Causes and Consequences


Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California

Discussions of the current extinction crisis all too often focus on the fates of prominent endangered species, and in many cases on deliberate overexploitation by human beings as the cause of the endangerment. Thus black rhinos are disappearing from Africa, because their horns are in demand for the manufacture of ceremonial daggers for Middle Eastern puberty rites; elephants are threatened by the great economic value of ivory; spotted cats are at risk because their hides are in demand by furriers; and whales are rare because, among other things, they can be converted into pet food.

Concern about such direct endangerment is valid and has been politically important, because public sympathy seems more easily aroused over the plight of furry, cuddly, or spectacular animals. The time has come, however, to focus public attention on a number of more obscure and (to most people) unpleasant truths, such as the following:

  • The primary cause of the decay of organic diversity is not direct human exploitation or malevolence, but the habitat destruction that inevitably results from the expansion of human populations and human activities.

  • Many of the less cuddly, less spectacular organisms that Homo sapiens is wiping out are more important to the human future than are most of the publicized endangered species. People need plants and insects more than they need leopards and whales (which is not to denigrate the value of the latter two).

  • Other organisms have provided humanity with the very basis of civilization in the form of crops, domestic animals, a wide variety of industrial products, and many important medicines. Nonetheless, the most important anthropocentric reason for preserving diversity is the role that microorganisms, plants, and animals

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