected. In particular, the headlines inserted for the piece for publication said ‘We don’t need to save endangered species,’ and that ‘we should only worry about preserving biodiversity when it helps us.’ I did not write these words, I do not believe these things, and I do not support them.” Read his full response here.

by Louis Proyect

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post titled “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution” has generated an extraordinary amount of comments, with most of those 3,279 being negative. If you were only going by the title, you’d think that it was written by someone like Spiked Online’s Brendan O’Neill or perhaps Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior who is bent on opening national monuments to drilling, or even Donald Trump’s feckless sons who are into big-game hunting.

Actually, it was written by R. Alexander Pyron, who is the Robert F. Griggs Associate Professor of Biology at George Washington University. You might wonder if Griggs was some ultraright Texas oilman (isn’t that redundant?) who donated $10 million to the school in order to provide a platform for the anti-environmental views of people like Dr. Pyron. As it happens, Robert F. Griggs was a botanist who led a 1915 National Geographic Society expedition to observe the aftermath of the Katmai volcanic eruption in Alaska. He became so passionate about the beauty and biodiversity of the affected area that his advocacy helped it become a national park of the sort that Ryan Zinke wants to turn over to ExxonMobil on a silver platter.

The first paragraph of Pyron’s article sets the tone by pointing out that during an expedition in Ecuador, he discovered a Rio Pescado stubfoot toad that was considered extinct. But even if it goes extinct, it will be replaced by hundreds of other amphibians. So, why get worked up?

Pyron argues that it is extinction itself that generates new species. He does have a point. When an asteroid plunged into the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago, it killed perhaps 75% of all animals, with dinosaurs bearing the brunt of the destruction. However, in its wake, it created an environment suited to producing new species such as horses, whales, bats, and primates. Birds, fish, and perhaps lizards also found the new environment amenable to their reproduction according to Wikipedia.

The professor also shrugs his shoulders about climate change. Except for Donald Trump it would seem, elected officials hope to keep the temperature to under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Why bother, he asks since “the temperature has been at least eight degrees Celsius warmer within the past 65 million years.” And furthermore, twenty-one thousand years ago, Boston was under an ice sheet a kilometer thick. Comme ci comme ça

Do his arguments remind you of anybody? For me, they suggest a biological counterpart to Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” Yes, there might be an economic collapse but it always clears the ground for new growth. Yeah, it was too bad that 80 million people died during WWII but without Germany making a huge investment in achieving military superiority, we might not have ended up with rockets of the sort that Werner Von Braun invented. And without them, we might not have had all those satellites providing telecommunications that make globalization possible. And, if we end up seeing nuclear-tipped ICBM’s leveling New York, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Beijing, there’s always the possibility that newer and better cities will rise out of the ashes Phoenix-like. And, god forbid, if life on earth is destroyed, we can always count on Jeff Bezos to rescue the fortunate few as he finally realizes his dream, a humongous colony in outer space.

There’s no sense in worrying. It might be best to adopt an almost Hindu-like reincarnation philosophy in the face of impending doom. Just think. In 50 million years, Europe will smash into Africa and create a new supercontinent, destroying all sorts of birds, fish, and anything that gets in the path of this inevitable catastrophic event. But, have no fear, all sorts of new species will arrive, maybe even the dodo and the mastodon will return. By that point, Jeff Bezos will have left behind a brilliant team of scientists to accomplish almost anything even if long before that happens David Duke, the victorious Republican Party candidate in 2020, decides to unleash thermonuclear weapons against New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to destroy Satan in the name of Jesus Christ, our savior.

It is when I got to this paragraph that I wondered if Pyron had written an Onion-like spoof:

“Conserving biodiversity should not be an end in itself; diversity can even be hazardous to human health. Infectious diseases are most prevalent and virulent in the most diverse tropical areas. Nobody donates to campaigns to save HIV, Ebola, malaria, dengue and yellow fever, but these are key components of microbial biodiversity, as unique as pandas, elephants and orangutans, all of which are ostensibly endangered thanks to human interference.”

Has this professor ever read anything about the way that HIV got started? Most scientists believe that it was the human encroachment on the jungle that led to the first transmission of the virus from chimpanzees to human beings in the 1920s. Indeed, the National Geographic, the very magazine that funded the exploration led by the man who Pyron’s endowed chair is named after, published an article in June 2003 that states:

“Scientists believe the encroachment by humans on nature also increases the spread of infectious diseases. The SIVcpz strain [that led to HIV] jumping from chimpanzees to humans likely occurred when humans hunted and butchered chimps for “bush meat,” something humans have done for centuries.

“Increased human populations have increased the chances of a virus successfully propagating among humans once it has made the jump. The SIVcpz strain was probably transmitted to humans in previous centuries, but never established a substantial enough transmission chain among humans to cause a large outbreak.”

There are one of two possibilities that explain Pyron’s incomprehensible fatalism. He might be an ideologue so committed to libertarian economics that the long-term prospects of civilization are indifferent to him, just as they are to the Koch brothers who could care less about the future of the planet. As they used to say during the Reagan presidency, those who die with the most toys wins.

It also may be the case that the professor lacks the philosophical, ethical and historical breadth to put these questions into perspective. Unlike other scientists who make sweeping judgments on such questions like Jared Diamond or E.O. Wilson, Pyron has never written anything like this outside of his narrow scholarly interest in reptiles.

For example, he refers to the “verdant wilderness we see now in the Catskills, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains” growing back in the past century with very few extinctions or permanent losses of biodiversity. Really? Does he have any idea how the Catskills got its name? This was the name Henry Hudson and his crew coined when they saw mountain lions teeming across the mountains overlooking the river. Kaat is the Dutch word for cat and kill means river. They, like the Monsee Indians that lived in the area, are gone forever. They were hunted to extinction just as the bison were in the Great Plains.

Does this make any difference as long as new toads and snake species crop up to take their place? Clearly, the question is nonsensical and is an unwarranted concession to the professor’s tendency to take into account the sheer quantity of species rather than their quality. If Bluefin tuna disappear, it doesn’t matter that 100 new varieties of sponges and jellyfish take their place or that if eagles and condors go extinct, there will be new varieties of crows, pigeons, and starlings to take their place.

The tuna occupies a place in the marine food chain that is indispensable. Its loss means that the natural balance of marine life is threatened. Once again, it is the National Geographic that provides the context that is so lacking in Pyron’s op-ed piece:

“The Atlantic bluefin plays a significant role in the ecosystem by consuming a wide variety of fish—herring, anchovies, sardines, bluefish, mackerel, and others—and keeping their populations in balance. According to the WWF, “ecological extinction of this species would thus have unpredictable cascading effects in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Gulf of Mexico ecosystems and entail serious consequences to many other species in the food chain.”

It is entirely possible that Alex Pyron has not read much literature about ecology even though he is an evolutionary biologist who normally should be able to make such elementary distinctions. This is a man who started out as a child prodigy, entering college at the age of 12 and earning a Ph.D. by the time he was 22. Maybe he was too busy studying snakes in the field to read Plato, Leo Tolstoy, Immanuel Kant, William Blake or Henry David Thoreau.

His narrow focus on snakes and other amphibians would likely have also robbed him of the time needed to read people like Mike Davis, Donald Worster or Clive Ponting who are generalists in the field of ecology. Pyron wrote an article titled “Extinction, Ecological Opportunity, And The Origins Of Global Snake Diversity” for the January 2012 copy of Evolution that reflects his narrow vision. It begins by noting that “Many taxonomie groups comprise clades with vast disparities in species richness, even among closely related lineages in adjacent areas (Fischer 1960; Rosenzweig 1995). A prime example is Lepidosauria: tuataras are represented by only two extant species, while their sister group Squamata (lizards and snakes) contains nearly 9000 species (Vitt and Caldwell 2009).”

He extrapolates from his research that the rich variety of Squamata should be a mitigating factor against the threat of the extinction of wildlife at the top of the food chain, including polar bears, blue whales, Bluefin tuna, orangutan, gorillas, chimpanzees, wolves, grizzly bears, tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos, etc.

No thanks.


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Posted in Anthropocene, Biodiversity

2 Responses to Is mass extinction unimportant? (Updated)

  1. Marian Ronan November 28, 2017 at 9:40 am #

    Thanks for this rebuttal. I was stunned by Pyron’s article and deeply disappointed that it appeared in the Washington Post.

  2. foodnstuff November 28, 2017 at 8:09 pm #

    Ethically, humans have a responsibility, if not a concern for their own life support systems, to not deliberately cause the extinction of other species. Extinction is part of life; part of the evolutionary process that sees fit individuals survive and those less fit not surviving.

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