Perhaps We Need to Think More About That

Perhaps we need to think about this.  And a lot harder than we seem to be thinking at present.

innovation

Do you know what the items in the following list are, and what they have in common: Macrostylis villosa, Galapagos Amaranth, Courtallum Wenlandia, Viola cryana, and Fitchia mangarevensis?

All of them are species of plants that once upon a time thrived in, respectively, Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.  Before the dawn of the twenty-first century, all of them had become extinct.

How about the items in this list:  Acipenser naccarii, Coregonus johannae, Cyprinodon arcuatus, Gila crassicauda, and Platytropius siamensis?

These are species of sturgeon, salmon, carp, smelt, and catfish that, likewise, have disappeared from the face of the earth.  It is beyond obvious to say that we shall never see them again.

Here’s an easier list:  Pachycephalosaurus, Dreadnoughtus schrani, velociraptors, Ankylosaurus, and therizinosaurs.  Do you know what these species have in common?

dinos

As you might have guessed, all are dinosaur species that became extinct more than 66 million years ago.

Try this one:  Dromaius minor, Camptorhynchus labradorius, Pinguinus impennis. Sceloglaux albifacies, and Ectopistes migratorius.

These are bird species that have ceased to exist—in order, the King Island emu, the Labrador duck, the Great auk, the Laughing owl, and the iconic passenger pigeon.

And now, perhaps the easiest list of all:  Balaenoptera musculus, Panthera tigris tigris, Elephas maximus sumatranus, Gorilla beringei graueri, and Diceros bicornis.

These are critically endangered animal species, on the cusp of extinction—the Blue Whale, the Bengal Tiger, the Sumatran Elephant, the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, and the Black Rhino.

rhino

Science estimates that approximately 99.9% of all the species of life that have inhabited this planet of ours since its formation are extinct.  In fact, Charles Darwin theorized that evolution and extinction are not mutually exclusive.

Or, as Annie Dillard put it, more poetically, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—

                         Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.  This is easy to write,  easy to read, and hard to believe.

Still, if we can believe our planet has hosted some sort of life for more than 3.5 billion years, it’s staggering to think that less than one-tenth of one percent of all those lifeforms survive today.

Here’s a final list to ponder:  Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens.

sapiens

These, of course, are all species of human life, the first of which, scientists believe, first appeared around 2.5 million years ago.

Those of us alive today are members of Homo sapiens sapiens, a sub-species of the last one in the list, which is thought to have sprung up almost half-a-million years ago—not too long when compared to the 3,500 million years life has existed on earth.

But here is the critical implication arising from that final list:  of the six species listed, the first five have vanished.  We are the only ones not yet extinct.

Not.  Yet.  Extinct.

Perhaps we need to think more about that.

Too Late Smart

Too Late Smart

I once had a large beer stein, embossed with this statement in a mock German/English hybrid: Ve grow too soon oldt, und too late schmart!  Many a lager or ale was quaffed from that stein with not much thought to the import of those words.

beer stein 4

Predictably, I have grown old too soon, at least for my liking.  And that particular stein has long since vanished.  But strangely, the significance of the inscription has stayed with me.  In my wry moments, I apply it to the world at large, our planet, and to how we humans both inhabit and desecrate it.

There are various theories as to when the so-called new world was discovered by the Norse and European peoples; consensus has it somewhere between 500 and 1100 years ago—a not inconsiderable difference of 600 years, during which the indigenous new world inhabitants must have had scarce premonition of what was to befall them.

If I were to sum up the future they faced in one word, it would be exploitation.  If I added a word, it would be extinction, at least for many of them.  I’m reminded of the famous boast attributed to Julius Caesar:  I came; I saw; I conquered!  Just imagine that from your perspective if you were one of the indigenous new world peoples: they are coming, they see us, and they will conquer us!

Victor venit ad spolia!  To the victor went the spoils.

When one contemplates the imperial expansion of the old world into the new, there are several ex- words that come to mind:  exploitation and extinction, the two already referenced; extermination; expulsion; extraction; excision; expurgation; extortion; extrusion; exclusion; execution; exporting; expunging; extradition.  And exile, of course, for many who resisted.

Imperialism and all it entails seems to have been the motivation for such unbridled acquisition of new world territories.  In life, nothing is in stasis; organisms are either growing or dying.  And the great European colonizer-nations were most definitely organisms of a particular sort:  social, political, economic, and militaristic.  They either competed against each other for dominance or faded into irrelevance.

From today’s perspective, we can look back on all that has unfolded as a result of the aggressive outreach of those nations.  Depending upon our viewpoint, we can praise it or decry it.  Descendants of indigenous peoples displaced and overthrown might be forgiven if their outlook differs from that of the progeny of the invaders.

Wars among nations have been fought almost endlessly over the millennium, many in the name of the same acquisitional drive:  the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years’ War, the Anglo-Spanish War, the Napoleonic Wars, and of course WW I and WW II, to name but a few in the European sphere.  What have they resolved?  And what have we learned?

Are nation-states still expansionist?  Are militant religious factions still agitating?  Are the world’s peoples better off for all the strife?  Are we any smarter, or are we just older?

If only we could embrace different ex- words to drive international discourse over the next decades:  expiation; examination; exculpation; exemplary; exponent; excellence; exhortation; extolling.  Surely then, exaltation would arise among all of us, forever freed from conquest and suppression by others.

But sadly, we are likely too late smart.