All species can go extinct – and so can humans

Wytske Versteeg on the NRC climate blog

Animal and plant species are going extinct at a rapid pace, but somehow this doesn’t make us think about our own mortality. Unfairly so, researcher Wytske Versteeg argues: we are just as vulnerable as every other animal and plant species.

This blog was published on 11 February 2020 on the climate blog of the NRC.

Until the 19th century, no one thought that anything had ever gone extinct. Of course, every once in a while a species seemingly disappeared – like the dodo. But stories about the dodo sounded so outlandish that a lot of researchers even doubted the species’ existence. Sure, sometimes fossils appeared of species that no human had ever seen in real life, but that too was explained away. Surely these bizarre creatures still lived in the deep oceans, where no one had ever been.

It was unthinkable that species could disappear forever. After all, the earth and all living things were created by God; all part of a plan where humans are at the top. It wouldn’t be logical to create a species to then unmake it later. Therefore, animals do not go extinct, simply because any alternative was unimaginable.


Horrible events

Nature researcher George Cuvier reached a different conclusion in the 19th century. His work showed that there had been a world before ours, where animals used to roam that are now extinct. Catastrophes must have taken place, life on earth disturbed by horrible events, worse than humankind had ever known.

Scientists now warn that the earth may be experiencing a sixth wave of mass extinction; the mass extinction of humankind

Scientists now warn that the earth may be experiencing another one of those periods, where we may be dealing with a sixth wave of mass extinction. To be clear: this is not about saving the tiger or the rhino, but about our own existence.

Cuvier’s work turned our worldview upside down. Even if there were a godly plan, the world had developed a lot less logically than assumed before. Darwin, who built upon Cuvier’s work, shocked our way of thinking once more: we were not at the top of the pecking order, but were in fact related to hairy apes.

Darwin’s evolution theory taught us to think in terms of competing species. By doing so, we lost sight of something important: species do not only compete, but are also dependent on each other. This is true for humans: everything we hold dear is dependent on our relationships with other species.

Many species disappear without a trace, even before we got to know them

Never in all human history did species disappear as fast as they do now

That biodiversity safety net is now unraveling fast. Never in all human history did species disappear as fast as they do now: when you’re reading this, over a million species are at an extinction tipping point.

We often give names to the last few individuals of ‘cute’ species, such as Martha, Lonesome George and Toughie. But many species disappear without a trace, even before we were able to get to know them. Recently, researchers warned us through a meta study that hundreds of thousands of species, including well-known species such as sparrows and magpies, are under additional threat. They can simply not adapt to the speed at which the climate is changing.

Maybe it is time for a new change in our thinking. In our safe cars and heated houses, are we able to realise how dependent we are on our physical environment and all its plant and animal species? Are our brains even capable to see the possibilities of our own death and extinction?

Eventually, “nature” will find a new balance. Just not necessarily with us as a species in it

We grieve when ‘endlings’ such as Lonesome George and Toughie die, maybe we even feel guilty. But there is no doubt in our minds that humanity itself will endlessly be able to adapt, and will walk this earth forever. Even in disaster movies someone always survives, preferably someone we were already rooting for. A so-called ‘cosy catastrophe’, the stories are not as scary, because in the end order is always restored. So to reassure you: eventually, “nature” will find a new balance. Just not necessarily with us as a species in it.

Scientists from Utrecht University are reporting in the climate blog of the NRC on their research in the field of sustainability. They are united around the strategic theme of 'Pathways to Sustainability.