'Is the Modern Mass Extinction Overrated?'

Ran Prieur linked this interview of York conservation biologist Chris Thomas which seeks to put a brighter side to the mass extinction event:

His book, which will get lapped up in some quarters, is ‘Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction’. He’s not denying that there is a high rate of extinction at the moment, and is happy to blame ‘humanity’ for the problem (not blaming the +practices+ of agriculture and heavy industry but our actions as a +species+, meaning he of course accepts the pleistocene overkill theory about our h/ger ancestors). His approach is to weigh up the other side of the equation where introduced/invasive species hybridise with native species and supposedly create more total biodiversity in the areas they spread to. This to me seemed very simplistic - he doesn’t appear to explore the difference between hybridisation and the actual creation of new species, nor does he evaluate whether total biodiversity is a good measure of ecological health if the area is dominated by globally common species at the expense of very rare species with special adaptions to that particular locality. Are Australia and New Zealand happy to have new species of European rodents, cats, dogs, amphibians, birds etc. if it means these out-compete local species that exist nowhere else? It’s probably a good idea to look at what happens in this process of hybridisation and the long term adaptions of invasive species (by one reading this is what the process of rewilding is all about, ie: becoming native) but to pretend that this represents a positive development over what was there before seems insane, and a gift to colonists, industrialists, capitalists etc who want to justify their hugely damaging activities, past, present and future.

Anyway I’ve got lots of other problems with the interview, eg: the way he sees conservation in purely utilitarian terms of what the species we save might one day do for us by way of ‘ecosystem services’; his view of humans as necessarily adopting a managerial role even though he admits that we’re just another species in the food web; and the totally blase attitude on the ethics of conservation:

From our perspective, we would rather live in a green world full of animals and plants. Therefore we might wish to intervene to ensure that that is the case.

But I don’t feel there is any ethical duty to do this. Life is just what happens, and unfortunately, or fortunately, it has no ultimate purpose. It came into existence, it will exist for a while, and eventually it will disappear. Conservation is more about humanity’s perspective on the now and the relatively near future, by which I might mean millions of years. But in terms of conserving life in the universe, I don’t think there is any essential ethical requirement for us to do it.

But I’d be interested to hear any other responses people have.

cheers, and sorry it’s been a while since my last posting


Nice to see you post some new food for thought, Ian, thanks!
Still, if I had come across the interview without your having asked for responses to it, I’d likely not have read it to the end. Here’s why:

Basically, Chris Thomas doesn’t really say anything. He keeps all perspectives open without taking any standpoint or questioning anyone’s views or actions.
So I see only very superficial bla bla here. Typical manager talk. Giving directions not knowing where they will lead to (see his answer to the question “Do you personally think that’s a good idea?”) and feeling a need to keep moving and changing everything all the time (while I think most species usually fare best when not bothered, moved, disturbed etc.).

At the same time, the interviewer doesn’t seem to challenge him in any way. He might for instance have asked Thomas why he only talks about the number of species, rather than the number of individuals, or perhaps the number of individuals per species. Not to speak of any deeper layers like thoughts on the depth of knowledge within a herd or the complexity of the social network within a species.

Too bad that Thomas takes the easy way out (and gets away with it). Not only does he avoid potentially difficult personal and cultural introspection, he just gives others an excuse to do the same.

Thanks for that Anneke, nice to ‘see’ you again.

‘Basically, Chris Thomas doesn’t really say anything. He keeps all perspectives open without taking any standpoint or questioning anyone’s views or actions.’ - yes, I think that hits the nail on the head. It’s a cool, objective/scientific analysis which doesn’t engage with the scale of the crisis on any real emotional level. It gives the lie to his insistence that ‘We are part of the system’ because he’s obviously talking (so nonchalantly!) about something Out There which has no real bearing on his day-to-day existence. To be expected when your water comes from a tap and your food comes from a supermarket…

‘At the same time, the interviewer doesn’t seem to challenge him in any way. He might for instance have asked Thomas why he only talks about the number of species, rather than the number of individuals, or perhaps the number of individuals per species.’ - indeed: ‘What is it about a wry Englishman that so enchants an American interviewer? Thomas and I had a jolly conversation’ - so cosy in their little bubble! Good point on the number of individuals, the crisis takes on a new dimension when you find out that total biomass of wildlife has dropped by half in the last 40 years (from an already much-depleted baseline no doubt). Hybrids and domesticates aren’t going to make up that shortfall anytime soon…

Thanks for your thoughts!

It really amounts to guesswork, and the possibility of such benifit is not anywhere on the same scale as the negative results of extinctions and the vulnerability of unstable civilization to collapse that must come ultimately. Invasive species would be like any influence from humanity, even unintended, wildlife is rapidly diminishing, while there are a lot more animals in agriculture for market demands, it is not benefitting this world.

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This was a duplicate which Anneke asked me to remove…

Greetings Rosie,
Like you, I feel a strong need for providing space and time for plants and animals to live, grow and thrive. Yet posting this message under three different topics seems to overdo it - not only because I tend to read almost every new message on this board (and thus felt disappointed seeing only one new one really) but also because internet pollution also takes up lots of energy and resources, I wonder if you’d mind removing your post doubles… Thanks in advance!

I’m sorry for so many posts… :frowning: I had modified my original adding new info. I did not mean to overload. Please forgive. I am at my wits end trying to find people who have the chutzpah to protest along side me. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
I find ‘Rewild’ a bit cumbersome. I haven’t even figured out how to log out.
Kind regards,

Not to worry, happily forgiven! I hope you find like-minded folks. And that’t you’ll enjoy many good exchanges here. My apologies if my message came in a bit too bluntly…

Hi Anneke, No no apologies necessary. Again, I am sorry for the overload. I can’t find all the places I placed it. I’ve yet to figure out how to log out here.
There is a group who offered to publish my writing…but, when you consider all the voices who have been proclaiming and warning the same issues, it hardly seems worth it :frowning:
I’ve come to the conclusion that Americas are drunk (or hypnotized) on censored-, controlled-, Kool-Aid TV and podcasts. The powers-that-be WANT to keep the general populace dummied…that’s why they brought back TV shows from the idiot 50’s and 60’s!!!

I read Chris Thomas book some months ago. I found it a refreshing perspective, and one which I had never heard before. Whether he’s right or wrong, he certainly gets me thinking and reconsidering established ideas and concepts in regards to biodiversity and conservation. One of the things I like is that he advances seriously the idea of assisted migration, which is a viewpoint too few academics and conservationists are willing to get behind. What bothers me most about Thomas is as you stated, his blasé attitude to conservational ethics. One criticism I can offer of his work in general is that increases in local biodiversity do not necessarily reflect increases in global biodiversity, and vice versa.

I think of Shiva, Creator/Destroyer, and how too often we get trapped in seeing only the negative and destructive sides of things. But every destruction is also opportunity for creation. I don’t necessarily advocate for what Chris Thomas argues, but I can at least value the perspective.

" Is the Modern Mass Extinction Overrated?"

My thoughts are… Gee I don’t know. Are you a heartless bastard who hates life? hahaha.

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