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Saving Species from Ourselves

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post from Dr. Robert Alexander Pyron has created quite the stir in the conservation and biology communities. Pyron’s piece, We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution makes the case that extinction is not something with which we should overly concern ourselves, that we have no “moral” imperative with which to save species. After all, we are living during the sixth great extinction . . . so what if we leave the road to progress littered with highly a diverse assortment of roadkill?


Truth is, if you are reading the posts on this site, you have likely already read Pyron’s piece. Dr. David Steen, “The Best Biologist on Twitter,” put the response in context:


As of the evening of November 30, Pyron’s article had generated over 3,700 comments—the overwhelming majority of which are extremely negative. Scientists and conservationists have been particularly aggrieved by the piece and criticisms have been flying hot and heavy.
On the blog The EEB & Flow, Dr. Caroline Tucker, an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, provides an excellent response highlighting that this sixth extinction we are currently in, is radically different than the preceding five:

“But the 6th great extinction (the Anthropocene extinction – the one we are currently living in) shares little in common with these past events. This is the only extinction that a single species (humans) are primarily responsible for, through activities from habitat conversion or degradation, land fragmentation, warming climate, ocean acidification, and human consumption of natural resources.”  – from “Of course we need to save endangered species:  a response” posted on November 22, 2017


Dr. Santiago Claramunt, Associate Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, details fundamental flaws in the logical arguments that Pyron presents in his blog post:

“The idea that all species eventually go extinct is only partially true because there are two different meanings of “extinction.” In its most fundamental meaning, extinction is the disappearance of all individuals of a species, the irreversible end of a lineage. This kind of extinction is the one that we fear we are increasing among today’s species . . .today’s biodiversity is the result of the survival of lineages, lineages that coalesce in common ancestors that can be traced back to the origin of life. In other words, today’s biodiversity is the result of the absence of extinction (in its fundamental meaning) along those lineages over the entire history of life on Earth.” – from “Extinction, macroevolution, and biodiversity conservation” posted on November, 26 2017


There are those who agree with Pyron’s take. Ronald Bailey, a science correspondent for Reason magazine, focuses on the “utility” argument:

As a relatively well-off First Worlder, I have had the intense pleasure of walking in the wild within 40 feet of grazing rhinos and of swimming with Galápagos penguins. It would be a shame if future generations do not have an opportunity to enjoy such experiences. In any case, with rising wealth, urbanization, and the approach of peak farmland, the dire predictions of mass extinction are most likely exaggerated.

In this section, Bailey links to an article of his from July, 2017, a scathing review of the work of Stanford Biologist Dr. Paul Ehrlich, that posits the research underlying concerns about biodiversity and extinction may be flawed. However, as support for this claim, Bailey cites his own work, two articles from evolution journals, and optimistic-at-best claims about population demographics. Good science comes from consensus and constant testing, not cherry picking and hopeful wishing.


Responses from Bailey and others who endorse Pyron’s viewpoint, either tacitly or whole-heartedly, center their argument on “utility”—how does species X or ecosystem Y really help humanity? But this line of reasoning is troublesome in and of itself. For one, we are really terrible at knowing which species are “beneficial” or how to accurately “value” a species in the first place. A similar discussion around the concept of ecosystem services, benefits that humans gain from their natural environment, has persisted for decades. Some recoil at the idea of putting a dollar sign on a “natural” good. Others view ecosystem service valuation as a strong economic and political tool, a means to show the value of natural systems in units of currency that can be incorporated into strategic planning. At the core of this though, is that ecosystem service valuation is difficult. And besides, how the hell are we supposed to know which species of tropical plant makes your tea sweeter, or is a better, cheaper source of rope fiber, or cures cancer if we never bother to care about conserving them and finding out about what is out there in our world.


I am pretty sure hundreds of years ago many people didn’t bank on using algae to make fuel, we were too busy slaughtering whales so we could see at night.


There is a fundamental difference of opinion for some on humanity’s role as stewards of the earth. Hardly anything in life is a strict dichotomy, but to broadly characterize, there is one view that we have dominion of the earth and that we should use, extract, and monetize every facet of the earth. This is what leads people to tear down ancient forests to dig coal, to drill in the arctic, and to run pipelines across the landscape. During the Reagan administration, both James Watt, Secretary of the Interior and Anne Gorsuch, head of the EPA, radically altered the course of how the US oversaw natural resource management, to put it lightly. We are revisiting this experience anew with the current Department of Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke (1, 2, 3).


The other side of the coin, are those who fight for conservation or preservation. Dr. Ronald Sandler makes a strong case for the intrinsic value of species in a piece in Nature Education from 2012. He leads with a quote from environmental ethicist, Holmes Rolston, “These things [species] count, whether or not someone is doing the counting.” However, Sandler’s essay is fair and he is quick to point out, “There are costs associated with preserving species and effectively managing ecological systems, and there are alternative uses for managed spaces and management funds.” The afore mentioned Dr. Paul Ehrlich has made the case that we should in fact set aside half the earth and simply leave it alone.


One of the more troubling aspects of Pyron’s article, is that he is an esteemed scientist himself. He is the Robert F. Griggs Associate Professor of Biology at the George Washington University. He has 87 peer-reviewed publications with over 4,600 citations. He is no slouch. In a highly-critical response to Pyron’s article, Louis Proycet posits that a central problem with Pyron’s argument is a flawed link between his narrow research and broader ecological linkages—succinctly, that for a molecular focused scientist, it is tenuous to extrapolate findings or theory from a few species to whole ecosystems (let alone the globe). While scientific discourse is at its best when diverse viewpoints are shared freely across disciplines (respectfully, of course), Proycet’s point alludes to long-standing issues across disciplines within science. Insert your own inter-discipline argument here.


Pyron also presents odd counter-examples to back his claims:

The verdant wilderness we see now in the Catskills, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains has all grown back in the past 100 years or so . . Japan is one of the most densely populated and densely forested nations in the world. A model like that can serve a large portion of the planet, while letting humanity grow and shape its own future.”


Never mind the boundless conservation efforts of the countless people, agencies, and non-profits that fought to protect these areas so they could rebound. Of course there is the point that I know I personally no longer see the wild cats, bison, elk, and other animals that populated these systems. Also no mention of how the Clean Air Act helped clean up the waters of these highly degraded systems. Or how the Japanese made countless, conscious efforts to restore and protect their forests.  I mean, really? C’mon, man.


Nearly 3,000 scientists are currently crafting a response to Pyron’s opinion piece. Pyron himself did post a response to the criticism as well.



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