Some Reflections on Extinction


I’ve been thinking about extinction recently, my own in the foreseeable future and that of the species with whom we share the Earth. Personal extinction is the natural end to life and so is the extinction of a species. The dinosaurs are gone but life rolls on unabated. Evolution adapts species (not individuals) to changing circumstances and when those circumstances change again many species cannot adapt and go extinct.

Individual extinction is intensely personal, of course. During my youth, in the mistaken belief (shared with many young people) in my own immortality, I took risks that nowadays in my dotage I would never countenance. Also, I can no longer physically take the same risks so having escaped with my life I am no longer faced with those choices.

In a discussion on the radio the point was made that “death is a mystery” and “no one knows what comes after death.” I jeer at those sentiments. Death, which occurs to every living creature, is no mystery. When the body stops functioning life is over. Immortality is something a species can aspire to but not an individual.

It is not death which is a mystery, it is life. Life seems to be a natural occurrence in this universe and we have learned a great deal about it. We work directly on DNA, we parse the organelles in the living cell and still we have no answer to what sparks the collection of bits inside a cell to become alive, to move, to respond and react to the environment. That is the mystery still to be solved.

The belief in a “life after death,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, is the basis of many organized religions. It is a belief that offers comfort to the oppressed when they cannot escape the oppressors and as such has great psychological value to them. It is better to organize with one’s fellows (especially including women) and resist oppression and fight for justice here, during our lifetime, than cede the field and submit to injustice.

At this time we humans are causing another Great Extinction in the midst of reshaping the flora and fauna of Planet Earth. We will leave our great grandchildren a world transformed by our growing presence, a world less diverse, less sweet and more noxious. However, as in previous periods of significant extinctions, the door to new forms is now wide open and, unseen by us, evolution is occurring around us daily.

We are neither a nice nor a wise species though many individuals are both. We are trashing the world we found and we will have to evolve in many ways to exist in the world we are creating. Perhaps it will improve us as caretakers of the world. Perhaps it will lead to our demise. We can hope (and the religious can pray) that the future will be better for us and the world than the present but it’s better to work for it. To raise consciousness, to organize, to resist and to be kind to each other.

Living on a trash heap, breathing foul air and swimming in acidic seas is not really going to be much fun if we can’t modify our “take no prisoners” approach to living on the Earth.