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End of the Wild

The extinction crisis is over. We lost.

Stephen M. Meyer

8 For the past several billion years evolution on Earth has been driven by small-scale incremental forces such as sexual selection, punctuated by cosmic-scale disruptions—plate tectonics, planetary geochemistry, global climate shifts, and even extraterrestrial asteroids. Sometime in the last century that changed. Today the guiding hand of evolution is unmistakably human, with earth-shattering consequences.

The fossil record and statistical studies suggest that the average rate of extinction over the past hundred million years has hovered at several species per year. Today the extinction rate surpasses 3,000 species per year and is accelerating rapidly—it may soon reach the tens of thousands annually. In contrast, new species are evolving at a rate of less than one per year.

Over the next 100 years or so as many as half of the Earth's species, representing a quarter of the planet's genetic stock, will either completely or functionally disappear. The land and the oceans will continue to teem with life, but it will be a peculiarly homogenized assemblage of organisms naturally and unnaturally selected for their compatibility with one fundamental force: us. Nothing—not national or international laws, global bioreserves, local sustainability schemes, nor even "wildlands" fantasies—can change the current course. The path for biological evolution is now set for the next million years. And in this sense "the extinction crisis"—the race to save the composition, structure, and organization of biodiversity as it exists today—is over, and we have lost. . . .

 

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Stephen M. Meyer is a professor of political science at MIT and the director of the MIT Project on Environmental Politics and Policy.

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.

 



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