By John Mattingly
or the last 30 years, I’ve written for various ag trade publications on topics ranging from salt to bears, estate planning to bindweed control. After reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, I started a five part series on extinction: the history of human understanding, the process, what we know of prior mass extinctions, the clues to the current mass extinction, and the consequences.
The first column appeared in a trade publication, but the editor sent back the second column, asking that I write on another topic. The reason: religious advertisers did not want to be in the same issue, let alone the same page, with a column about extinction. It contradicted creation science, and human understanding of extinction proved to be part of the foundation of the principles of evolution.
I was surprised by this response, but I understood. Print media has all the difficulties it needs right now. Keeping loyal advertisers is a matter of survival, and publications have reasonable control over the type of content they present. Nevertheless, the anti-science folks are particularly odious given this irony: humans did not formally understand and accept extinction as a process until the mid-1800s, and many religious leaders vigorously denied such a horrible thing could happen in god’s perfect world. The words of Alexander Pope, in Essay on Man, characterized the times: “All are but parts of a stupendous whole, whose body nature is, and God the soul.”
But then, in 1739, mastodon remains were found in the Ohio River Valley by Charles le Moyne, a Frenchman exploring for the fur trade. The four-foot long thigh bone, and molars with roots as long as a human hand and weighing twelve pounds, did not match up with any known, living creature. This led to a continuous controversy between scientists and clergy with a partial settlement coming with Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Even Thomas Jefferson was among the last to embrace extinction and evolution as biological processes. Creation science is actually embracing the level of scientific knowledge enjoyed by the founding fathers and most 18th-century thinkers.
This throwback to uncritical thinking is near the root of much of the polarization in our culture and our political system. Democracy depends on an informed electorate, and conflict resolution depends on best-available information. Yet “being informed” has become a more arbitrary pursuit with expansion of the internet and social media, where misinformation thrives in the absence of fact-checking and critical analysis. The ensuing irony is that humans may be headed for extinction because a majority ignores obvious priorities.
It never occurred to me that extinction could be controversial, except to the extent that we should be devoting research to the best approaches to reduce the mass extinction now in process. As Kolbert points out, mass extinctions take time, over periods that are hundreds of times the span of a human life.
For example, the extinction of the megafauna of the Americas took about a thousand years. The mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, toxodons, aurocks, camelops, giant kangaroos and moas, to name a few, were thriving in the Americas until humans arrived. Human hunting eventually drove all of these species to extinction. The vulnerability of these megafauna obtained from their size. While size contributed to fitness in conflict, it had the drawback of long gestations and single births. Thus the death of a single individual had a proportionally larger impact on the population than would be the case with a species with shorter gestations and multiple births. Human hunters saw a decline in the megafauna over generations, during which time a gradual conversion to hunting deer, elk, rabbits and dogs replaced the supply from the large beasts until the large beasts were gone.
Kolbert points to evidence supporting the theory that humans are now about 200 years into another mass extinction on Earth that began with the onset of the industrial revolution, and will have catastrophic consequences in the future. The decline of amphibians, bats, bees and literally thousands of other species is a trend we should be understanding rather than avoiding with religious myths.
Anti-science movements like creation science, which begins its campaign of misinformation with children, may even present an existential threat to our species because of its intellectual deficits and fundamental laziness. The Biblical version of creation is flattery baked in simplicity, endowing humans as special and therefore fit to “multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.” Environmental, population and organistic biology (taught as EPOB) informs us that humans are highly evolved mammals, that subduing Earth creates more blowback than benefit, and over-population is unsustainable and results in environmental degradation. Creationist thinking simply defers to a “mysterious plan in the unknowable mind of god,” while EPOB examines life systems in detail, revealing both the source and destination of human actions.
A species represents an accumulation of adaptive knowledge, concentrated in a form of life. Bio-philosophers attribute a nexus of ethical and moral qualities to the living fact of a species, expressed, in part, in our legal system as the Endangered Species Act. If we look at successful species on Earth (success being measured by survival, absent which other traits are meaningless), we see that successful species organize and behave in observable ways that provide clues to “How to Survive on Earth” that are quite different from those offered in the Bible. The following might be titled: The Seven Habits of Successful Species:
- Successful species do not create auto-toxic metabolic and cultural waste. They do not “foul their own nest.”
- Successful species pursue adaptation by altering their physiology before they alter their environment.
- Successful species have a commensal relationship to other species in their niche. They do not “foul their neighbors’ nests.” (Some might consider predation, infection and trapping to be fouling the nest of others, and this deserves some consideration, but successful species seldom act in a way that causes another species to go extinct.)
- Successful species do not take vacations except for feeding or reproduction.
- Successful species seldom persist beyond their reproductive peak.
- Successful species devote brain power to functions other than self awareness.
- Successful species do not have foreknowledge of their own death, and thus do not need to create a life after death, which often leads to conflict and killing over who has the best afterlife.
P.S. I quit writing for the ag publications that restricted content based on advertisers. We are fortunate in Salida, and Central Colorado, to have a publication that sees value in a hygienic separation between content and advertising – a policy that, when multiplied, sets in motion the processes that encourage discourse, including that of our pending survival.
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Poncha Springs.