Saving endangered species

The Washington Post on 26 November 2017 published an op-ed entitled We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution, by R. Alexander Pyron, Associate Professor of Biology at the George Washington University. His thesis: extinction is an essential ingredient of evolution; if natural selection is a good thing, then extinction is a good thing. Humans should not be concerned about extinctions caused by their activities; these are merely a consequence of human superiority in the game of natural selection and survival of the fittest.

What nonsense.

Human competition with other species is not natural. Humans cheat. Other species are limited in their environmental influence by the energy of their own bodies. Humans not. We use massive amounts of external energy to make our local environment into what we want it to be. Do you like 70 degrees? You got it, even if it is -40° outside, or +120º. This local environmental manipulation has far reaching consequences: logging and mining for the structure of the environmental bubble (house, office building, or automobile); fossil fuel for heating and cooling; roads, pipelines, and power lines to tie it all together and keep it working. And for each of these parts, more of the same.

Inter-species competition in this environment is not natural; it is inter-species competition on a human template. Imagine a chess game in which the “white” player can move white pieces, and the “black” player can move black pieces AND can move the chess board squares. Oh, was your white piece on the square that I just moved? What a shame! Checkmate! This is not competition, it is corruption.

Do not think that this is all about climate change and carbon emissions. We may switch to clean energy sources—although there is woefully inadequate progress in this direction—and the systems that serve our comfort remain, and these will continue to do immense ecological damage. These unintentional destructions are at least as damaging as intentional ones (killing of animals, including fish, for food or sport; clear-cutting of forests; deforestation for farming). Much of the unintentional destruction is associated with power lines, pipelines, railroads, and especially roads—and the many things that are build alongside roads; these are well documented in the literature of road ecology [4,8-13].

Humans are dependent on ecosystems, and ecosystems are dependent on the species within them. Each time that we annihilate a species we put an ecosystem at risk. Each time we put an ecosystem at risk—which is our usual and indirect way of annihilating or locally extirpating species—we diminish our flexibility in depending on ecosystems for our biological sustenance, and we do depend on ecosystems. As inconvenient as it may be, it is in humankind’s best interest to preserve species and the habitats and ecosystems on which they depend. Another inconvenient truth.

There is also the profound aesthetic of nature, which has inspired people since they were able to paint on cave walls. Have we lost our humanity? Have we sunk to a place where we are willing to live in a mechanical world? As Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring:

Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good? Such thinking, in the words of the ecologist Paul Shepard, “idealizes life with only its head out of water, inches above the limits of toleration of the corruption of its own environment . .  . Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

About Ray Watts

Raymond D Watts, PhD, is a geophysicist and geographer who retired in 2010 after a 40 year research career. He has worked on lunar exploration, glaciology, nuclear waste management, climate change, distribution of roads of the U.S., and ecological effects of roads. Most of his research career was at the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado. While studying road distribution, he developed ways to measure the amount of space between roads and became concerned about the inexorable loss of this American resource. Ray lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. Email:

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