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Is a species extinction a bad thing?

This New Scientist article suggests not necessarily. The thinking reflects the theme of a recent exhibition in London.  Some snippets (with my responses):

“Extinction, like death, is a natural part of life,” declares an epigraph at the start of this exhibition. “Extinction isn’t necessarily the end of the world, it could be just the beginning…” (The first statement is wrong if humans engineer a mass extinction while the second statement is a truism).

The exhibition aims to make visitors question their ideas on extinction. Is it any worse when caused by humans than by meteorites or volcanic eruptions? Should conservation be our watchword, or should some organisms go extinct? (My intuition is that there is something particularly abhorrent about humans causing extinctions and I think there are sound aesthetic reasons for endorsing a strong conservation ethic – perhaps not for the smallpox virus.)

The five mass extinctions in Earth’s history wiped out swathes of life, but out of the devastation new species rose – shaped and honed by evolution – to inherit the Earth. More than 99 per cent of species that ever lived are now dead, and the exhibition hammers home the point that extinction drives evolution, which results in life in all its wondrous forms. (Yes but the time horizons here are immense and we are part of the current biodiversity mix – we live with neighbours who deserve our specific respect).

But it tempers this message strongly with a second sobering one: human actions are causing extinctions in a way never before seen. “If we don’t do anything about it, make no mistake – it will hugely affect the world we live in,” says Adrian Lister, a palaeontologist at the museum whose work on the extinct Irish elk forms part of the exhibition. “It would take the biosphere millions of years to recover.” (Of course, agree).

It’s not all doom, though. There are upbeat stories on display – animals we drove to the brink but then saved through conservation efforts: the Californian condor, the Arabian oryx, and China’s Pere David’s deer. (These specific recovery efforts are worthwhile but a drop in the ocean in terms of addressing the overall extinction crisis and, more importantly, the significant reduction in intra-specific biodiversity that is occurring even when extinctions are not occurring).

Saving other species is laudable, but can we save ourselves? In a thought-provoking section, the museum presents the concept of Homo extinctus – humans wiped out forever. “There’s nothing inevitable about our survival,” says Chris Stringer, the museum’s head of human origins. “The biggest threat to us is us.” (Agreed. I am a pessimist as I have set out before).

Extinction: Not the end of the world? is at London’s Natural History Museum until 8 September. (I would like to see it). 

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