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    I Wouldn't Worry About The Latest Mass Extinction Scare
    By Hank Campbell | March 8th 2011 03:40 PM | 24 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone...

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    You've seen it everywhere by now - Earth's sixth mass extinction: Is it almost here? and other articles discussing an article in Nature (471, 51–57 doi:10.1038/nature09678) claiming the end of the world is nigh.  

    Hey, I like to live in important times.  So do most people.  And something so important it has only happened 5 times in 540 million years, well that is really special.    But is it real? 

    Anthony Barnosky, integrative biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and first author of the paper, claims that if currently threatened species, those officially classed as critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable, actually went extinct, and that rate of extinction continued, the sixth mass extinction could arrive in 3-22 centuries.

    Wait, what??   That's a lot of helping verbs confusing what should be a fairly clear issue, if it were clear.

    If you know anything about species and extinction, you have already read one paragraph of my overview and seen the flaws in their model.   Taking a few extinct mammal species that we know about and then extrapolating that out to be extinction hysteria right now if we don't do something about global warming is not good science.   Worse, an integrative biologist is saying evolution does not happen.   Polar bears did not exist forever, they came into existence 150,000 years ago - because of the Ice Age.

    Greenpeace co-founder and ecologist Dr. Patrick Moore told a global warming skepticism site, “I quit my life-long subscription to National Geographic when they published a similar 'sixth mass extinction' article in February 1999. This [latest journal] Nature article just re-hashes this theme”  and "The fact that the study did make it through peer-review indicates that the peer review process has become corrupted.” 

    Well, how did it make it through peer review?   Read this bizarre justification of their methodology; "If you look only at the critically endangered mammals--those where the risk of extinction is at least 50 percent within three of their generations--and assume that their time will run out and they will be extinct in 1,000 years, that puts us clearly outside any range of normal and tells us that we are moving into the mass extinction realm."

    Well, greater extinctions occurred when Europeans visited the Americas and in a much shorter time.     And since we don't know how many species there are now, or have ever been, if someone makes a model and claims tens of thousands of species are going extinct today, that sets off cultural alarms.   It's not science, though.

    If only 1% of species have gone extinct in the groups we really know much about, that is hardly a time for panic, especially if some 99 percent of all species that have ever existed we don't know anything about because they...went extinct.   And we did not.

    It won't keep some researchers, and the mass media, from pushing the panic button.  Co-author Charles Marshall, also an integrative biologist at UC-Berkeley wants to keep the panic button fully engaged by emphasizing that the small number of recorded extinctions to date does not mean we are not in a crisis.   "Just because the magnitude is low compared to the biggest mass extinctions we've seen in half a billion years doesn't mean they aren't significant."

    It's a double negative, bad logic and questionable science, though.

    Comments

    vongehr
    "Well, how did it make it through peer review?"
    Yep - this is the question you ask often if something does not sit well with you. Maybe it is time to understand what peer review is really all about and get smarter about elitism and all that. I got another rejection just yesterday; that article has now been suppressed by the establishment for three years because it criticizes the methods of some big dicks and their friends. Welcome to real world science.
    But back to the subject of your post. There is another aspect that is totally neglected in this mass extinction scare. Due to the diversification of the environment, for example in cities or say in new "garbage" accumulations like the big patch in the ocean, there are many new ecological niches that give rise to new life forms that are never counted. If an animal takes advantage of such a new niche, all we hear is how bad it all is that this poor thing has to endure such a miserable life in our trash; we never hear a hurray for evolution and the potential start of a new species increasing bio diversity. People don't get that we animals are breathing the trash of plants. This is evolution, it goes on, regardless of political affiliations. Those who understand evolution properly would even count cars, robots, computer viruses, cell-phones, maybe even internet memes. We do not witness a mass extinction, we are witnessing an explosion of diversity through Darwinian evolution.
    Hank
    Yep - this is the question you ask often if something does not sit well with you.
    Of course, the downside to text is that verbal cues are lost.  Obviously I know how it got through peer review and I have no problem with the study (if you have access to Nature, I guess you can read it) because the researchers themselves say their methodology is making a lot of assumptions.  It's what is being done with it in the mass media that is a concern because that makes peer review look bad. 

    I agree that for biologists to fix species in time and then say whatever dies is bad and nothing new will arise is odd.
    vongehr
    "because the researchers themselves say their methodology is making a lot of assumptions.  It's what is being done with it in the mass media that is a concern because that makes peer review look bad."
    It is not only the mass media, it is the fact that if you get an unwelcome result without having the right "friends", you can admit your assumptions or even not have any crappy assumptions but good ones instead or whatever, you will not get through "peer" review and publish in nature.
    @Sascha, yes, you are right. But we may not be around to witness the flourishing of the new species.

    logicman
    A "mass extinction" event is characterized as a period during which at least 75% of the Earth's species die out in a geologically short interval of time.  In the past 540 million years, only five such mass extinction events have occurred, but according to a review by Barnosky et al. (2011) recently published in the journal Nature, there are signs that we may be entering a sixth such event.

    Source:
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/sixth-mass-extinction.html

    The key to what the authors are trying to project is in the definition of 'mass extinction'.

    Let us leave 'the usual suspects' to distort this into a claim that the authors claim that we are all going to die.

    The study suggests that we are witnessing species extinctions at a rate previously only arising during mass extinction events.  Given that we are directly and indirectly promoting these extinctions through our direct and indirect ecosystem unbalancing acts, we should be concerned.  Concerned, but not terrified.

    When a species becomes extinct, there are knock-on effects which affect other species.  The danger is that if we fail to do our biology lessons properly, we may just be yet another species that gets heavily knocked on.

    As to evolutionary compensatory mechanisms: I shudder to think that we may be committing mass suicide.  Perhaps in some millions of years, an evolved cockroach will excavate a glass ashtray and wonder if it was a device for burning biomass in honor of a deity.  Or maybe a creature beyond our imaginings will wonder what kind of snail left concrete trails all over the planet.
    Hank
    I get what you are saying but you are taking the conclusion as being valid and then justifying its causes - and I don't think their methodology lent itself to that.   When famed biologist Edward O. Wilson made the claim that 50,000 species were dying per year, there were the usual suspects who just went along with it because an expert said it, and then others who scratched their heads and wondered where that number came from.

    The answer then, as here, is really someone's computer.   They don't know what "normal" is for species extinction and their data was set too small to warrant the attention it has received (errr, I guess I am a culprit there too).  It would be like if I took 50 million years of core data, picked 10 data points and then projected a model into the future showing the atmosphere would improve if we pump more CO2 into it.  I can do it, if I pick the data the right way, but it wouldn't be good science.
    Gerhard Adam
    You mean sort of like taking the Drake equation and concluding that life on other planets was inevitable :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    logicman
    You mean sort of like taking the Drake equation and concluding that life on other planets was inevitable :)

    Or taking the Drake equation, putting a few minus signs in and concluding that life under the current government is impossible!

    Hank:  I hear you!
    Right wing bullshit.

    Hank
    Biologists are right wing when they talk about global warming??  I have to tell you, it is the first time anyone has made that claim.
    Oliver Knevitt
    Their methods of calculating diversity from fossils is... dubious, I would say.
    ...we first determined the last-occurrence records of Cenozoic mammals from the Paleobiology Database, and the last occurrences of Pleistocene and Holocene mammals from refs 6, 32, 33 and 89–97. We then used R-scripts (written by N.M.) to compute total diversity, number of extinctions, proportional extinction, and E/MSY (and its mean) for time-bins of varying duration. Cenozoic time bins ranged from 25 million to a million years. Pleistocene time bins ranged from 100,000 to 5,000 years, and Holocene time bins from 5,000 years to a year.
    One mammal fossil is going to vastly overrepresent their estimate of diversity with the size of those bins, and also because many groups are prone to throwing up Lazarus taxa. A couple of misplaced shrews could really mess things up, a bit like the hunt for the origin of the mammal orders, where we are clearly lacking most of the basal fossils but we know the origin must be earlier than it seems. It's OK for marine shelly things that we have a good record for, like bivalves, but not for mammals. They do state that
    This method may overestimate the fossil mean extinction rate and underestimate the modern means, so it is a conservative comparison in terms of assessing whether modern means are higher....
    ...or maybe you shouldn't try to compare the two??
    Oliver Knevitt
    I don't want to completely jump on the bandwagon though; we clearly are causing an immense amount of destruction, and yes, we are almost certainly causing some sort of mass extinction. But the amount, timescale, and whether it ranks among the so called "Big Five" (I've never heard that term before) is another matter.
    Hank
    Indeed, the problem is when the media, or even researchers, let studies be exaggerated for effect.   If we've already caused the mass extinction, why do anything?  Given we don't know how many species there are or how many have been lost - and instead how many we know about in the fossil record and how many are lost (and you know better than anyone how difficult and downright lucky it is to create a fossil much less than have it found) and extrapolating that out to the planet and the future wouldn't be getting a free pass if the researchers claimed global warming was doing no harm at all.
    Quote: "...claiming the end of the world is nigh."

    Even if we grant that what the Nature article says is true, they have not said "the end of the world is nigh." This is really an irresponsible statement and a straw man.

    Take on their claims, sure, but don't accuse them of saying something they haven't said. It looks frivolous.

    One thing is for certain: There are about 7 billion people on the planet now that demand resources and food. The idea that this growth can continue indefinitely, and that science and technology will solve the resultant problems because they always have in the past, is just cargo cult thinking.

    I'm on the fence with this issue: On the one hand, I'm all for the development of GMOs to increase food production and reduce degradation of land. On the other, I see it as a Red Queen issue: as populations grow, third world countries industrialize, and fossil fuels continue to dwindle, the pressures on the planet just worsen.

    Albert Bartlett and William Catton are my guides> They inspire extreme caution.

    http://www.albartlett.org/presentations/arithmetic_population_energy.html

    http://www.amazon.com/Overshoot-Ecological-Basis-Revolutionary-Change/dp...

    Hank
    Even if we grant that what the Nature article says is true, they have not said "the end of the world is nigh." This is really an irresponsible statement and a straw man.
    I am not sure what you mean - if you are contending a peer-reviewed research article did not use phrasing as clever as the 'the end is nigh' you are correct, though using a few dozen known fossils to claim that 75% of life on the planet is doomed is the scientific equivalent of being the crazy guy on the street corner wearing sandwich boards saying such.

    For the rest of your comment, I agree, except I have more optimism.  When I was born we were also told the planet could not be fed, yet since 1980 food production has shot up while actual impact is down.  Farmers have led in 'dematerialization' - better output with less input.  It is not a cargo cult mentality to assume that science works for the betterment of society and will solve problems any more than it is a cargo cult mentality to assume Intel will come out with a better processor in two years - they always have in both examples, it's what they do, in both cases, so they have earned our confidence.
    rholley
    Dealing with man-made extinctions ...

    Last night on Horizon (BBC2) there was a programme about reintroducing predators.

    A lot of it was concerned with the wolves of Yellowstone Park (not Jellystone Park, where a certain Bear rules the roost) and how their removal was causing the ecosystem to keel over, until they were re-introduced.

    Then there were panthers in Florida, bears in Alpine Europe (yes, they really do go for honey, and are a real threat to beekeepers) and to finish ...

    Are they really going to introduce lions to Montana to keep down the horses?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Hank
    I was in Montana on a hunting trip and saw something odd on a ridge off in the distance - it was really far (it is "Big Sky country", after all), and I am not from Montana, so even using a scope on my rifle I wasn't sure what I was seeing and said to my guide, "I think that's a wolf", half joking.

    He looked and said, indeed, it was a wolf.   "I won't tell if you go ahead and shoot it," he said.   I was pretty sure Marine snipers could not make that shot free-standing, uphill and with a slot wind at that distance, much less me.  But I took the compliment.  

    "Isn't that illegal?" I asked.  

    "Yes, and it's federal, so you'd do less time shooting the idiot who doesn't live around here that got wolves protected status than if you shot the wolf itself."

    So well-meaning people who know nothing at all about the ecosystem - but find someone somewhere who say it will help - introducing lions would not surprise me at all.

    Introducing lions? You mean mountain lions? Sure, why not, Hank, you'd have one more thing to shoot at. Anyway, mountain lions are doing just fine without our help. Why are mountain lions multiplying? Because their prey, the white-tailed deer are multiplying. I don't think the world is necessarily better off with more deer and more mountain lions. Maybe, maybe not. But the fact is that the two are related.

    Same with the wolves in Yellowstone. You can either have them or not, and who's to say which way is better. Nevertheless there is a time scale involved. The "without wolves" state has existed for only 70 years, while the "with wolves" state for thousands of years before that. In that sense, "with" is more natural. And it's been quite obvious that the wolves just love it there.

    What's been really remarkable about the introduction is the chain reaction that wolves have caused in the ecosystem, something that no one adequately predicted. The naive idea was that wolves would prey on elk and reduce their number. This was going to be a "good thing" because the number of elk began to exceed the Park's capacity, and they were causing extensive damage to the trees.

    Well in fact that did not happen. Still the same number of elk. However the wolves did keep the elk on the move, and as a result the willow trees no longer got ripped to shreds. Now there are more willow trees. Also more beavers, who depend on willows too but do not damage it as much. Is that "good," or "more natural"? I don't know, depends if you like trees and beavers.

    Also the number of small furry mammals have increased since the wolves arrived. Why? Because wolves and coyotes do not get along. And fewer coyotes benefited the populations of smaller prey.

    Hank
    It would be great if those wolves had listened to government restrictions and just stayed in certain parts of National Parks.    Your statement that elk populations, and livestock, have not changed is in defiance of every statistic available.  The Democratic governor of Montana recently told residents to ignore federal laws because of government unwillingness to curb the problem:

    "We will take action in Montana on our own,'' said Gov. Brian Schweitzer last month. "We've had it with Washington, D.C., with Congress just yipping about it, with (the Department of) Interior just vacillating about it.''

    Yes, coyotes are still a larger problem but people are allowed to shoot them.   Perhaps if wolves would just stick to eating those it would be a non-issue.  But they don't listen.
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think the issue is mass extinction as much as it is pertinent to which species are going extinct.  In many cases, they may represent a barrier between us and various disease vectors, so as they go extinct, such microbes will look for new environments.  If it becomes human beings, then we may experience more significant increases in new diseases or problems for which we are unprepared (i.e. we have not co-evolved).

    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    Sure, but it seems like a lot of effort to rationalize a study that used a few dozen fossils to infer 75% of life is dying.  Generally, if it requires that much effort to find a connection, there isn't one.
    Aitch
    So Fukushima isn't likely to cause a mass extinction, then...???? http://www.rense.com/general93/fukuc.htm http://la.indymedia.org/news/2011/04/245399.php .....nothing to worry about....? [Yes, I DO realize it's nothing to do with the study!] Aitch
    logicman
    Aitch:  those links point to a sort of "my friend's sister's third cousin's hairdresser's friend who works in Tokyo says:".  If there was a crack in one of the reactors the workers would be dropping dead like flies in a DDT advert.  The fact that newspaper reporters are able to interview Fukushima emergency response workers tells me that someone somewhere is telling porkies.
    Gerhard Adam
    So Fukushima isn't likely to cause a mass extinction, then...????
    No it will not.
    Mundus vult decipi