UPDATE: Apparently Pyron has rethought his position, saying that he “failed to make his views sufficiently clear and coherent” and “succumbed to a temptation to sensationalize parts of my argument.” He also faults himself for not running the piece by his George Washington University colleagues, which is pretty much inexcusable given its message. His mea culpa, “Biodiversity conservation is urgent and important, now and in the future“, appears on his GWU lab page, and pretty much takes back what he said in the Post—well, sorta. In the end, he claims that he was misunderstood, that the title and subtitle weren’t chosen by him (that’s surely true), and that his intentions should now “be judged by pointing to his scientific research”, which is “steeped in biodiversity discovery and analysis, with many publications on direct conservation topics and many more to come on the global threats affecting reptiles and amphibians.” Well, we didn’t have his c.v. in hand when we read his piece.
The thing is, the title and subtitle accurately mirror the content of Pyron’s original article, whose point is pretty damn clear. To say that he didn’t accurately express what he thought is either disingenuous or bespeaks a totally disordered viewpoint. I suspect that he just got so much flak from his colleagues at GWU and everywhere else that he decided he’d better back down. But then why did the Post publish this misguided piece in the first place, forcing me, and I suspect hundreds of others, to rebut it?
(Thanks to Grania and others for alerting me to Pyron’s walk-back.)
The Washington Post “perspective” article below, by associate professor of biology R. Alexander Pyron at George Washington University (click on screenshot to read), has everyone’s knickers in a twist—as well it should. (There are now 3790 comments after the article, though I haven’t read any; the reaction I’ve seen has been on other online sites.)
Pyron’s argument is simple: extinction has been going on ever since the beginning of life, 99% or more of species that ever existed have gone extinct without leaving descendants, and even more have evolved into something very different; there have been lots of “natural” extinctions due to changes in earth’s climate, snowpack, and continental drift; the Earth always recovers from extinctions to produce a new crop of species; it will likewise recover from the latest anthropogenic “Sixth Extinction”; and even if the endangered species—or other species—go extinct, we’ll get some nifty new ones. The only species worth caring about, says Pyron, are those whose welfare impacts our own, like trees, food fish, and so on. And this is from a biologist. I’ll give just a few quotes to show the tenor of his argument:
But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency. Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. Species constantly go extinct, and every species that is alive today will one day follow suit. There is no such thing as an “endangered species,” except for all species. The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings. Yes, we have altered the environment and, in doing so, hurt other species. This seems artificial because we, unlike other life forms, use sentience and agriculture and industry. But we are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural. Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.
. . . Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, the post-apocalyptic void had been filled by an explosion of diversity — modern mammals, birds and amphibians of all shapes and sizes.
This is how evolution proceeds: through extinction. The inevitability of death is the only constant in life, and 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived, as many as 50 billion, have already gone extinct. In 50 million years, Europe will collide with Africa and form a new supercontinent, destroying species (think of birds, fish and anything vulnerable to invasive life forms from another landmass) by irrevocably altering their habitats. Extinctions of individual species, entire lineages and even complete ecosystems are common occurrences in the history of life. The world is no better or worse for the absence of saber-toothed tigers and dodo birds and our Neanderthal cousins, who died off as Homo sapiens evolved. (According to some studies, it’s not even clear that biodiversity is suffering. The authors of another recent National Academy of Sciences paper point out that species richness has shown no net decline among plants over 100 years across 16,000 sites examined around the world.)
Pyron has a remarkably anthropocentric view, but justifies it by saying that “we are a part of the biosphere”, and thus our actions are natural and therefore not to be criticized:
There is no return to a pre-human Eden; the goals of species conservation have to be aligned with the acceptance that large numbers of animals will go extinct. Thirty to 40 percent of species may be threatenedwith extinction in the near future, and their loss may be inevitable. But both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species. We don’t depend on polar bears for our survival, and even if their eradication has a domino effect that eventually affects us, we will find a way to adapt. The species that we rely on for food and shelter are a tiny proportion of total biodiversity, and most humans live in — and rely on — areas of only moderate biodiversity, not the Amazon or the Congo Basin.
He makes other arguments as well: introduced species sometimes do reduce “native diversity”, but “productivity—the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem—frequently increases”. About 140 new reptile species have been introduced in Florida, but they haven’t driven any old species extinct. He even argues that we don’t try to conserve the “biodiversity” that includes Ebola virus, and yellow fever, so we’re being hypocritical!
Well, as I always say, we can’t simply dismiss people like this by simply saying they’re wrong. We have to muster counterarguments. I will muster a few, since I haven’t paid much attention (on purpose) to the arguments of others. Here’s my view of why Pyron is misguided:
1.) There is no guarantee that the Earth will recover from this new anthropogenic extinction in a way that guarantees the return of biodiversity. As we chop down the rain forests and convert forests and diverse ecosystems into farms and pastures, the resulting monocultures may be productive, but they’ll be boring. Why is productivity (and I don’t mean just food productivity) privileged over diversity (see below)? Further, destroying natural ecosystems, if you take Pyron’s anthropocentric view (it’s not my view), can drive to extinction animals and plants that are of potential aid to humans: plants that provide medical cures, clues about animals that can help us live longer and healthier lives, and so on.
2.) With the present destruction of natural habitat, and the possibilities of nuclear war and a big change in Earth’s climate due to global warming, we are making it much less likely that Earth will recover its previous biodiversity. Yes, we’re a species, but we’re the only species on the planet with the capacity to not just destroy every other species, but denude the entire planet itself.
3.) Biodiversity should be valued for two reasons other than human welfare: its intrinsic interest and beauty, and its scientific value exclusive of how it could help H. sapiens. There’s simply something more enthralling and moving about a pristine rain forest than there is in a logged-over pasture. Which would you rather look at: a field of corn growing away, or a sea full of interesting creatures and a forest full of insects, plants, birds, and monkeys? Which would you rather look at: a blank canvas, or an all-black canvas, or a Leonardo? Further, driving species extinct is like going through a library, destroying half the books and saying, “Yes, but new books will be written to replace them.” That is, each species is an evolutionary palimpsest of its past, telling us something about ecology and evolution, and buttressing our sense of wonder and our knowledge. That knowledge is good in and of itself, for we are a species of curiosity and wonder. And each time a species goes extinct, we lose a chance to learn about it, its ecology, and its evolutionary past. We may be able to recover its ancestry if we save its DNA, but we’ll still irrevocably lose a lot of other stuff. At least right now, we couldn’t suss out the remarkable courtship behavior of the birds of paradise simply from their DNA sequence.
4.) Our actions that drive species extinct often cause suffering of animals; why is human suffering so privileged that we can injure other species with complete impunity? Yes, some species may go extinct simply because they can’t find a mate, and the population becomes so small it dies out from demographic fluctuations. That kind of extinction doesn’t cause much suffering. But other extinctions cause pain and suffering as animals’ homes are destroyed, they are killed by humans (fires, bullets, etc.), or the climate becomes intolerable.
Yes, mass extinctions have happened before, and extinction often causes pain, regardless of whether it’s caused by our own species or physical forces. But if we abet it, we’re increasing the amount of suffering among sentient beings, and that is a net bad. How much increase in human well being does it take to offset, say, the death of hundreds of giraffes, gorillas, and elephants shot by hunters? What is the calculus here? According to Pyron, animals have no value re suffering, and humans have infinite value in comparison.
I think Pyron fails to realize that the depredations of humans aren’t equivalent to the ice sheets that once covered the world. Ice sheets go away; we won’t—unless we manage to drive ourselves extinct first.
In the end, the whole planet will be burnt to a crisp when the Sun expands in about five billion years. But until then, and assuming we’re here for a while, we should do our best to preserve those features of the world that give us not just joy but knowledge that is an intrinsic good. In one way, destroying species is like burning every work of art in the world. Yes, there will be new art—there always is—but isn’t it nice to go see an exhibit of van Gogh or Rembrandt?
I’m sure readers can come up with other counterarguments (or support of Pyron, if that’s the way you feel).