To believe that human activity is the single greatest threat to life on earth tends to take on a view of absolute power, something humans have engaged in for millennia and in doing so have wrongly thought themselves omniscient. If we were actually able to control and understand a thing so much greater than ourselves I might be tempted to accept Scott Lewis’ assertion that present day extinction is linked to human activity and we are therefore solely responsible for the loss of so many of the species which are on the verge of extinction, however it is my feeling that Lewis is only partially correct and life continues on with or without our involvement.
Mark Newman of Cornell University, in his book, A mathematical Model for Extinction states that 99.9% of preexisting species of which we have knowledge have become extinct prior to man’s involvement on earth. The species that now flourish on earth are relative new comers in terms of environmental time and will undergo extinction regardless of the interactions of other inhabitants of the earth. When we look at extinction, the often cited species are the dinosaurs, a conglomerate of animals of which we have no real data, only extrapolations and theories. Science may have made great strides in the understanding of these magnificent creatures yet in retrospect, our knowledge base is painfully limited. To fully comprehend the reasons for the extinction of any member of life on earth, we would need to master the diverse interconnectivity of each organism and possibly even manage to inhibit the ability to adapt organisms to changing environmental impacts.
James Lovelock, a research scientist in the late 1960’s while working for NASA on protocol to determine the probability of life existence on other worlds, primarily Mars, developed a theory which suggests the criteria under which life may evolve and flourish. Initially he set out to determine which elements were needed to sustain life and how might combinations of those elements eventually lead to the creation or dissolution of life. Lovelock began to see how an infinite web of connections made life possible and subtle changes affected the outcome of the whole. However, adaption was not initially taken into account even though it is a well accepted aspect of modern science models. The ability of an organism to change and evolve due to an altered environmental condition is unique to each species and some are able to make the jump easily while others die out prior to the necessary changes which would have assured their survival. As Lovelock continued to study how living creatures interacted with each other and their environmental components, he coined the term Gaia, referring the ancient Greek goddess of life as his model for the earth. He began to see the planet as a living entity, not a collection of creatures inhabiting a dead sphere. All forms of life existing in the same plane and interacting with each other in some manner. Lovelock’s view is that the earth is in and of itself a living, breathing organism of which we are only a small component and while each individual species may rely on others for sustenance, not all are so tightly bound as to cease if their respective host is lost. Were that the case, it would not be hard to imagine that as one form of life vanishes then in a domino effect others will as well, a form of geometric progression toward the extinction of all life on earth.
I imagine that there are those who think the industrial revolution at the turn of the century in the 1900’s saw the rise of extinction and therefore assume that human involvement is the cause for the loss of species we are recording today. Automobiles, and factories, pollution and careless activities do indeed hinder the prosperity of certain life forms and there are numerous cases of localized extinction where a species no longer inhabits a certain area. Yet to think that man has the ultimate hand in the destruction of earth makes us not only powerful, but also terribly unwise. Lewis points out that, “human activity – will probably persist, the natural rebound that followed earlier extinctions most likely won’t take place”, Lewis however does not factor in the adaption quotient and points us to a scenario where our activity is the only link to current extinctions of species.
In this model we, humans, are a virus, a cancer which is destroying our host while attempting to thrive. I do not subscribe to this brand of science primarily due to the overwhelming evidence against it. While it may have a ring of truth to it, humans and our activities here are not the only reason for the changes we are experiencing. There is impact, of this there is no doubt, yet we are not solely the creator of doom and gloom popularly portrayed in today’s media. Al gore, former presidential nominee has been able to show a correlation between greenhouse gas and global warming in his book, An Inconvenient Truth. Similar studies have pointed to corroborating data, yet this evidence is not a primary link to human causes of extinction. Instead we need to realize that human record may be the issue more so than impact. To assume human activity is the primary link in the natural process of extinction of species is to believe we are far greater than the wisdom of Gaia and are able to interfere in the order of things. For humans this is control and it is a battle we have fought since Adam first walked in the garden or primeval man set foot on the Pangaea continent, choose your beginning. To find the proper ending we must look to Albert Einstein who said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them”. Extinction happens, we too will succumb one day and perhaps another species will ponder if they are to blame for the loss of man.