The Sixth Mass Extinction

Here’s how many people, if they are not in denial about it, view the current environmental crisis: global warming has begun, weather will become more extreme, and the changes in temperature will impact agriculture, the habitability of sea coasts, and the survival of some species. The last item—species extinction—sits like an afterthought in such a summary. The description minimizes the prospect that we may be entering the sixth of the planet’s massive extinctions.

The first five mass extinctions took place over the last half billion years as the results of sustained volcanic eruptions, large meteors, and ice ages. They lasted for millions of years. Today, though, in the popular imagination, they seem like little more than fantastical events deep in our past that are pictured occasionally in magazines and science fiction movies.

dinosaurs and meteors

A picturesque extinction. Dinosaurs looking alarmed. (rainbowdolphin.com)

The current mass extinction is man-made. Called the Holocene extinction for the present geological epoch that began in 10,000 BC, it results from the steady increase in human numbers and, in modern times, from not only global warming but also the destruction of environments such as rainforests, from overfishing, pollution, and the movement of invasive species and diseases around the world. It seems likely that each of these plagues is just getting warmed up.

The first five extinctions saw the loss of more than half of existing species, most often around 70% or more (apart from microbes). The most recent mass extinction, about 65 million years ago, included two memorable elements that have earned it some reknown. A six-mile-wide meteor hit the Yucutan peninsula and its impact on the climate wiped out the dinosaurs as well as an estimated 75 percent of other species. (For comparison, the normal rate of extinction is a few percent annually, as species evolve into new ones or succumb to competition or normal environmental change.)

timeline of mass extinction

The first five mass extinctions. The dinosaurs came into their own after the Triassic-Jurassic extinction and went out with the Cretaceous-Paleogene one.
(historyoftheuniverse.com)

The severity of the current, sixth, extinction is debated. According to Wikipedia, estimates run between 100 and 1000 times greater than the normal extinction rate. Ten years ago, E.O. Wilson famously predicted the loss of half of the current species 100 years from now. The exact rate aside, the losses have already cut across the organic spectrum. Amphibians, including frogs and toads; bird populations; fish species; invertebrates, mostly insects; plant species—all have declined. Mammals are vulnerable because they are dependent on plants and other animals down the food chain. In part because humans live almost everywhere on the globe, our species is not likely to be pressed to extinction anytime soon. But we can’t know the long-term impact of the next several decades’  addition of billions more humans and their demands for water, minerals, meat, and cars.

No matter whether the current extinction turns out to be a major one or only a middling one, its severity will earn it a place among the turning points for life on the planet. We—all organisms—are part of the chain of life that is billions of years long. That chain has been tested in the past by meteors and volcanoes. It’s painful to think that it will be tested this time by one of its own.

Spirituality in “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”

Secular spiritualists, although they trust in nature instead of the supernatural, may or may not as individuals understand much about science. And scientists, who study nature in detail, may or may not find spiritual meaning in it. The relationships between these two groups and those two topics, nature and spiritualism, are complicated.

The recent tv series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey illustrates some of the complexity on the science side. The series is full of imagination, it is visually striking, the music is stirring, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s voice is expressive and friendly. In the videos we travel the breadth and depth of nature. The series is about science first and foremost, but its mode is inspirational, so it’s worthwhile asking whether spirituality comes into the picture. The answer is, seldom. I’ll mention three examples.

Cosmos: the tree of life  (igorotjournal.com)

Cosmos: the tree of life
(igorotjournal.com)

One reference to spirituality appears in the second episode as Tyson discusses evolution, DNA, and “the tree of life.” He says, “Accepting our kinship with all of life on earth is not only solid science; in my view, it’s also a soaring, spiritual experience.” I was glad to hear Tyson assert that something can be both solid science and a spiritual experience at the same time. But the phrase “in my view” reflects his caution. Tyson knows his comment is controversial. It might irritate both scientists who reject religion and, if any of them are watching, the religious who reject evolution. In a different cultural climate, perhaps, he would have given the statement more authority by leaving “in my view” out.

Another episode in which Tyson alludes to the spiritual aspect of scientific knowledge is the final one, in the very last sentence. He stands with the ocean and sky behind him.

If we come to know and love nature as it really is, then we will surely be remembered by our descendants as good, strong links in the chain of life, and our children will continue this sacred searching, seeing for us as we have seen for those who came before, discovering wonders yet undreamt of, in the cosmos.

...in the cosmos (space.com)

…wonders yet undreamt of, in the cosmos
(space.com)

On the last phrase, Tyson turns from the camera to look out over the water and sky. Fade to black. The phrase “chain of life” caught my attention. While not a spiritual concept to most people, it is very much one to me. Unlike the evolutionary tree of life, the chain is an image of length and connectedness, a metaphor for each organism’s overlap with and dependence on the one that came before it. The tree is about kinship and variation, the chain, about persistence through time. However, Tyson here doesn’t seem to be thinking of links as symbols for each and every organism. In speaking of “good, strong links,” he is referring specifically to humans who “know and love nature”—scientists and others. Spiritually, the images of the the chain of life is narrowed rather than broadened here. I think it has greater potential.

The third spiritual reference, “this sacred searching,” appears in the same sentence. Because we know and love nature, our children will pick up where we have left off, “seeing for us as we have seen for those who came before.” Tyson like other scientists is keenly aware that their research rests on the shoulders of earlier scientists. We owe it to them, he says, to take the next steps in understanding nature. The search is sacred because it is a commitment. But this use of sacred applies to scientists only. There is no sense, for example, of a sacred mission to discover more in order to help those in the future, or to make lives better for our children, or of any other sacred promises that all humans can participate in.

Worship from afar   (blog.cbeinternational.org)

Worship from afar
(blog.cbeinternational.org)

So Tyson’s allusions to the spiritual aspects of nature concern mostly the work of scientists themselves. In Tyson’s view and perhaps that of many of his colleagues, scientists at work studying nature already feel intimately involved with it, perhaps almost “inside” it, as they try every day to tune in to its mysteries and marvels. This perspective is quite different from that of non-scientist nature-lovers who worship nature but would hardly claim to understand how it works. Much as they feel a part of nature, they feel also, I think, that they are on the outside looking in at nature’s essential mechanisms. These contrasting perspectives are, as I said, complicated. We all need more discussion about them, and maybe after the current debate over creationism tapers off, we can have it.

The Death of Everything

I wrote last year about my five fears of dying. They included four familiar ones—fears of it hurting and fears of letting go of my life and my ego—along with one that is hazier and less familiar, the fear that when I die “the rest of the universe will end also. It’s a quirk of the brain, I think—a spinoff of trying to imagine nothingness.” This fear is not severe or continuous—it comes in flashes—but it is recurring. I don’t know if others have this experience. I haven’t read or heard that they do. But while I grant that this fear may have some roots in my particular psyche, I suspect that others have probably felt irrationally that their death will in some way threaten things or people beyond themselves.

Abyss (hdwallsource.com)

Abyss (hdwallsource.com)

Like many people, I sometimes think about what it would be like to die. Like them also—or most of them—I don’t dwell on it for very long or in much detail. At other times, though, out of nowhere the prospect of my death stands starkly before me (I’m 70), my gut tightens and there is an instant of blur, a panic, and a blankness until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of a frightening memory from childhood, or the imagining of being in a car crash. When my sense of impending extinction comes at me, my surroundings seem to take part in the disintegration as well. It is a little like being in a completely dark room and losing your sense of where the furniture is, of which wall is where, and then losing for a moment even your sense of being in a room.

Sometimes the surroundings that seem to dissolve are everything, the entire universe, in all directions. Sometimes, though, what seems to disappear is just me—that is, my past and the fact that I ever existed. As if there never was a Brock Haussamen. In either case, whether it’s my self or the universe that disappears, the feeling is of a hole, an absence larger than just my present self that comes into being at the same time as my dying. Grim but brief.

(idailymail.uk)

Disappeared (idailymail.uk)

As far as I can figure this illusion out, the basis for it is simply that my knowledge of both myself and the universe is all packed inside my head, so when the inevitability of death comes at me, my disappearance seems to include the disappearance of things beyond me. It reminds me of the connection children make between covering their eyes and their becoming invisible; the loss of perception (being dead) seems to mean the disappearance of the visible body itself (the self and/or the universe). We usually carry around reasonable boundaries between us and everything and everyone else and we can trust that the world persists without our seeing it all 24 hours a day. But when we imagine ourselves gone, that boundary is gone as well and anything else can be sucked into that black hole.

I can see how traditional religions relieve such anxieties of Hades or the pit or the abyss by promoting ancestors, deities, and an afterlife that transcend the natural world. Into the nineteenth century, most people knew they would die in their beds, with family around them, all of them sharing the long-practiced expectation that they would meet again soon. That consensus is gone now. We die less often in a religious context than in a medical one, whether at home or in a hospital. Death often smacks of failures, the doctors’ failures to stop a disease, our own failures to have stayed healthier. I wonder if such bleak undercurrents play a part in my flashes of doom.

(arlingtonnational.com)

Life (arlingtonnational.com)

On the brighter side, I have reminders to myself for easing my panicky moments. They are, I suppose, my good luck charms. Sometimes I consider people I know who have passed away and I reassure myself how easily and steadily, inspite of sadness, their friends and family carry on. During the last few days, as I’ve have been finishing this blog, two elderly friends have died. Despite the emotions of friends and family, it is a rock-solid sure thing that the lives of the rest of us are continuing, for now. This obvious continuity, this fool’s wisdom, reassures me more than it used to. I breathe easier. A death, no matter how great the loss, does no damage to existence itself. Nor to the chain of life. Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs. The world is as full of animation as it is of disintegration, life and death turning together as they reach through time.