Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Conserving Endangered Species

When I was younger, I took it for granted that a species going extinct was a terrible thing, and we should do whatever we could to prevent it. I was a fairly staunch environmentalist then, and felt frustrated at how little I could actually do to help the environment. As I got older, this sense of futility led me to avoid thinking about the issue.

Just recently, though, I've gotten back into nature documentaries. And it's gotten me thinking about endangered species again, and I've realized that my old arguments for conservation don't actually fit with my values.

I realized this when watching a documentary simulating the history of life on earth, showing what creatures existed in different eras. Long before we evolved, species were going extinct. In fact, there have been many mass extinctions, wiping out entire families of species - and each time, something new has evolved to take its' place, often something interesting which has not been seen before. One of the most well-known mass extinctions paved the way for mammals like us to dominate the world. Some of the most fascinating and unique creatures in earth's history have died out, and some never would have existed if it weren't for other species dying out. Extinction, though sad, has an important role in the cycle of nature.

So what makes the current rush of extinctions any different? The fact that we caused it? Well, much as we like to delude ourselves into thinking we're special, we really are just another species on this world, and one species driving another into extinction is nothing new. Neither is a species changing the climate and causing mass extinctions - when photosynthesis first evolved, the resulting rise in oxygen levels wiped out many anaerobic single-celled organisms. We're not the only ones to make the atmosphere toxic. And without photosynthesis, none of us oxygen-breathers would exist.

What about the fact that this extinction is going at a faster rate than the others? Well, that is a problem, but even so, nature can handle it. There are species that are benefitting from our actions, too. If the ecology of the earth collapses, there will be enough survivors to rebuild it. I seriously doubt we'll manage to actually destroy all life on earth - and if anything is left behind, then in a few milennia we'll have lush and diverse ecosystems once again.

Objectively, I don't actually see a problem with human-caused extinction. Does this mean I think conservation efforts are pointless? No, far from it!

Firstly, we're part of our ecosystem too. We delude ourselves into thinking we're apart from nature, but we actually depend on the earth's resources for everything, and will continue to do so until we can establish self-sufficient space stations or planetary colonies. Which is a lot further off than the looming environmental crisis. Humans have already started to pay the price of some of our environmental gaffes - birth defects from Agent Orange, losing livelihoods when the Cod fishery collapsed and increasing rates of melanoma are only a few examples. We stand to suffer a great deal more if we don't change our course. One theme of many mass extinctions is that when the entire ecosystem reshuffles, it's often the ones on top that die out. We could lose everything.

Secondly, everything is connected. You can't just take species in isolation - extinction of one species could have a cascade of effects throughout the whole ecosystem. And we don't understand ecology well enough to fully predict the consequences of messing around with it. Sure, it's robust enough to bounce back eventually, but in the meantime, what kind of problems will result?

Thirdly, scientists need time to study these creatures. It's a lot easier to study a living species than an extinct one - it took a long time to figure out that Smilodon (a kind of saber-toothed cat) were probably social creatures, something you can figure out about lions pretty much instantly. Science is kind of an end in itself, because it's impossible to predict, when we start studying something, what potential implications it might have. Recently people have realized that hyenas could actually tell us something about how we evolved, because spotted hyenas (who live in clans of up to 90 other hyenas) have separately evolved many of the same social-cognitive features as primates. Who knows what else we have yet to discover about other species? (And we'll need to know a lot of this stuff if we ever meet sentient aliens, because they will not think like humans.)

And lastly, I happen to like a lot of endangered animals. It can be fun to learn about them, to watch them live and grow and raise families. That, in itself, is a reason to conserve what we can.


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