This just in: mass extinctions could threaten life as we know it. At least, such is the belief of one John Alroy of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His findings, after a study of fossil collections, concludes that when there are significant numbers of species extinctions there may be significant changes to the ecosystem. Indeed, it may alter the question of who is or is not the dominant species in any giving environmental arena.
The best initial reaction to this should not be shock. There are no grounds for panic here, despite the fact that it seems the world of science (meant here with the small 's') and the media want to use this as an example of how we humans are mucking up the planet. We are so smug, we humans, that we aren't even considering the possibility that we may advance ourselves from the top spot on the ecological pyramid. We may fall from the predator to the prey, if we aren't careful.
But to the point. It is not, in any way, an earth shattering conclusion that if some things change dramatically other areas may be altered as well. If you remove the key pitchers and batters from our own Detroit Tigers, you would likely have other teams competing for the American League lead in their division. Surely a look into the fossilized remains of 100,000 extinct species, which is what Dr. Alroy and his minions studied, was not necessary to realize that. In fact, it was almost surely overkill for an argument more philosophical than scientific, even if based on scientific data. It was not needed to found a conclusion based more on common sense than as a particularly scientific insight.
So, does this mean that humanity is doomed? No. Especially when the researchers and media types sprinkle their statements with all sorts of vague words and phrases. When we hear viewpoints such as, "Today's rate of extinction may be as great as 100 times the historic norm," as claimed by the people at Life Science, we wonder at what exactly is the threat made by the words may be as great. This followed by the rather astounding assertion of extinction rates 100 times the historic norm.
The columnist George Will famously says that, "If the data don't jibe with common sense, doubt the data." Or at the least, don't overstate its merely potential importance. For indeed that's all we have here: data which may, or may not, mean that we good folks are killing the Earth and ourselves in the process. Yes, of course we should be aware of it and serious consider the prospects to which it may lead. Yet that does not mean we are invariably bound for destruction. For two can play the what if game: what if it means that we are merely increasing our dominance? It may be that we are improving rather than destroying; our actions may be creating a better, and not worse, environment.
In the end, this is only so much more environmentalist fear mongering. If that's all they can bring to the debate, then we should not worry over their worries. It is far more disheartening to see how we hurt one another as people than as how we might, or might not, be affecting the lower species.