A biologist at George Washington University, Alexander Pyron, recently published an Op Ed in The Washington Post that made the argument that people shouldn’t worry about protecting endangered species because mass die-offs historically have been a natural part of life on Earth.
“Extinction is the engine of evolution,” Professor Pyron wrote. “It’s 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 being.”
The professor’s argument against conservation for conservation’s sake – that is, for the good of nonhuman species – was in some ways nothing new. It’s a familiar feature of the American political landscape.
In the Chesapeake Bay, for example, oyster populations have plummeted to about one percent of historic levels. But advocates for the seafood industry fight the expansion of oyster sanctuaries because they claim the short-term income of watermen is more critical than the long-term ecological value of leaving oysters in the water to reproduce.
But Pryon’s essay in The Post ignited a firestorm of criticism because of who he is: An evolutionary biologist whose job is not to help the seafood industry or anyone else make money – but to understand the complexities and interrelationships of life.
In rebuttal to his Op Rd published on December 15, Alexandre Antonelli, director of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre in Sweden, wrote a letter that was co-signed online by more than 3,400 scientists, including Nobel-Prize winners.
“Yes, extinction is natural,” Antonelli and colleagues wrote. “However, the scale at which it is occurring is not. Today, species are disappearing up to 1,000 times faster than pre-human rates....(Moreover), biodiversity has extensive unknown and untapped potential. No one would have argued for the conservation of a simple fungus 100 years ago, yet today who among us would argue against the value of penicillin?”
This point – that there can be medical and even financial value to people in protecting nature – is an often repeated one. But it also continues an underlying assumption at the core of Pyron’s original Op Ed: Plants and animals only have worth in as far as they act as servants to us and our economy.
Bees and other pollinators in decline, for example, should be protected because they are cogs in the production of our apples and peaches. But what about other creatures, such as frogs and Monarch butterflies, that are also in sharp decline, but that do not serve us?
Jerry Coyne, a Professor of Ecology at the University of Chicago, argues that there are emotional and moral dimensions to this debate that go beyond science and logic.
“Destroying species is like burning works of art,” Coyne wrote in a recent blog article. “Yes, there will be new art—there always is. But isn’t it nice to go see an exhibit of van Gogh or Rembrandt?”
There is no art to the word biodiversity, which is wonky and bureaucratic term that will never ignite the hearts of voters. But another way of phrasing it is this: By eliminating other species, we are killing off the magic in the world, snuffing out the wonder of encountering life forms that – although radically different and perhaps useless to us -- are just as unique and sacred as we are.