Tag Archives: extinction

The End of Life as We Know It

As an innately curious person, I read a lot: the Washington Post (all of it), excerpts from the New York Times and other news publications (courtesy of Apple iPhone) and, of course, many books. The books include much fiction, history and science. The history informs my understanding of the world in general, the fiction moves me in mysterious ways and the science … the science stuns and often frightens me.

I am currently plowing through Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, subtitled The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, by Lisa Randall, the Baird Professor of Science at Harvard, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and on and on. She studies “theoretical particle physics and cosmology.” Professor Randall has a PhD from Harvard University and has held professorships at MIT and Princeton University. She has received honorary degrees from Brown University, Duke University, Bard College, and the University of Antwerp.

So, you might say, what’s this obscenely smart woman got to do with me or the “end of life as we know it?” Here is what.

Chapter 11 of Dark Matter is entitled “Extinctions;” it explains the five major mass extinctions that have been documented through the Earth’s roughly 4.5 billion-year existence, following the emergence of the first life (as revealed by fossils aged 3.5 billion years old). Chapter 11 has a subsection called “A Sixth Extinction?” I will not go on and on about this; rather, I will just set out some of the facts supporting Prof. Randall’s “very disturbing speculation” about what is happening right now to our planet, the only home humans will likely ever have.

During the past 500 years, 80 species of mammals, out of less than 6,000, have gone extinct.

That rate of mammal extinction is 16 times normal – in the last century the rate has increased by 32 times.

In the past century, amphibians have become extinct at a rate almost 100 times higher than before – 41 percent more are threatened now.

Extinction of bird species in the last century are higher than average by 20 times.

Changes in environmental factors now are similar to those that occurred during the Permian-Triassic Extinction some 250 million years ago.

Prof. Randall believes, as do almost all knowledgeable and qualified scientists around the world, that “Human influence is almost certainly largely to blame for the recent diversity loss.” Dark Matter (PB ed. 186)

80 percent of North American large animals were driven to extinction when Europeans arrived here.

These dramatic effects occur from a combination of pollution, land clearing that destroys habitat, overfishing, ocean acidification, species invasion and homogenization of animal populations.

Prof. Randall concludes the chapter with these observations:

Even if new species do emerge or conditions ultimately improve, a dramatically altered world is unlikely to be good for us as a species…. Life has evolved with delicate balancing mechanisms. It is not clear how many of these can be altered without dramatically changing the ecosystem and life on the planet. You would think we would have considerably more selfish concern for our fate – especially when so many such losses can most likely be prevented. After all, unlike the creatures 66 million years ago whose fate was determined by an errant meteoroid, humans today should have the capacity to see what is coming. [Dark Matter, PB ed. 188]