Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


We are in the midst of what may -- likely will -- turn out to be one of the greatest mass extinctions in earth's long history, rivaling the mass extinction that ended the cretaceous period and the reign of the dinosaurs. Most people are paying no attention, but the few who are generally tend to be unhappy about it.

At the same time, however, we are trying to eradicate some species. We've already terminated the variola virus (smallpox) and we're working on polio. Whether viruses are really species, or really alive, is questionable however. They don't have any metabolism and they don't contribute to biomass. Nothing eats them. All these particular viruses could do was make us sick and sometimes kill us, so I don't suppose anyone is sorry to see them go.

We've wiped out the dodo and the passenger pigeon and quite a few other species just by carelessness, and the U.S. government tried to exterminate the North American bison in order to starve the plains Indians (which worked), but a few survived. As far as I know, though, eradication of the Guinea worm, AKA dracunculiasis, will be the first successful, deliberate, human caused extinction of a metazoan. Former president Jimmy Carter is behind this project. The worm is now extinct in Ghana, and is hanging on only in Mali, Chad and Somalia.

The Guinea worm is, from the human viewpoint, an extraordinarily repulsive creature. Again, I can't imagine many people will be sorry to see the last of them. Still, it gives one pause. The ethics of our relationship to nature are complicated. Wolves and tigers and cougars are an economic and physical threat to us, and in the old days people were happy to try to just kill as many as possible. But we don't think that way any more. Most people think it's very important to preserve them.

But can you put your finger on precisely what is different between them and the Guinea worm?


kathy a. said...

well, we probably have a bias in favor of higher-order species who can live separately from us, and against lower-order species (or whatever, in the case of viruses) that exist to kill us.

we don't actually tolerate dangerous predators in our urban neighborhoods, even endangered ones.

Cervantes said...

It is true that the guinea worm cannot exist without parasitizing humans; there's no way to make an accommodation with them. But I wonder how "deep ecologists" view this question?