The Morality of Extinction

Phys.org just posted a brief article about how the Hangenberg extinction event led to the rise of ray-finned fish in the ocean. You and I care because current evolutionary thinking says our hands are just seriously mutated ray-fins. Without the major extinction event at the end of the Devonian, we might all be walking lungfish. Of course, the Hangenberg event was an extinction caused by the sudden rise in plant life on land, so if it had never happened there probably wouldn’t be much incentive for life to have started wandering around out of the ocean in the first place.

But this got me to thinking about the morality of extinction, because – make no bones about it – human life is an extinction event. Now we just have to decide how we’re going to handle it. 

We could, I suppose, do nothing. We could continue the way we are and cause species to become extinct as either a direct or indirect result of our actions. In the end either we’ll die off because the planet won’t be hospitable to us or we’ll leave for greener pastures, by which I mean exoplanets, by which I mean space travel, because if we keep going the way we are Earth simply cannot be our long term home. Either way, Earth will eventually recover and new species will evolve into the gaps in the food chain we created by killing off so many critters.

Our second option is to make impossible choices. We look at the world and the creatures and habitats in it and we decide what we’re going to destroy and what we’re going to allow to live. I once heard Kim Stanley Robinson say that we are actively terraforming our planet, we’re just doing it without any sort of plan or conception of the results. So, we decide – we model our actions and their probably outcomes and we decide what lives and what dies because of our actions. That’s not a particularly nice-sounding responsibility, but we’re already engaged in our final option.

We could delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow be environmentally neutral. That is to say, that through careful energy policy and black magic we can somehow have zero impact on the natural world – until such time as we all die from cancer or something, or leave for space. I don’t think that’s remotely possible. We can certainly try and end our reliance on forms of energy that create so much carbon (etc.), but our mere presence, our requirements for food and space and resources, will inevitably have an impact on the environment.

Beyond that, in our current efforts to remain environmentally neutral we are actively saving species from extinction, breeding them in captivity and reintroducing them to the wild. We have become preservationists, because it makes us feel least bad of all our options. But how far are we willing to take this preservationism? Here’s a thought experiment: Alaska melts but California freezes. The noble polar bear and its unbearably adorable cubs are going to go extinct. Do we move them to California? Do we ensure that the species survives the loss of its present habitat? Because in doing so we also ensure that nothing new can adapt to fill the niches in the food chain that have been created in this frozen California.

Essentially, we do our best to stagnate the same processes that led to the Hangenberg extinction and hence to our own presence on Earth.

Then we either die off or leave for deep space and creatures start going extinct anyway once our back is turned.

Do we as a species want to be responsible for making the hard choices about extinction, or do we want to try and stop it in its tracks and pretend that’s a better option? Or do we leave? Because that’s the hidden fourth choice. If we don’t want the responsibility of being an extinction event, we have to leave.

I, for one, vote for space. Earth has given us enough already. Maybe it’s time to give the lungfish a chance.

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