Ever since humans have been around, we’ve been displacing, killing, and causing species of all kinds to go extinct. Many large, potential beasts of burden in the Americas? Gone because of rapid expansions of hunter-gatherers in the area. Woolly mammoths? Extinct, in no small part, due to their hunting from humans. The famous dodo birds? Succumbed to extinction due to human-introduced animals. The Tasmanian wolf? Another gone due to human expansion and hunting. Point being, we don’t have to look far back in history to see the consequences of our presence here on Earth. But the real question is: is all this a genuine concern, or should we just continue our ways?
The term gets thrown around a lot, but it is only useful if it is used precisely. An endangered species, according to the WWF, is a “species considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.” The level of endangerment falls across a spectrum ranging from least concerned, least threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, to extinct (with an extra category for an insufficient amount of data). According to the IUCN Redlist, more than 30,000 species are threatened by extinction. And of all the species in the world, thousands go extinct every year according to the WWF. However, one should note that due to the sheer number of species undiscovered, this is a rough estimate. The exact amount may range from, at the lowest, a few hundred, to upwards of tens of thousands each year. What we do know is that the current extinction rate is thousands of times higher than the natural baseline.
Why should humanity be so selective about what kinds of species survive? Isn’t it a little arbitrary to place so much value in an organism solely for its species? If the natural consequences of human population growth and progress are that the weakest species die off, that’s an easy price to pay. We shouldn’t bite our nails over every single endangered species. Making sure we don’t destroy all the ecosystems and create universal animal extinction is a good thing to aim for, sure. But no one actually cares about a bug species that dies off - it’s all an irrational emotional response we created to feel bad about ourselves. Evolution works how it does for a reason, and there have been plenty of factors that determined certain species’ success throughout history, humans just happen to be the primary factor. If a certain wildlife species cannot adapt, that’s merely evolution working its wonders.
Like after any other impactful event, life rebounds. By spending billions on protecting endangered species, we are inadvertently slowing our own progress and potential happiness, which, in the long run, does no good. Evolution works on a long-time scale. Trying to break down the ebb and flow of species’ survival to a human understanding is futile. Instead, consider extinction events as just another bump along the long and hilly road that is life, rather than some immediate catastrophe. Life evolves and moves on, and, eventually, humans will be swallowed up by it all too.
Most agree that humanity certainly has an obligation at least to itself, if not other feeling things, and perhaps even abstract concepts such as nature itself. In addition to this, humans are unlike any other natural force that spurred on natural selection to the extreme. Humans can think and plan and feel, and we can, and should, use these faculties for good. Refusing to change our ways because we claim ourselves to be just another force of nature is almost barbaric, for it invokes a “might makes right” attitude. Humans have all the power now over the animal kingdom? Good! We should use it to do better, and build a world we can be proud of, not one for which we are ashamed.
And taking a more selfish perspective, the consequences of such rapid extinction rates means a more delicate ecosystem that we must survive in. So, by behaving selfishly, we are inadvertently endangering ourselves in the process. Everyone knows how the consequences of deforestation have led to global warming. However, not as many know that the phytoplankton, which produces the majority of the world’s oxygen, has gone into a decline of about 40% since 1950, according to Boyce and Colleagues from Dalhousie University. Similarly, dire consequences of our unbarred consumption and expansion can be seen in nearly every facet of life. But at the end of the day, the fact is that we are unnecessarily killing off organisms that we have the choice to save, this alone is morally contemptible.
While both sides have interesting points, they both cannot be correct. And, depending on the answer society fully accepts, the future of our world will shift drastically if we can come to act on our beliefs truly. Whether we let the consequences of our actions go on unabridged, or we take serious effort to stop the rapid rates of extinction, we’d first need to accept that position entirely. Because, at the moment, as a society, we seem to be stuck halfway between both arguments - a situation good for no one.
“Extinction Over Time.” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, naturalhistory.si.edu/education/teaching-resources/paleontology/extinction-over-time
“How Many Species Are We Losing?” WWF, wwf.panda.org/our_work/biodiversity/biodiversity/
“Learn More about Threatened and Endangered Species.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Aug. 2019, www.epa.gov/endangered-species/learn-more-about-threatened-and-endangered-species
“What Does 'Endangered Species' Mean?” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/pages/what-does-endangered-species-mean
Boyce, D., Lewis, M. & Worm, B. Global phytoplankton decline over the past century. Nature 466, 591–596 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09268