On the Extinction of Animal Species

I’ve been reading Noah Yuval Harari’s Sapiens and have reached the chapter in the book where he tells of the profound impact that the Agricultural Revolution of our species had on ourselves and on the planet. In basic terms, the Agricultural Revolution was the period a little over 10,000 years ago when our species very gradually made the transition from subsisting as foragers and hunter-gatherers to settling down as farmers, living in settlements and villages with accompanying fields of domesticated crops and cattle. The ground that I have covered so far in the book has left me with an impression of this slice of history shaped by two main ideas.

The first is a statement about our effectiveness and superiority as a species above all others in the domains of cognition and fitness, which exploded with the preceding Cognitive Revolution some 70,000 years ago. There are many ways to characterize the dominance of Homo sapiens in ways that paint a favorable picture, but the first few chapters of Harari’s book admonish that it would be more honest to recognize this rise to the top during the Cognitive Revolution as the moment in history when Homo sapiens attained their status as the most destructive species on the planet (long before the Industrial Revolution made such a fact plainly obvious).

There are a few ways to measure this destructiveness, but the most telling for me is the fossil record, which contains a long list of animal species that went extinct in the last 70,000 years, and which tells of a mind-boggling scenario that seemed to play out time after time with the arrival of humans on the scene. As tribes of Homo sapiens made their way across the continents from Africa, and eventually into Australia and the islands of the Asia pacific, their arrival in each of these places was marked by a sudden disappearance of large numbers of local animal species. Through normal, sustenance-seeking hunting practices and deforestation in the form of controlled burning (for the purpose of creating open plains), it seems our ancestors systematically wiped a large percentage of the world’s fauna off the face of planet in just a few millennia. Shifts of this sort in the realm of biology usually take place over millions of years.

On this point alone, there are two interesting details:

  • Homo sapiens did this inadvertently. Research seems to show that these animals, having never been exposed to humans before, simply could not cope with the pressures that normal hunting patterns and deforestation applied to the local ecosystem. Also, at the time (during and after the Cognitive Revolution but before the Agricultural Revolution), we were still hunter-gatherers organized into tribes of probably no more than 100 individuals. It’s highly unlikely such events were orchestrated en masse.
  • The diversity and awesomeness among the fallen species are noteworthy. The fossil record shows these lands to have been inhabited by ostrich-like birds that grew to ten feet tall, rodents the size of bears, enormous saber-toothed cats, and 20-foot sloths. Amazing. Having grown up with dinosaur-centered media and science education, I find the idea of these gargantuan versions of modern creatures fascinating.

The second point that has stayed with me after my reading thus far centers around what Homo sapiens managed to accomplish during the Agricultural Revolution that, paradoxically, guaranteed the longevity of certain animal species but still yet produced destructive consequences. With the transition away from a nomadic existence to one living in farms and villages, our species developed methods of domesticating animals that guaranteed the availability of certain foods. This practice of raising cattle for labor and sustenance, which began some 9000 years ago, has led to our current situation where the world is now populated by 1 billion cows, 1 billion pigs, an equal number of sheep, and roughly 25 billion chickens.

By evolutionary standards, these animals have attained something akin to success. Where proliferating copies of one’s DNA is a metric of such success, cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens have won out among non-human species. Unfortunately, the engine of evolution knows nothing of happiness and well-being, and given their current conditions and the methods we use to facilitate the proliferation of their DNA, they are also the most miserable animals in existence. Understanding that our species is responsible for both the rate of their population growth and the quality of life of each animal, it follows that we have procured in our farms and abattoirs an upsettingly large concentration of suffering visited upon conscious organisms.

Pondering this fact, I wondered if the concern that I extend to endangered species and those that are nearly extinct is skewed by bias, borne of the natural sympathy one might feel for a species on its proverbial last legs. As Harari mentions somewhere, the somewhat solitary life of a rhinoceros on the plains of Africa – even one belonging to a critically endangered species – is probably, in relative terms, not that bad. The threat of game hunters and other acute, human-related factors notwithstanding, the rhino is free to roam the plains and scrounge for food, encumbered mostly by everyday perils like disease, predators (what few rhinos have), and physical injury – all things that its ancestors already faced on a regular basis anyway.

The scale and depth of suffering in our slaughterhouses, by contrast, is really beyond comprehension. While it is certainly a sad thing to witness entire species at a time vanish into obscurity, when I put the two of these things next to each other as ethical concerns that demand attention, the mass suffering of billions of organisms trumps all.

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