Wednesday, March 06, 2013

New Scientist: Is Extinction Really Such a Bad Thing?

A new exhibit at London's Natural History Museum asks just that question and concludes that, no, it is not.  Shaoni Bhattacharya at The New Scientist's Culture Lab writes:
The five mass extinctions in Earth's history wiped out swathes of life, but out of the devastation new species rose - shaped and honed by evolution - to inherit the Earth. More than 99 per cent of species that ever lived are now dead, and the exhibition hammers home the point that extinction drives evolution, which results in life in all its wondrous forms.

But it tempers this message strongly with a second sobering one: human actions are causing extinctions in a way never before seen. "If we don't do anything about it, make no mistake - it will hugely affect the world we live in," says Adrian Lister, a palaeontologist at the museum whose work on the extinct Irish elk forms part of the exhibition. "It would take the biosphere millions of years to recover."

It's not all doom, though. There are upbeat stories on display - animals we drove to the brink but then saved through conservation efforts: the Californian condor, the Arabian oryx, and China's Pere David's deer.
We have many, many tales of extinction in our own "bush." The robust australopithecines, who got out-competed by early Homo and the Neandertals come to mind.  The case of the Neandertals is peculiar, however, because it looks like they interbred with modern humans before they got gene-swamped.  Regardless, it is out of their stock and those like them that we came.

As far as conservation goes, I certainly hope we learn to understand how important it is to have our great apes around. 

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