Biologist argues that we don’t need to save endangered species because extinction is “natural”

UPDATE: Apparently Pyron has rethought his position, saying that he “failed to make his views sufficiently clear and coherent” and “succumbed to a temptation to sensationalize parts of my argument.” He also faults himself for not running the piece by his George Washington University colleagues, which is pretty much inexcusable given its message. His mea culpa, “Biodiversity conservation is urgent and important,  now and in the future“, appears on his GWU lab page, and pretty much takes back what he said in the Post—well, sorta. In the end, he claims that he was misunderstood, that the title and subtitle weren’t chosen by him (that’s surely true), and that his intentions should now “be judged by pointing to his scientific research”, which is “steeped in biodiversity discovery and analysis, with many publications on direct conservation topics and many more to come on the global threats affecting reptiles and amphibians.” Well, we didn’t have his c.v. in hand when we read his piece.

The thing is, the title and subtitle accurately mirror the content of Pyron’s original article, whose point is pretty damn clear. To say that he didn’t accurately express what he thought is either disingenuous or bespeaks a totally disordered viewpoint. I suspect that he just got so much flak from his colleagues at GWU and everywhere else that he decided he’d better back down. But then why did the Post publish this misguided piece in the first place, forcing me, and I suspect hundreds of others, to rebut it?

(Thanks to Grania and others for alerting me to Pyron’s walk-back.)

_____________________

The Washington Post “perspective” article below, by associate professor of biology R. Alexander Pyron at George Washington University (click on screenshot to read), has everyone’s knickers in a twist—as well it should. (There are now 3790 comments after the article, though I haven’t read any; the reaction I’ve seen has been on other online sites.)

Pyron’s argument is simple: extinction has been going on ever since the beginning of life, 99% or more of species that ever existed have gone extinct without leaving descendants, and even more have evolved into something very different; there have been lots of “natural” extinctions due to changes in earth’s climate, snowpack, and continental drift; the Earth always recovers from extinctions to produce a new crop of species; it will likewise recover from the latest anthropogenic “Sixth Extinction”; and even if the endangered species—or other species—go extinct, we’ll get some nifty new ones. The only species worth caring about, says Pyron, are those whose welfare impacts our own, like trees, food fish, and so on. And this is from a biologist.  I’ll give just a few quotes to show the tenor of his argument:

But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency. Extinction is the engine of evolution, 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 beings. Yes, we have altered the environment and, in doing so, hurt other species. This seems artificial because we, unlike other life forms, use sentience and agriculture and industry. But we are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural. Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.

. . . Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, the post-apocalyptic void had been filled by an explosion of diversity — modern mammals, birds and amphibians of all shapes and sizes.

This is how evolution proceeds: through extinction. The inevitability of death is the only constant in life, and 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived, as many as 50 billion, have already gone extinct. In 50 million years, Europe will collide with Africa and form a new supercontinent, destroying species (think of birds, fish and anything vulnerable to invasive life forms from another landmass) by irrevocably altering their habitats. Extinctions of individual species, entire lineages and even complete ecosystems are common occurrences in the history of life. The world is no better or worse for the absence of saber-toothed tigers and dodo birds and our Neanderthal cousins, who died off as Homo sapiens evolved. (According to some studies, it’s not even clear that biodiversity is suffering. The authors of another recent National Academy of Sciences paper point out that species richness has shown no net decline among plants over 100 years across 16,000 sites examined around the world.)

Pyron has a remarkably anthropocentric view, but justifies it by saying that “we are a part of the biosphere”, and thus our actions are natural and therefore not to be criticized:

There is no return to a pre-human Eden; the goals of species conservation have to be aligned with the acceptance that large numbers of animals will go extinct. Thirty to 40 percent of species may be threatenedwith extinction in the near future, and their loss may be inevitable. But both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species. We don’t depend on polar bears for our survival, and even if their eradication has a domino effect that eventually affects us, we will find a way to adapt. The species that we rely on for food and shelter are a tiny proportion of total biodiversity, and most humans live in — and rely on — areas of only moderate biodiversity, not the Amazon or the Congo Basin.

He makes other arguments as well: introduced species sometimes do reduce “native diversity”, but “productivity—the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem—frequently increases”.  About 140 new reptile species have been introduced in Florida, but they haven’t driven any old species extinct.  He even argues that we don’t try to conserve the “biodiversity” that includes Ebola virus, and yellow fever, so we’re being hypocritical!

Well, as I always say, we can’t simply dismiss people like this by simply saying they’re wrong. We have to muster counterarguments. I will muster a few, since I haven’t paid much attention (on purpose) to the arguments of others.  Here’s my view of why Pyron is misguided:

1.) There is no guarantee that the Earth will recover from this new anthropogenic extinction in a way that guarantees the return of biodiversity. As we chop down the rain forests and convert forests and diverse ecosystems into farms and pastures, the resulting monocultures may be productive, but they’ll be boring. Why is productivity (and I don’t mean just food productivity) privileged over diversity (see below)? Further, destroying natural ecosystems, if you take Pyron’s anthropocentric view (it’s not my view), can drive to extinction animals and plants that are of potential aid to humans: plants that provide medical cures, clues about animals that can help us live longer and healthier lives, and so on.

2.) With the present destruction of natural habitat, and the possibilities of nuclear war and a big change in Earth’s climate due to global warming, we are making it much less likely that Earth will recover its previous biodiversity. Yes, we’re a species, but we’re the only species on the planet with the capacity to not just destroy every other species, but denude the entire planet itself.

3.) Biodiversity should be valued for two reasons other than human welfare: its intrinsic interest and beauty, and its scientific value exclusive of how it could help H. sapiens.  There’s simply something more enthralling and moving about a pristine rain forest than there is in a logged-over pasture. Which would you rather look at: a field of corn growing away, or a sea full of interesting creatures and a forest full of insects, plants, birds, and monkeys? Which would you rather look at: a blank canvas, or an all-black canvas, or a Leonardo?  Further, driving species extinct is like going through a library, destroying half the books and saying, “Yes, but new books will be written to replace them.” That is, each species is an evolutionary palimpsest of its past, telling us something about ecology and evolution, and buttressing our sense of wonder and our knowledge. That knowledge is good in and of itself, for we are a species of curiosity and wonder. And each time a species goes extinct, we lose a chance to learn about it, its ecology, and its evolutionary past. We may be able to recover its ancestry if we save its DNA, but we’ll still irrevocably lose a lot of other stuff. At least right now, we couldn’t suss out the remarkable courtship behavior of the birds of paradise simply from their DNA sequence.

4.) Our actions that drive species extinct often cause suffering of animals; why is human suffering so privileged that we can injure other species with complete impunity? Yes, some species may go extinct simply because they can’t find a mate, and the population becomes so small it dies out from demographic fluctuations. That kind of extinction doesn’t cause much suffering. But other extinctions cause pain and suffering as animals’ homes are destroyed, they are killed by humans (fires, bullets, etc.), or the climate becomes intolerable.

Yes, mass extinctions have happened before, and extinction often causes pain, regardless of whether it’s caused by our own species or physical forces. But if we abet it, we’re increasing the amount of suffering among sentient beings, and that is a net bad. How much increase in human well being does it take to offset, say, the death of hundreds of giraffes, gorillas, and elephants shot by hunters? What is the calculus here? According to Pyron, animals have no value re suffering, and humans have infinite value in comparison.

I think Pyron fails to realize that the depredations of humans aren’t equivalent to the ice sheets that once covered the world. Ice sheets go away; we won’t—unless we manage to drive ourselves extinct first.

In the end, the whole planet will be burnt to a crisp when the Sun expands in about five billion years. But until then, and assuming we’re here for a while, we should do our best to preserve those features of the world that give us not just joy but knowledge that is an intrinsic good. In one way, destroying species is like burning every work of art in the world.  Yes, there will be new art—there always is—but isn’t it nice to go see an exhibit of van Gogh or Rembrandt?

I’m sure readers can come up with other counterarguments (or support of Pyron, if that’s the way you feel).

56 Comments

  1. Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    We live in the present, we don’t live in the far flung future when new species will emerge. My life is diminished by the inability to enjoy the beauty and magnificence of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

  2. Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Possibly covered by your other arguments, but one thing that would argue against Pyron is that we don’t have a crystal ball. We can’t see what loss of biodiversity will mean for us until it happens. Unintended consequences. Functional, healthy ecosystems should only be messed with by us with extreme care because we simply can’t see all outcomes and if there is one inviolable Law of Nature, it is Murphy’s.

  3. Jack Treml
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I think the argument for diversity is ultimately that diversity brings flexibility to the environment – flexibility in recovering from insult that might result in the loss of an ecosystem or even a species. A diverse planet can absorb these challenges and recover in ways that a less varied planet cannot.
    Indeed, there is value in the assortment of varieties of tomatoes, not just because a world with only one variety is less rich, but in that one variety is more likely to generate a single overwhelming threat (lacking the herd immunity of diversity), but is also less likely to survive when challenged by such a threat.
    Without trying, nature has developed a system that ensures its own survival. Just as species are more likely to survive when there is diversity amongst its individuals, all of life is more likely to survive when there is a diversity of species.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    His playbook seems pretty close to that of the far right Christians. Only we matter and to hell with everything else. Everything is here for our amusement. The attitude of the big ego. Drill baby drill.

    • Mark R.
      Posted December 1, 2017 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      Dominionist doctrine for sure.

      • Filippo
        Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        It would seem fair to say that private corporate tyrannies, Masters of Mankind of whatever sectarian or secular stripe (viewing flesh-and-blood human beings as “resources” and “capital”), are no less dominionist.

  5. KD33
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    This is just dominion over the animals with a Ph.D. I’ll let you do the heavy lifting. My argument is that Pyron is an idiot and his anthropocentricity is horrific.

  6. Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that Pyron’s argument is just the appeal-to-nature fallacy.

  7. Jake Sevins
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    My reaction:

    (1) Why are humans a special case? Shouldn’t we also be subject to Pyron’s arguments for evolution? In that case, he should welcome the chance that we’ll be replaced by AI and he can take solace that they are our evolutionary descendants. I wonder if he takes this view?

    (2) Sure we don’t _need_ 90% of the plants, animals and insects that current exist. But would what joy would be in life without them?

    (Jerry actually makes both of these points, more or less, in his response.)

  8. jorgensen28ryan
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    It appears he has posted a follow-up. It can be found at this link.

    http://www.colubroid.org/

    • Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I’ve just read that and will put an update on the main post. Thanks.

    • Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Hmmmm. Methinks Dr Pyron is upset at getting caught with his pants down – his colleagues seem to have run himover the coals. He is right to be pissed off about the headlines but the rest of his explanation is a bit hard to swallow.

      I’ll re-read both pieces when I’ve time -I may very well have missed something and my skepticism about his clarification could be misplaced.

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    This excellent critique makes the point that this man holds the Robert Griggs chair and “Robert F. Griggs was a botanist who led a 1915 National Geographic Society expedition to observe the aftermath of the Katmai volcanic eruption in Alaska. He became so passionate about the beauty and biodiversity of the affected area that his advocacy helped it become a national park”.

    Read the rest of the article as well.

    https://louisproyect.org/2017/11/27/alex-pyron-the-evolutionary-biologist-indifferent-to-extinction/

  10. Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    How does this version sound: We don’t need to save terminally ill children, because illnesses are natural, pruning the weak is part of evolution?
    Hm, sounds terrible for me.

    Evolution is not a moral command or a law we must obey consciously. It is simply a natural phenomenon we should understand for many reasons, including to make decisions that impact our environment.

  11. Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you — your points about preserving the “art” of other species and not incurring animal suffering being the most convincing for me.

    I wonder — “denuding” earth — would that even be possible? Just as a thought problem — could we extinguish all life on earth, if we wanted to? Every last living molecule? So that for life to reoccur here the entire process would have to start over? I dont know, but I doubt it. And if anything at all were left, then evolution would surely do its thing and great diversity would follow.

    If there is a way to actually denude the planet, then let’s at least not do that.

  12. chris
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Cane toads and wolves.

    Cane toads were introduced into Australia to eliminate a pest. That didn’t work out so well. On the other hand, wolves, having been deliberately eliminated from Yellowstone Park were subsequently reintroduced and that seems to be working out extremely well.

    We don’t understand complex ecosystems anywhere near well enough to know which species are necessary for either our survival or the survival of life on the planet.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 3:10 am | Permalink

      If it were possible to reverse that and render cane toads extinct, would that be a good thing? I think it would.

      There are some species we would be better off without. German wasps for example.

      I argued (a while back) that if I could snap my fingers and wipe out every german wasp on the planet, I’d do it without a second thought. The flak I got was mostly on the lines of “But you can’t exterminate a species, that’s just wrong” – but it didn’t explain why. I think we know enough about the ecology of german wasps – which are an invasive menace everywhere they’ve spread – to say with adequate confidence that many other threatened species would benefit enormously from the absence of that one pest.

      I absolutely applaud efforts to save the kakapo or the kea or other endangered species – even though, by so doing, we’re interfering with the ‘balance of nature’ (something we do anyway, just by existing, whether we mean to or not) – so if we can actively favour some species, it seems to me just blinkered to argue that we shouldn’t eliminate some pests.

      cr

  13. johnw
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    How does a biologist who studies amphibian phlyogenetics have such a utilitarian and nihilistic attitude towards other species? Such attitudes are not rare, quite common actually among the general public imho, but in a scientist, if sincere, I find it very bizarre. Kind of like the few climate change denying atmospheric scientists. The cognitive dissonance would I think be oppressive.

    • Lars
      Posted December 1, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      He’s already been quoted with approval by Ronald Bailey.
      If you ever find yourself being quoted with approval by Ronald Bailey on any sort of environmental issue, it’s a good sign that you need to undertake a radical rethink of all of your assumptions.
      So yes, I expect we’ll be hearing of Pyron for many years to come. The AEC and the Heartland Institute and their lying fellow-travellers will pull him out whenever biodiversity issues arise. Just like that tiresome tick Bjorn Lomborg.

    • Posted December 2, 2017 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      Despair, I guess? Amphibians are the most vulnerable to extinction compared with other vertebrates.

  14. yazikus
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    In the end, the whole planet will be burnt to a crisp when the Sun expands in about five billion years.

    Wasn’t this Gary Johnson’s reason for eschewing environmental efforts and regulations?

  15. peepuk
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    If we are serious about bio-diversity, maybe we should follow Pentti Linkola’s (a Finish somewhat controversial thinker) advice.

    He considers humans as the cancer of the world.

    He has suggested that “the great inhabited centres of the globe” should be attacked with “limited” nuclear strikes or with “bacteriological or chemical” agents by “some trans-national body like the UN or by some small group equipped with sophisticated technology and bearing responsibility for the whole world.

    I have to admit that I’m not that serious about bio-diversity and also too lazy for action of any kind.

    • Mark R.
      Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

      I too consider humans as a metaphorical cancer of the world, and Linkola reminds me of the plot line for Gillian’s “12 Monkeys” where a scientist decides to create a human extinction plague to save the planet.

      The suggestion of limited nuclear strikes and other ways to cull the masses is simply unthinkable. If we don’t get our shit together, the planet will cull the masses regardless of malicious human intervention. And when we stress the climate, we stress ourselves. The simple fact that all living creatures on this beautiful planet are linked together is all that cuts through the blather…can we all shine on?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 2, 2017 at 1:04 am | Permalink

        This begs the question of who would we be saving the planet for? If humans go extinct, who’s left to care?

        For all we know there may be billions of life-bearing planets in the universe. What makes this one interesting is that it has people on it capable of doing science and appreciating the value of biodiversity. Take that away and Earth becomes just another mindless, scum-infested ball of rock.

        • peepuk
          Posted December 2, 2017 at 7:02 am | Permalink

          “who would we be saving the planet for (a)”

          For the happy few. We have already some super filthy rich people who could make this a reality.

          “who would we be saving the planet for? (b)”

          This illustrates my point; nobody really cares seriously about bio diversity (including me).

          “Earth becomes just another mindless, scum-infested ball of rock”

          This will happen with or without humans; probably faster with humans.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted December 2, 2017 at 11:52 am | Permalink

            With humans there’s at least a chance that life could spread beyond the Earth and survive into the indefinite future. Without humans, there’s no such chance, and Earth life dies with the planet.

            • peepuk
              Posted December 3, 2017 at 4:33 am | Permalink

              That’s true.

  16. Steve Zeoli
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Death is natural. Still we pull people from burning buildings because it is the right thing to do.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      That is, when the Masters of Mankind have not ordered fire escape doors locked.

  17. Jorge Rojas
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    While being extinct as a specie is not bad for anybody (even to homo sapiens) what is wrong is to cause unnecessary pain to sentient beings. If you tell me that in order to avoid suffering to humans we need to cause to pain to other animals (with the direct consecuence of their extintion) we should measure the pain avoided to human with the pain caused to animal, without taking on account the fact of the extintion.
    But most cases of animal extintion by human hand are not to reduce human suffering but to increase unnecessary pleasure for some. An example is the harm we do with global warming which is caused mainly by richer nations and not in favor of the poorer of the world.

  18. Posted December 1, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  19. Posted December 1, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Anthropocentric arrogance not unexpected.
    We, the self imposed rulers of a blue planet tied to our deep seated past are very capable of showing intelligence is just a word.
    What we could end up doing is what i liken to what cancer has done to many, we could finish this planet off and its creatures, before it’s time.
    Nature is resilient but who and what gets to stick around though is an open question and for all we know, we won’t provide the final answer, (NO! how could that be)but maybe play a hand as we wern’t paying attention.

    A passing alien comments:
    “Humans the scourge that killed off a planets’ biodiversity hence their own well being and wonder, what a miserable lot they ended up being”

    • Filippo
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      “Anthropocentric arrogance not unexpected.”

      As Hitch said (of greed when commenting on Ayn Rand’s writings), “Some [human] characteristics do not require further reinforcement.”

  20. dogugotw
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Now, see, I thought he’d written the biological equivalent of ‘A Modest Proposal’. Too bad he didn’t think to use that as his response/excuse.

  21. ploubere
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Yes, in an objective sense, everything is natural and part of nature, including the destructive behavior of humans. But we’re aware of what we’re doing and we know that we don’t have to continue destroying the environment, and we already have technology to alleviate a great deal of the destruction. So why not use it? Pyron’s argument is unnecessarily fatalistic.

  22. araujo
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    https://www.protruthpledge.org/

  23. Monika
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Pyron seems to forget that no species is an island. Removing species from a web of food, because we don’t *need* it, can result in the collapse/massive change of an ecosystem: i.e. the Chineses effing stupid idea of killing all sparrows.

    Deforestation of tropical rainforests dumps a lot of CO2 into our atmosphere, not to mention the loss of potential useful plants and animals, and of course the loss of beauty.

    What a bleak world view!

  24. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Biodiversity should be valued for two reasons other than human welfare: its intrinsic interest and beauty, and its scientific value exclusive of how it could help H. sapiens.

    The notion of intrinsic interest and beauty seems problematic; can nature be intrinsically interesting or beautiful without conscious beings to witness it? So even these qualities would seem to be measured in terms of their value to humans.

    That said, Pyron’s anthropocentrism fails even in its own terms. The fact is that we have effectively taken control of planetary biodiversity, for better or worse. We can exercise that control thoughtfully, or we can do it heedlessly. Pyron (in his original piece) seems to be arguing for heedlessness.

  25. rickflick
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I read the article by Pyron when it first appeared in the Post. I was pretty perplexed by his arguments. It almost sounded like he was feeling out the Trump administration for a job helping them stick it to liberals and tree huggers. I wondered why the Post let this guy vent like that. I’m happy to see some pushback.

  26. Charles Sawicki
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Pyron’s argument doesn’t take humans into account. I’m all for preserving what biodiversity we have left, however this seems very unlikely to succeed in the long run (say 1000 years). Human lives and profit will always be more important than survival of other species. Malthus was right in his basic conclusion, just off in his timing. Severe human population control is the only way to insure long term survival of the natural world. Unfortunately, this course is very unlikely and Earth is already overpopulated.
    Why will this extinction be totally different from earlier extinctions? Of course, it’s us. Our intelligence and technologies will probably let us destroy most ecosystems on Earth before we pay for our stupidity. Significant recovery would require that we stop messing up the world. About the only hope for most species is that a natural or manmade disaster reduces surviving humans to a small population with little technology that respects other species. Massive release of methane from methane clathrates in the arctic regions and oceans, producing runaway greenhouse warming in the next centuries seems to be on schedule. This could, at least, sharply reduce populations. Would we learn to be more careful? Seems unlikely.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      “Human lives and profit will always be more important . . . Malthus was right in his basic conclusion, just off in his timing . . . Earth is already overpopulated.”

      One would be hard-pressed to get certain Masters-of-Mankind capitalists to admit that the Earth is overpopulated.

  27. Posted December 1, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Next up: We are all going to die one day anyway, so there is no reason to persecute murder.

    Logic, eh?

  28. Posted December 1, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    “why is human suffering so privileged that we can injure other species with complete impunity? ”

    Why can you ask like that? – You do not seem to realize what it would mean to give up this principle that human suffering always has to be privileged over the suffering of animals: it would mean a fundamental departure from humanity.
    Anyone who seriously questions why human suffering always outweighs the suffering of animals shows cruel thinking towards all people.
    If you believe that this principle can be abandoned, you should step forward and declare that you are prepared to sacrifice your life and those of your loved ones to avert animal suffering.
    Do you still support this principle under this premise? I doubt that.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Feel free to state your position on humans’ impunity and inhumanity toward other humans over the ages.

  29. Lars
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    If you look over Pyron’s publication record, he’s been very productive in exploring and explaining biodiversity. Now he sees nothing wrong with pulling the rope up after him. If we followed his prescription, someone with his abilities and interests born a century from now would have so much less scope for exercising their talents.
    I find his attitude even more incomprehensible when you consider that he must know – he’s evidently no idiot – that the human project, as we know it and probably will only ever will know it, is isolated by huge stretches of time and space. The distances we’d have to cover to reach any possible extrasolar world carrying a biosphere comparable to Earth’s will likely always be insurmountable. And the gulfs of time required to fill in the gaps left by the extinction rates we see today are epochal, on the human scale, an insuperable barrier to any meaningful communication between now and then. What we see around us is, in all likelihood, all we’ll ever have; best keep it as undamaged as possible.

    • johnw
      Posted December 1, 2017 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

      Agreed.

      Looks like he’s tried to walk it back, but I think those who say we’ll hear from this guy again are spot on.

  30. Posted December 1, 2017 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    +There are now 3790 comments after the article…”

    Why am I am not surprised?

    Pyron makes a rational argument based on science as he understands the science.

    The responses are mostly based on philosophy without being especially rational. There are also some economic arguments based on improbable scenarios.

    Pyron’s detractors do not seem to advance much in the way of scientific argument. If there were any scientific arguments, I would expect mention of the differential extinction rates in mega-fauna relative to all fauna and the differential rates in predominance of cultivated relative to wild varieties of plant species plus the dominance of a small number of plant species in regions formerly known for the multiplicity of species.

    Odd that I woke up this morning thinking about my Amerindian ancestors marrying Europeans and thereby changing the lifestyles of our branch of the family. We enjoy better diets, health, education and longer life span, dramatically different from what we would have enjoyed had we stayed with the bands of indigenous people that still dot North America.

    If I were to apply the reductionist approach of Dawkins, I would say that in North America, Amerindian genes have multiplied several times compared to 500 years ago by hitch-hiking on human organisms introduced from Europe. But I would fear being attacked by cultural anthropologists who would prefer to preserve native cultures in reservations. Or by the indigenous people who live on reservations and wish to raise their children in traditional cultures.

    Ditto everything above for languages and their rate of disappearance, probably mainly a function of lower cost of travel beyond 50 kilometers from place of birth.

    We refuse to disband the reservations and not because we are anthropologists with conflicts of interest. We protect species and not because we are biologists with conflicts of interest.

    Our reasons for supporting the right of indigenous people to live on reservations and for protecting species are political and philosophical. We cannot refuse indigenous parents who wish to raise children according to traditional lifestyles. Canada tried it and had to admit failure and pay compensation.

    Canada, the US and Mexico are all about 80% urban. In all three countries more than half the land could be returned to the wild without having much impact on the GDP. Governments could gradually buy land to keep in land banks so that in 50 years much of the land could be returned to the wild. A big proportion of the US western states and most of Canada has never been privately owned.

    The reasons we do not return most of North America to the wild are political, including the belief that all land should be privately owned and that people should have the right to buy land and settle anywhere. The political reasons are bound up with philosophy, theology, morality, economics and finance.

    In my opinion, biologists and other scientists should distinguish between scientific arguments and political-philosophical arguments. In my opinion, Dr Pyron is being attacked for being too strict about the science and for trying to untangle science from policy.

    Possibly, Pyron needs to disentangle himself further from policy instead of retreating under the force of ad hominem attacks. I am strengthened in this belief by the fact that his detractors have presented little or no scientific support for their opposition to Pyron’s arguments.

    One approach might be to discriminate more precisely the species and varieties to be protected. As it is now, activists have argued in the courts for protection of regional varieties.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 3, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      ” . . . my Amerindian ancestors marrying Europeans and thereby changing the lifestyles . . . better diets, health, education and longer life span, dramatically different from what we would have enjoyed had we stayed with the bands of indigenous people that still dot North America.”

      Do I correctly gather that you have the same view of slavery in the Americas? And ditto the 400 years of European domination of the Philippines, and atrocities committed by the U.S. there after the Spanish-American War? Have you any problem with Andrew Jackson’s forcing the Cherokees on their “Trail of Tears” march?

      Or am I being too political/philosophical, and not sufficiently scientific, about these matters?

      • Posted December 4, 2017 at 4:36 am | Permalink

        Filippo, “Or am I being too political/philosophical, and not sufficiently scientific, about these matters?”

        I don’t think any branch of biological science informs your comment. Regarding the historical and political science points you raise:

        My Amerindian ancestors all originated in Quebec and some in our branch of the family moved to Ontario. Both locations in Canada.

        Long before Canada became a nation, the British recognized the Six Nations tribes as equivalent to nation states. My Mohawk ancestors became allies of the British against both the French and the Americans.
        Treaties signed into law by Queen Victoria are still upheld by Canadian courts as valid law.

        Following the Cypress Hills Massacre of Assiniboine people by American outlaws in 1873, Canada established the Northwest Mounted Police (Mounties) to protect the western Indian tribes. From 1876 Sitting Bull was given sanctuary in Canada by James Walsh the Mounty commander, until sitting Bull returned to the US in 1881. He was killed while resisting arrest.

        “Do I correctly gather that you have the same view of slavery…?”

        I have worked in East Africa and in Nigeria where I observed that few indigenous people in either country have anywhere near the level of health and welfare of the descendants of the African slaves transported to America centuries ago.

        While the “back to Africa” movement was strong, Canada was an alternative destination via the Underground Railway, which was neither underground nor a railway. It was an escape route through Ohio with a terminus in Ontario. During the War of 1812, American troops returning from Canada reported that some of these freed slaves became “Black men in red coats”.

        I wish my cousins who still live on reservations could enjoy the same level of health and welfare that we in our branch of the family enjoy. But a person living with one foot in a paleolithic culture chooses a traditional lifestyle and sacrifices health and welfare.

        The rest of society could choose to provide food and housing and services free of charge. But that would be for philosophical, political and economic reasons. In my opinion, biological science has little to contribute to the discussion.

        • Filippo
          Posted December 4, 2017 at 5:52 am | Permalink

          “I have worked in East Africa and in Nigeria where I observed that few indigenous people in either country have anywhere near the level of health and welfare of the descendants of the African slaves transported to America centuries ago.”

          So much for the positive, ameliorative effects of European colonies in Africa.

    • Posted January 26, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      + 1

  31. jhs
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    What does a stable future for human beings entail?

    So we are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural. Is Pyron saying that the consequences (e.g., $$$) of killing off a species are natural, but the consequences of conserving a species that we are not directly dependent are not? Not natural.

    I guess I again have hard time understanding the argument of “it is not natural.”

  32. J Cook
    Posted December 1, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Is this guy part of Trump’s circle of idiots… Strike that …f***ing morons

  33. naveen1941
    Posted December 2, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    There is a difference between man induced extinction and naturally occurring extinction. If humans are responsible for species extinction not promoted by nature, humans bear the responsibility to protect the endangered species.

    • Posted December 3, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      “There is a difference between man induced extinction and naturally occurring extinction.”

      Humans are not a counterpart to nature.
      They are nature, just like animals and plants and they work and are subject to the same physical laws.

  34. Paul Dymnicki
    Posted December 4, 2017 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Ok save the elephants but let us not kid ourselves that Mother Nature bothered.


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