- Passing Into Eternity:Species Loss and Human Recklessness
"What a gift is this life, this earth. By whatever means we must acknowledge the gift, or it might just go away."—Billy Yellow (Navaho Indian)
It is extraordinarily odd that we humans spend millions of dollars in an attempt to detect any form of life on other celestial bodies, and yet we so easily and thoughtlessly condemn to the darkness of eternity life forms on planet earth that we have yet to even categorize. Living species, each a remarkable product of millions of years of evolution, are vanishing at an extraordinary rate. According to E.O. Wilson of Harvard University, perhaps the world's leading expert on biodiversity loss, species are vanishing at a faster rate than at any other time in the past 65 million years. And the rate of extinction is accelerating with each passing year. Why should we humans care? Outside of the fact that we may be next in line, the loss of plant and animal species threatens the world's food supply and the search for drugs useful to modern medicine.
While not widely appreciated, the importance of maintaining biodiversity (the living biological diversity of the planet in the form of plants and animals) is critical to our modern form of food production, particularly with regard to plants. Why plants? Two reasons stand out. First, the animals that we exploit for food are dependent on plants for their nutrition. And second, in the modern world, the burden of sustaining human life is increasingly falling on just a handful of plant species. Since the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 plus years ago, there has been a trend for more and more people to be nourished by fewer and fewer plant species. For example, as discussed by E.O. Wilson in The Diversity of Life, even though in the course of human history people have utilized about 7000 plant species for food, today we humans are currently dependent on a handful of plant species, principally wheat, rice, corn, potato and barley. The failure of any one of them would mean a huge upturn in the number of people suffering from extreme hunger. Worse, it would lead to the starvation of millions of hungry and impoverished people, especially in already food-scarce areas like Sub-Saharan Africa.
The "biodiversity problem" results from the loss of genetic variability within the gene pool of a species because of domestication. This makes the domesticated species vulnerable to environmental change (e.g., change with regard to predators, diseases, temperature, rainfall, etc.). In general, terms, domestication changes the DNA of an organism, often making the organism better suited to human-altered (unnatural) environments. In doing so, however, the domesticated [End Page 72] organism frequently becomes less adapted to its natural environment and more vulnerable to environmental change. For instance, domesticated species of dogs that we have genetically altered for passivity have difficulty surviving in the wild under conditions where aggression is being selected.
The essential problem is that, with regard to biological systems, simplification (uniformity) is the road to extinction, while complexity (diversity) is the road to long-term survival. This is why so-called "wild" genetic stocks are so important. Periodically, in order to ensure long-term survival by increasing genetic complexity or variability, we must cross-pollinate or hybridize our domesticated species with genes from species that have not been domesticated—species that are existing in the natural or wild state.
Even though wild species ensure the long-term survival of our domesticated plant and animal species, we are rapidly and recklessly destroying them. A typical example involves wild species of rice in Indonesia. Since the mid-1970s, 1,500 indigenous (wild) rice varieties in Indonesia have become extinct. As a result, the world's fifth-most populous country now relies on a few domesticated species to feed its rapidly growing population. The people in Indonesia are, in effect, gambling that environmental change—a constant in any biological system—will not destroy their small number of domesticated rice species. Relatedly, they are gambling that they will not need the extinct wild strains of rice to introduce the...