Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Song of the Dodo: What Does It Mean to Be Human?

One of the lasting questions that Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction left me with was this: Was the evolutionary tree marked to be significantly pruned with the evolution of the large brained (shortsighted) human primates some 200,000 years ago?  As I read Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo that is the subject I most ponder.  Humans traveling the world in energy efficient wind-powered boats were doing what they could to ensure they would survive by inserting themselves into the food webs of the places they traveled.  Food must have dominated their thoughts, traveling across the world with limited provisions, with the prospect of potentially getting stranded out at sea by lack of wind or some other calamity.  Many of these food webs lacked large mammalian predators, so were painfully vulnerable to the odd sailor with a club and a growling stomach.  Their actions were largely out of ignorance of biogeography and endemism of island species.  And who could blame a hungry person for feeding her or himself? Certainly, they had no idea of the evolutionary tree or that they were in fact changing evolutionary history by their actions. 

As news was reported of the extinction of the northern white rhino this spring, I could feel it in my gut, despite realizing these slow-reproducing, large mammals with small populations were likely doomed in a world with humans, just as the mammoths and mastodons may have been when human population was small, but effective.  Just as the species of so many of the islands containing rare endemics are ill fated in a world of humans.  Death and destruction—“Rarity unto Death” as Quammen puts it.  Moreover, we know that the coming months and years will bring similar stories with many species facing the low population sizes and low genetic diversity, which precede extinction.

The 21st century is a test of the human brain’s aptitude to show some foresight.  Five-hundred years ago, (or even 100-150 years ago, really), we didn’t have the knowledge base to fully understand patterns of diversity and extinction, and the extent of the role we were playing or could play.  The knowledge base has changed, but will our actions?  Given the actions we’ve seen so many of our politicians take in the presence of abundant data, I wouldn’t bet on it; they so often *choose* ignorance (and they are not alone, since they are serving as the will of the voters).  How can any species willingly choose ignorance?  We have more data than we’ve ever had—enough information to know at least generally what actions to take. But what will we do?  Is it the nature of humans, like other animals, to serve only the needs of the here and now, or do we have a greater capacity? 

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