Friday, September 14, 2007

99.9% of All Species Have Already Gone Extinct

From The Economist: "More species are under threat than ever before according to the World Conservation Union (see chart above). Its “Red List” gives warning that 16,306 species are now under threat of extinction, nearly 200 more than in 2005. This number has risen steadily since the first report in 1996."

Before you get too concerned,
consider this: "Since life first appeared on Earth some 3.8 billion years ago, it has been estimated that more than 99.9% of all species have gone extinct. Billions of species have gone extinct throughout geologic history. Many of these went extinct during mass extinction events, the most famous and well documented of which took place some sixty-four million years ago at the end of the Mesozoic Era. This mass extinction event marked the end of the reign of dinosaurs."

And consider this from The Economist: "Nobody knows how many species occupy the planet. Most experts think 10 million is roughly correct, though they have only formally noted 1.4 million."

Suppose that half of the 16,000 threatened species went extinct, a highly, highly unlikely event. That would be less than a 1/10 of 1% extinction rate, meaning that more than 99.9% of all existing species would surve.

Question 1: Wouldn't a 0% extinction rate (100% survival rate) be undesirable because it would be too costly?

Question 2: Isn't is true that the optimal number of extinct species is probably NOT zero, assuming that it is costly to save some species; just like the optimal amount of pollution is NOT zero, the optimal amount of traffics deaths is NOT zero, etc.?

I would say Yes to both. Like all other decisions, we need to weigh the costs and the benefits.

13 Comments:

At 9/14/2007 4:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great thought but I hope it is not the one that holds the cure for cancer. Hey but what is the big deal if people die...unless they are in your family

 
At 9/14/2007 6:34 PM, Blogger holeydonut said...

I have this stupid raccoon that roams around here. I think it's safe to assume that this particular raccoon will not cure cancer... I won't be so sad if he goes extinct. And no, this isn't a cool talking raccoon like in Over the Hedge.

 
At 9/15/2007 7:07 AM, Anonymous bob wright said...

So after millions of years of species coming and going [mostly going], the World Conservation Union wants time to stand still and freeze the evolutionary process in its tracks.

If this philosophy had been in place several hundred thousand years ago, you wouldn't be reading this.

 
At 9/15/2007 7:48 AM, Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

Matt Ridley is a top notch popular science writer with an Oxford PhD in biology.

In Down to Earth, 1994, published by Institute of Economic Affairs) he argues that these catastrophic extinction scenarios are almost entirely based on mathematical models. The observations tell a different story.

For the 13 000 species of birds and mammals the known extinction rate is about 1 species per year - or 0.00008 percent per annum. He notes that while the rain forests of SE Brazil reduced to 12 percent of their former size, not one single endemic bird species disappeared.

And large animals are more vulnerable to extinction than small ones.

 
At 9/17/2007 7:28 PM, Anonymous A Reader said...

To Mark:
Answer 1: It wouldn't be desirable or undesirable a priori. The main concern is that these extinctions are mainly caused by humans destroying the environment, not a unavoidable habitat modification.

Answer 2: The optimal amount of pollution is the amount the environment can absorb without losing some value in the long term.

The 16000 species on the list are only the ones for which biologists got enough research grants to prove they were endangered. We don't know the population of most species.

To Bruce:
1 in 13000 is 0.008%, but I am inclined to think it is more than that.
Nature published an article this year saying 16% of Europe's mammals were facing extinction:
http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070521/full/070521-4.html

The fact that some species are not extinct does not enough underline the fact that a lot lost 99% of their population in the last 200 years due to habitat size reduction and pollution.

 
At 9/22/2007 2:51 PM, Blogger Arcane said...

Sure, it is certainly poignant to point out that if those 16,000 species die out, 99.9% of all species would still survive. But looking at this numerically is far too simplistic. I'm a pretty libertarian-ish, but you are looking at this the wrong way.

Of those 16,000 species, how many are highly advanced organisms, like mammals and birds? Would it be wrong to place a higher value upon these than some kind of little gadfly or regional mushroom? Perhaps we need to begin placing relative levels of value upon the various species of nature in order to determine the level of importance in protecting them from extinction...

Also, we still have yet to determine what impact the extinction of these species will have upon the environment in which they thrived. If they die out for reasons beyond human control, that's something we can do little about and I would argue that it would be wrong for us to interfere and stop their natural extinction, but if they do die out due to humanity's expansion, what other impact will this have on the food chain? Will it create a chain reaction causing the extinction of many other species and the desolution of that biosphere? That is something to weigh the impact of, too.

However, I simply do not believe that all "10 million" species each have the same level of value. That's just blatantly untrue.

Another note, I do question the government's role in protecting these species. From a law enforcement perspective, the government plays an important role, but how often has the government been responsible for the destruction of nature in the first place? How many rural tracts of land have been developed, whose inhabitants opposed such development, through the use of eminent domain laws? How many habitats have been destroyed for reasons of "safety"?

I remember where I grew up in Florida, there is a, once beautiful, lake. The boaters were having their engines destroyed by hyacinth growth (the idiot boaters would just drive through them... it was their own fault) and the government had to rescue them. After finding that the government was losing a lot of money this way, they deemed it a safety problem, and proceeded to use pesticides to destroy the hyacinth population in the lake. Along with the hyacinths, they killed nearly every other plant in the process, destroying homes for the fish, as well. The water, which was once crystal clear, is now murky due to lack of plants to clean out the water. There are few fish in the lake, so the primary industry of the cities around the lakes has been destroyed. It will cost millions to clean up the lake, if it ever happens.

It was the government that destroyed the environment of my childhood, not some corporation. As such, I am skeptical of the government's motives.

 
At 11/19/2008 9:14 AM, Anonymous AnimalLover909 said...

I think that it's rediculous how many species are extinct, and that it would be great if 0% of them were extinct!!! Because we need all of our species, and if we keep losing them the food chain will get disturbed and messed up! And if it does we might not be top on the food chain anymore!!! SO STOP KILLING THE ANIMALS, AND THEIR HOMES!!!

 
At 9/12/2009 9:57 AM, Blogger Doc said...

It's fascinating that humans never consider the possibility that they themselves may be at risk of extinction..... Given advances in genetic 'tinkering', the number and proliferation of nuclear weapons, etc., the probability of civilization (now about 14,000 years old) collapsing is a growing one. And the techniques developed over thousands of years to survive have now all been thrown overboard... (Ask a modern day Eskimo to survive a winter without his snowmobile, gasoline, and rifle....). We should consider our own possible extinction!

 
At 12/13/2009 11:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when you think about it, if humans haven't come to screw everything up in the first place, we wouldn't have to worry about the cost of saving animals. . .

 
At 9/04/2011 7:06 PM, Blogger Harwood said...

Several people have mentioned the "value" of different species. I have a question:

Take the Mexican grizzly bear. These bears used to prey on farmers' livestock and were shot as pests. Since 1964 they have been considered extinct.

My question is, in what terms do you assess the "value" of the Mexican grizzly and "cost" of its becoming extinct.

I ask this because environmentalists seem to assume that it is imperative to protect all species of life from extinction. When they are in danger of extinction, we list them as a protected species.

Why? What -- in terms of value -- have we LOST with the extinction of the Mexican grizzly bear? To put that in positive terms, how would humanity be better off if the Mexican grizzly had been protected and its populations enlarged?

I'm not opposed to protecting endangered species if there is a point, in terms of VALUE, to protecting them. But what is the point? What is the VALUE?

Seriously. What is the point?

 
At 9/04/2011 7:18 PM, Blogger Harwood said...

Several people have mentioned the "value" of different species. I have a question:

Take the Mexican grizzly bear. These bears used to prey on farmers' livestock and were shot as pests. Through the 20th century. Since 1964 they have been considered extinct.

My question is, in what terms do you assess the "value" of the Mexican grizzly and "cost" of its becoming extinct.

I ask this because environmentalists seem to assume that it is imperative to protect all species of life from extinction. When they are in danger of extinction, we list them as a protected species.

Why? What -- in terms of value -- have we LOST with the extinction of the Mexican grizzly bear? To put that in positive terms, how would humanity be better off if the Mexican grizzly had been protected and its populations enlarged?

I'm not opposed to protecting endangered species if their is a point, in terms of VALUE, to protecting them. But what is the point?

Seriously. What is the point?

 
At 12/04/2011 3:37 PM, Blogger Carl said...

This shamefully dangerous, willfully ignorant post should be embarrassing for the author. You throw around percentages you don't understand, but we're supposed to listen to you because you have a Ph.D? This is exhibit A for why having a Ph.D *doesn't* mean you have good intellectual judgment.

The percent of species currently extinct in our world does nothing to diminish the impact of human-caused environmental degradation. The number of species existing in our planet's past is irrelevant to the fact that we possess every ability to destroy all but a few hardy bacteria on this Earth. This post could be used to justify every species of life on Earth becoming extinct except humans - 99.9% of all species would still be extinct, and the "costs" associated with saving them would probably outweigh the benefits anyway, so why bother?

Much more telling would be a close examination of the difference between the percent of total species that have already gone extinct, compared to the percent of species that have gone extinct only since since the dawn of humans. The statistics in this post, however, are irrelevant.

http://bit.ly/sfgFHu

Humanity has elevated the background extinction rate to 10,000 times the historical level. The truth is simple, but obviously difficult to digest, for weak minded bloggers like this guy. What makes this so dangerous is that this guy has a Ph.D, and is arguing so ignorantly against the obvious empirical data supporting the existence of climate change. Articles like this are why so few influential people believe that global climate change is a serious issue, and are thus unwilling to do much about it, and thus, why our planet continues to be degraded at an exponential rate.

With this post, the author has done a disservice to life everywhere, and should be ashamed.

 
At 1/17/2012 9:47 PM, Blogger Aaron said...

It appears that maybe the ending of an "Ice Age" is missing on some people. BTW a volcano in 1 minute release more greenhouse gas than Mankind in its entire history. Some volcanic eruptions can last for days. With life being an ever changing entity, why are we trying to hold onto the past instead of embracing and preparing for the future?

 

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