Some 250 million years before mankind appeared nearly all life in the oceans and a goodly portion on land was rubbed out. And this before the invention of plastic. There were no journalists at the time, so the best candidate to blame for the Permian-Triassic extinction event remains unknown.
This wasn’t the only horror show. Two hundred million years (or so) before the PT party was the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event which, while in earnest, couldn’t match PT’s record and only massacred two thirds of all life. And there are many, many, really very many more of these (let us unemotionally call them) incidents. The last big one was 66 million years ago when Earth, not looking in her rear-view mirror, backed into an asteroid. These things happen.
What can we learn from this? That species come and species most certainly go—and sometimes they go in spectacular fashion. Incidentally, there was a theory bruited some 20 years ago which held mass extinctions were periodic with a “return period” of about 50 million years, which means we’re way past due. My opinion is that the periodicity is a statistical artifact, but I could be wrong. Plan accordingly.
But as you do so, rest assured your beneficent government has taken action! Forty years ago, almost to the date (28 December), Congress got off its collective keister and did what everybody constantly demands it do: they did something. This something was the Endangered Species Act which guaranteed by law and full faith of the United States of America that, henceforth, no species shall ever go extinct again!
For, as we all agree, no species should go extinct. Even though most have.
According the official press release from the US Fish and Wildlife Service which somehow found its way into my in-box, the Act is (self) “credited with saving hundreds of species from extinction”.
“I’m suspicious,” you might be thinking. “Give me an example.” Okay, mister, I’ll give you two: the orange foot pimpleback and the rough pigtoe. Before the government acted, there were fewer of these slimy beasties than the government thought tolerable. They say there are now, because of the Act, just the right number of them.
How many of each species should there be? What a strange question! Why should you worry about that? The government, using a formula so secret that no civilian has ever seen it, has calculated the ideal number of every species which roots, crawls, burrows, swims, floats, flies, or flowers.
“How could they know that?” you might ask. “It’s like the government saying they know the ideal global average temperature and world-wide pattern of climate and weather.”
You have a point, friend. But I for one am more trusting than you. Our government is manned by experts who, by virtue of their appointment, are virtuous and disinterested. If they say they know just how many of each species there should be and where the members of those species should live (and at what temperature), then I am prepared to believe them.
A complication: new species are being discovered at a constant clip. How is it that, as scientific as we are, an animal as large as the Tapirus kabomani (about the size of a golden retriever) had to wait until last week to be spotted?
I bet the government already knows the proper number of these tapirs.
Some bad news: if we haven’t discovered all species, it’s therefore likely we will discover some after it’s too late and they’re already extinct. Looks like we’re going to need some stronger laws to prevent these situations.
How many species need our welfare? I had a go at counting, but the government’s websites are strangely not so good. Near as I can tell, it’s somewhere north of 1,500 just in the USA, another 600+ in distant lands. Must take a lot of paperwork to track.
What’s this about counterfactual arguments? The government claims it “saved” “hundreds” of species from extinction, that if it did nothing, these species would have gone extinct. But how can the government know this? It couldn’t have run an experiment. It’s possible these species could have increased without intervention. Worse, other species could have gone extinct because of the government’s actions. Beyond the obvious positive effect of arresting nutballs who shoot bald eagles, there’s no way to prove how efficacious the Act was.
That’s the problem with counterfactual arguments. The side which wins them is usually that which yells the loudest.