Endangered species: Should we save them?

“More than 20,000 plants and animals are on the brink of disappearing forever,” according to a National Geographic report, which raises an obvious question: which ones should we save? Or perhaps, as some recommend, we should let endangered species go and allow nature to take its course?

That’s the position advanced by Associate Professor R. Alexander Pyron, who in a piece for the Washington Post put it starkly: extinction is part of evolution, there’s no need for man to intervene.

Pyron antagonists highlight the medicinal, agricultural and ecological benefits of preserving endangered species. Others maintain that human beings have an innate urge to preserve life, and that may be the most compelling reason of all. But where’s the balance?

Should we save endangered species?

Check out this breakdown of the pros and cons.


Medicinal benefits
• The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: “More than a quarter of all prescriptions written annually in the United States contain chemicals discovered in plants and animals…It was ‘only’ a fungus that gave us penicillin.”
• Simplyeducate.me: “The drug digitalis, derived from purple foxglove, prevented the death of millions of people. Digitalis is used to treat congestive heart failure (CHF), fluid retention, irregular heartbeat, asthma, epilepsy, tuberculosis, headache, constipation…and spasm. It can also heal wounds and burns.” Plus: “Plants are not the only source of medicine. Animals have medicinal properties too (e.g., frogs produce compounds that prevent infection; honeybee products prevent microbes from thriving; and elements in a viper’s venom control blood pressure).”

Agriculture and industry benefits
• FWS: “It has been estimated that there are almost 80,000 species of edible plants, of which fewer than 20 produce 90 percent of the world’s food.”
• Simplyeducate.me: “Animals such as gecko and spiders are also important natural pest control agents. Geckos feed on at least five different kinds of pests while spiders are known to prey on cockroaches.”

Ecological value
• BBC article: “Preserving ecosystems [is] for our own good, both in terms of practical things like food and water, and less physical needs like beauty…We should protect them…It’s about seeing human society and wild ecosystems as one inseparable whole.”
• Simplyeducate.me: “Animal or plant extinction can drastically change an ecosystem…Removing one animal or plant species from the ecosystem will compromise the life of other organisms that interact with it” (e.g., “The gray wolf controls the population of the elk, the killer whale affects the diet of bald eagles”).


Extinction is natural
• FWS: “Extinction is part of the natural order.”
• Pyron: “…the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency. Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. Species constantly go extinct, and every species that is alive today will one day follow suit. There is no such thing as an ‘endangered species,’ except for all species.”
• Pyron: “The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings. Yes, we have altered the environment and, in doing so, hurt other species. This seems artificial because we, unlike other life forms, use sentience and agriculture and industry. But we are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural. Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.”

No evidence of species’ decline
• FWS: “Although scientists have classified approximately 1.7 million organisms, they recognize that the overwhelming majority have not yet been catalogued. Between 10 and 50 million species may inhabit our planet.”
• Pyron: “The authors of another recent National Academy of Sciences paper point out that species richness has shown no net decline among plants over 100 years across 16,000 sites examined around the world.”

Arbitrary criteria/human obsession
• Pyron: “There is no return to a pre-human Eden…We are obsessed with reviving the status quo.”
• When we do take steps to protect animals or plants, what’s the criteria? Writes Christine Dell’Amore, for National Geographic: “In some cases, scientists and economists use algorithms and logistical models to determine a return on investment for trying to save the last of the last: If x dollars are put toward saving the spotted owl, it’s possible to determine how many might be saved. In practice, though, scientists and conservations prioritize based on a mix of public perception and a species’ economic value—for instance, whether it’s a popular seafood or brings tourism dollars to a state.”
• Dell’Amore quotes M. Sanjayan, an American conservation scientist: “What we decide to save really is very arbitrary – it’s much more often done for emotional or psychological or national reasons than would ever be made with a model.”
• Dell’Amore also quotes ethologist Marc Bekoff: “Ants, for instance, are essential environmental helpers, distributing seeds, aerating soils, and eating other insects that are often human pests…If we’re going to save pandas rather than ants, we need a good reason, and being cute is not a good reason.”

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