At the October 2019 Extinction Rebellion camp in Trafalgar Square, the most affecting home-made placard simply said: “God forgive us.” It expressed grief and shame over the sixth mass extinction in which, according to the late naturalist EO Wilson, species are going extinct at a rate of 27,000 a year. This is an average of one species lost forever every 19 minutes, a furnace of faunae.
This is why the Extinction Gong, an art exhibition created by Crystelle Vu and Julian Oliver, sounds every 19 minutes. It keeps ringing in the bad news, automating the grief over climate change and the eradication of species. It tolls for the Baiji, a freshwater dolphin native to the Yangtze river, the Western black rhinoceros, the Northern white rhinoceros, the smooth handfish, the splendid poison frog, the Pinta Island tortoise, and species preserved in captivity but extinct in the wild such as the Spix’s macaw, the Guam kingfisher and the golden skiffia. This anguish has variously been called “solastalgia”, “environmental melancholia” and “uggianaqtuq”, an Inuit word which has connotations of a friend behaving oddly, in a way that is frightening and sad.
But what is it that is being lost? What is so good about biodiversity? Both the term and the value are recent inventions. The term “biological diversity”, which has been used sporadically since the 1960s, is usually credited to Thomas Lovejoy, the conservation biologist who in 1979 warned of the “epoch of biotic impoverishment”. It was given a formal definition in 1980, in a paper by a White House advisory body, referring not just to species loss, but also to the decline of diversity at all levels of existence: genes, organisms and ecosytems. The term “biodiversity” didn’t become mainstream until 1986, when the National Forum on BioDiversity (hosted by Wilson and Walter G Rosen) warned that extinction rates were approaching “that of the great catastrophes at the end of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras”.
Since the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity was drafted in 1992, global institutions have genuflected to what the UN called the “intrinsic value” of biological diversity. The most recent assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasises the “interdependence” of climate and biodiversity, and warns that extreme weather patterns caused by climate change have already caused “hundreds of local losses of species”.
Yet most writing on the subject stresses not the intrinsic value of biodiversity, but its instrumental necessity for human thriving. Wilson wrote, for example, of untold “benefits that other organisms” offer “in economic welfare, health, and aesthetic pleasure”. Lovejoy warned that species annihilation would degrade “the capacity of the planet to support man”. Should we infer from this focus on human interests that biodiversity is, as Carolyn Merchant wrote of conservationism, a narrowly “utilitarian, homocentric ethic subservient to pragmatic means”? Do we care about biodiversity only insofar as it furthers the human cause? That depends on what we mean by human. What falls inside or outside of our concept of the human has never been static. In the 19th century, for example, as the historian of science David Sepkoski has shown, naturalists construed humanity in a racist manner that was as comfortable celebrating the annihilation of “savage” peoples as of other species. Extinction, then, was an ally of the human cause.
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Charles Darwin, before he developed the principle of the origin of biological diversity – whereby all species are linked in a single tree of life – briefly proposed a theory of genocide in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). During his visit to New Zealand he noted that the “number of aborigines” was “rapidly decreasing”. “Wherever the European has trod,” he went on, “death seems to pursue the aboriginal.” This, in his view, reflected a law of nature: “The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals – the stronger always extirpating the weaker.” Darwin, an abolitionist who detested the “polished savages” of England for their racial chauvinism, was not celebrating this. But his approach to the extinction of peoples reflected the view of most Victorian naturalists: extinction was nothing to worry about. Following the ideas of the 18th-century Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and the geologist Charles Lyell saw planetary change, including extinction, as a gradual, uniform process, in which the loss of one species was usually balanced by the appearance of another.
In the same way, Wallace was unsentimental about “the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations with which Europeans come in contact”, while Lyell saw “no reason to repine” at the “speedy extermination of the Indians of North America and the savages of New Holland”. Humans, he wrote, “wield the sword of extermination as we advance”. Employing much the same language, Darwin implied in The Descent of Man (1871) that the gradual extermination of “the savage races throughout the world” would represent a form of progress.
In the latter half of the 20th century this view was overthrown. The celebration of human extinctions was discredited by the defeat of the Third Reich, the overthrow of colonialism, along with most systems of segregation, and a global recognition of the crime of genocide. Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear annihilation and ecological disaster showed that humanity’s footing on the planet was extremely precarious. This cultural transformation was given added authority by changes to the scientific worldview. And as the environmental historian Timothy Farnham documents, the Austrian biologist Gregor Mendel’s ideas about the genetic basis of heredity, and the value of diversity at the level of genes, were implemented by the Soviet agronomist Nikolai Vavilov in the 1920s. Using Mendel’s insights, Vavilov developed the concept of “centres of diversity”, analogous to what the British ecologist Arthur Tansley would dub “ecosystems”.
The Mendelian purview also discredited the distinction between “good” and “bad” life. As the entomologist Ira Gabrielson put it: “From the purely biological point of view, there are no beneficial and no harmful plants and animals.” Humanity depended, wrote the artist EL Scovell in 1938, on “all forms of life” and could not afford to “overlook any species of living thing”. This new view was consolidated by the modern synthesis of genetics and Darwinian theory. Biologists such as RA Fisher, JBS Haldane and Sewall Wright showed that continuous, small-scale genetic mutations could provide the missing mechanism of heredity in Darwinian theory. In his book Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937) Theodosius Dobzhansky showed that this was compatible with the evidence from the laboratory.
Biologists working within the modern framework, such as Wilson, G Evelyn Hutchinson and Robert MacArthur, applied its insights to population dynamics and concluded that the diversity of organisms within a community helped it to survive. And that the depletion of ecological diversity caused by human activity was a threat to life on the planet.
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The watershed was the discovery of mass extinction events. From the late 1950s the palaeontologist Norman D Newell had been analysing massive amounts of fossil data. In his study “Revolutions in the History of Life” (1967) he showed that against the “background rate” of extinctions there had been five mass extinctions in the history of the planet. Along with Luis and Walter Alvarez’s discovery that an asteroid impact probably wiped out the dinosaurs, this showed that extinction was not gradual, nor was it always balanced by new speciation, nor progressive. Nature was not improving her stock. And the further revelation that the present rate of extinction far exceeded the “background rate” suggested that humanity was heading for a sixth mass extinction.
In his great hymn to the multiplicity of species, The Diversity of Life (1992), Wilson wrote that 600 million years of “upward” thrust in biodiversity was being destroyed due to the lacerations inflicted by humanity. In the same year world scientists warned about environmental destruction and an “irreversible loss of species”. The “second notice” from world scientists, published in 2017, was unequivocal: “We have unleashed a mass extinction event.”
Who, one might ask, is this “we”? In the colonial humanism of the Victorian era, most people were excluded from full humanity. Today’s melancholic humanism is more inclusive, and more cognisant of ecological dependencies. Yet its indiscriminate blame of “humanity” for consuming the planet anthropomorphises capitalism’s restless drive for growth. And it is exclusionary in its own way – think of the misleading emphasis on population control in the low-energy-intensive global south, as espoused by Lovejoy, Wilson, Jared Diamond, Paul Ehrlich and David Attenborough.
There is progress here, nonetheless. This melancholic humanism acknowledges that non-human life has value independent of human needs. This has been expedited by another shift in the scientific weltanschauung. For most of the 20th century it was controversial among ethologists and biologists to impute “human” qualities such as imagination, desire and playfulness to animals. This was circular reasoning: by calling such qualities human, it assumed what had to be proved. Today the work of biologists, philosophers and ecologists including Donald R Griffin, Marc Bekoff, Eva Meijer, Carl Safina, Peter Godfrey-Smith and Frans De Waal demonstrates the range of animals, from sperm whales to fruit bats, that have complex symbolic, social and emotional intelligence. Monkeys and birds have mirror neurons, perhaps indicating empathy and self-consciousness. Cetaceans have rapid eye movement sleep, suggestive of dreaming. Chimpanzees have fashion trends. Elephants and corvids hold funerals.
This not only enriches our view of nonhuman species, but also implies a more capacious notion of the human. Biodiversity is not just an asset from which humans gain. We have complex social and emotional relations with all non-human life. They are part of our make-up, metabolically and psychologically: we contain multitudes. Just as Freud showed that there is no self without the other, no ego without the representation of the personalities that have shaped us, it’s also true that there is no human without the nonhuman. The drive to dominate “nature” is, as the ecologist Murray Bookchin has pointed out, derivative of the drive to dominate other humans. What he called “the ecological principle of unity in diversity” is not, therefore, merely good conservationist sense. Biodiversity is not just instrumentally useful for human beings. It is constitutive of who and what we are. It is essential to the human cause, our collective thriving and freedom.
This article was originally published in October 2022. It is being repromoted today (3 March) to mark World Wildlife Day. Ahead of the day, leaders across the UN called for bolder action and more effective partnerships to protect endangered animals and plants. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a landmark treaty that has helped to protect thousands of species of plants and animals.