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By Tom Waltz


When one considers the word "extinction," it is difficult not to be first drawn to the thought of dinosaurs - those giant lizards that roamed (and ruled) planet Earth for 65 million years, only to die off and disappear, completely and mysteriously, opening the door to mammals and, ultimately, humankind. The rise and fall of these amazing creatures never ceases to be fascinating, albeit, for many, from a distance. After all, their demise (their "failure" some would say) occurred a long time ago, and therefore only deserves an "arm's length" academic curiosity - a respectful yet removed contemplation, if you will.


I say "wrong" because to simply write off these magnificent beasts as having only a distant bearing on the current occupants of the planet they once dominated - and to label them as a biological failures - is both ridiculous and irresponsible. Certainly, there is undeniable human arrogance afoot when it is claimed that the dinosaurs were a species that failed. Perhaps Stephen R.L. Clark described this misguided effrontery best (in The Moral Status of Animals) when he wrote, "We sometimes speak of the dinosaurs as failures; there will be time enough for that judgment when we have lasted even for one tenth as long."

Instead of focusing on their end, perhaps we should turn our attention into the direction of the overall length of the dinosaur age. Sixty five million years is mind boggling when compared to the existence of any other species known to inhabit (or to have inhabited) the planet - including Homo sapiens. The fact that dinosaurs were able to last so long is a testament to their resiliency, and is a clear reminder of just how dangerously expedient modern extinction rates have become. In other words, to accuse the dinosaurs of failure is only a foolhardy attempt to ignore (and deny) our own.

Extinction: Old Process, New Twist

It should be mentioned that the process of extinction is not a new one - nor is it unusual. In Last Chance to See, Mark Carwardine writes:

Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate. For millions of years, on average, one species became extinct every century. But most of the extinctions since prehistoric times have occurred in the last three hundred years... And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last three hundred years have occurred in the last fifty... And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last fifty years have occurred in the last ten (Adams & Carwardine, 1990).

Carwardine continues by indicating "there are now more than a thousand different species of animals and plants becoming extinct every year" (Adams & Carwardine, 1990). Furthermore, Daniel Simberloff, a University of Tennessee ecologist and prominent expert in biological diversity, in an April 21, 1998 interview with Joby Warrick of the Washington Post, stated, "The speed at which species are being lost is much faster than any we've seen in the past - including those [extinctions] related to meteor collisions" (Warrick, 1998).

These are frightening figures to be sure, even more so when one considers the fact that this modern mass extinction is, by and far, the fault of humankind. In the same Washington Post article mentioned above, Joby Warrick reported that:

Nearly seven out of 10 of the biologists polled said they believed a "mass extinction" was underway, and an equal number predicted that up to one-fifth of all living species could disappear within 30 years. Nearly all attributed the losses to human activity, especially the destruction of plant and animal habitats (Warrick, 1998).

Who Cares?

As staggering as the preceeding data might seem to be, Warrick continues to report that the general public remains either unaware or aloof to the extinction problem:

Among non-scientists, meanwhile, the subject appears to have made relatively little impression. Sixty percent of the laymen polled professed little or no familiarity with the concept of biological diversity, and barely half ranked species loss as a "major threat" (Warrick, 1998)

In 1998, The American Museum of Natural History and Louis Harris and Associates, Inc., in conjunction with the opening of the Museum's new Hall of Biodiversity, developed a nationwide survey titled "Biodiversity in the Next Millennium." The survey reveals a startling gap in understanding between the scientific community and the general public concerning a current crisis in sustaining "biodiversity" - the variety and interdependence of the Earth's plants and animals. Highlights of that poll follow. Some items have already been mentioned in this paper, but truly bear repeating:

- Seven out of ten biologists believe that we are in the midst of a mass extinction of living things, and that this dramatic loss of species poses a major threat to human existence in the next century.

- In strong contrast to the fears expressed by scientists, the general public is relatively unaware of the loss of species and the threats that it poses.

- This mass extinction is the fastest in Earth's 4.5-billion-year history and, unlike prior extinctions, is mainly the result of human activity and not of natural phenomena.

- Scientists rate biodiversity loss as a more serious environmental problem than the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, or pollution and contamination.

- Scientists overwhelmingly believe that we must act now to address the biodiversity crisis. The majority of scientists believe the crisis could be averted by a stronger stance by policymakers and governments and by individuals making changes in their daily lives.

- Scientists believe some of the most important effects of this dramatic species loss are:

-- Serious impairment of the environment's ability to recover from natural and human-induced disasters.

-- Destruction of the natural systems that purify the world's air and water.

-- Reduction of the potential for the discovery of new medicines.

-- Increased flooding, drought, and other environmental disasters.

-- Substantial contribution to the degradation of the world's economies, thereby weakening the social and political stability of nations across the globe (AMNH, 1999).

It's Not Too Late . . . Yet

The widespread ignorance to the issue would seem to indicate imminent failure - an inevitable loss of so many of Earth's precious plant and animal life as the result of human manipulation and human disinterest. However, as indicated in the poll, scientists believe that much of the threat can be avoided through governmental action (both monetary and legislative), as well as individual efforts within the home. Charitable contributions, recycling, and recognizing the criticality of maintaining (and nurturing) the existence of other species are only a few examples of how the average citizen can participate in conservation efforts, which, in the end, is not only important for the animals in question, but also for ourselves. In Last Chance to See, Mark Carwardine puts it this way:

. . . Conservation is very much in tune with our own survival. Animals and plants provide us with life-saving drugs and food, they pollinate crops and provide important ingredients for many industrial processes. Ironically, it is often not the big and beautiful creatures, but the ugly and less dramatic ones, that we need most (Adams & Carwardine, 1990).


By ignoring eco-interdependence and biodiversity, humankind, in a sense, shoots itself in the foot. And, once hobbled, there is no recovery. It is said that what separates humans from the "lesser" creatures of the planet is rational cognition. It would be sad then, indeed, if the living abundance and natural beauty of Earth is someday lost through the irrational acts of its only thinking beings.

Post Mortem

I had originally intended for the previous paragraph to be the final words of this essay, but after re-reading it, I felt there were a few more things I wanted to say. I've spent the last two months attending ecology classes and, ironically enough, the experience has put me into a more spiritual plane of thinking. I've learned of (and witnessed) so many of the miracles of nature over the last eight weeks; as a result, now, more than ever, I firmly believe that the wonders I have seen and read about are a deliberate plan by some "higher power" - that these amazing phenomena could not have come about by some cold, cosmic accident but, rather, were created with loving foresight and Divine intent.

I've also learned that humankind seems to have lost the ability to appreciate the gift that life - ALL LIFE! - truly is, and if I take anything away from these classes I have attended, I hope it is the knowledge that the time has come for myself and my fellow humans to stop taking for granted what we have so benevolently been given. Perhaps this way I can pass along to my own children the understanding that change begins with the individual, and that the small efforts at conservation we undertake in the home can add up to a big (and positive) difference for the entire world in the long run.

Otherwise, we will remain patrons to the worst, most sinful kind of destruction: the destroyers who destroy all things . . . including ourselves.

Works Cited

Adams, Douglas and Mark Carwardine.1990. Last chance to See. Ballantine Books, NY. ix + 218 pp.

AMNH. "National Survey Reveals Biodiversity Crisis." 1999. Online. Available:
. American Museum of Natural History.

Warrick, J. 1998. "Mass Extinctions Underway, Majority of Biologists Say". Online. Available: Washington Post, April 21: A4.




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