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The Greatest Dying

A fate worse than global warming.

Two hundred fifty million years ago, a monumental catastrophe devastated life on Earth. We don't know the cause-perhaps glaciers, volcanoes, or even the impact of a giant meteorite-but whatever happened drove more than 90 percent of the planet's species to extinction. After the Great Dying, as the end-Permian extinction is called, Earth's biodiversity-its panoply of species-didn't bounce back for more than ten million years.

Aside from the Great Dying, there have been four other mass extinctions, all of which severely pruned life's diversity. Scientists agree that we're now in the midst of a sixth such episode. This new one, however, is different-and, in many ways, much worse. For, unlike earlier extinctions, this one results from the work of a single species, Homo sapiens. We are relentlessly taking over the planet, laying it to waste and eliminating most of our fellow species. Moreover, we're doing it much faster than the mass extinctions that came before. Every year, up to 30,000 species disappear due to human activity alone. At this rate, we could lose half of Earth's species in this century. And, unlike with previous extinctions, there's no hope that biodiversity will ever recover, since the cause of the decimation-us-is here to stay.

To scientists, this is an unparalleled calamity, far more severe than global warming, which is, after all, only one of many threats to biodiversity. Yet global warming gets far more press. Why? One reason is that, while the increase in temperature is easy to document, the decrease of species is not. Biologists don't know, for example, exactly how many species exist on Earth. Estimates range widely, from three million to more than 50 million, and that doesn't count microbes, critical (albeit invisible) components of ecosystems. We're not certain about the rate of extinction, either; how could we be, since the vast majority of species have yet to be described? We're even less sure how the loss of some species will affect the ecosystems in which they're embedded, since the intricate connection between organisms means that the loss of a single species can ramify unpredictably.

But we do know some things. Tropical rainforests are disappearing at a rate of 2 percent per year. Populations of most large fish are down to only 10 percent of what they were in 1950. Many primates and all the great apes-our closest relatives-are nearly gone from the wild.

And we know that extinction and global warming act synergistically. Extinction exacerbates global warming: By burning rainforests, we're not only polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas) but destroying the very plants that can remove this gas from the air. Conversely, global warming increases extinction, both directly (killing corals) and indirectly (destroying the habitats of Arctic and Antarctic animals). As extinction increases, then, so does global warming, which in turn causes more extinction-and so on, into a downward spiral of destruction.

Why, exactly, should we care? Let's start with the most celebrated case: the rainforests. Their loss will worsen global warming-raising temperatures, melting icecaps, and flooding coastal cities. And, as the forest habitat shrinks, so begins the inevitable contact between organisms that have not evolved together, a scenario played out many times, and one that is never good. Dreadful diseases have successfully jumped species boundaries, with humans as prime recipients. We have gotten aids from apes, sars from civets, and Ebola from fruit bats. Additional worldwide plagues from unknown microbes are a very real possibility.

But it isn't just the destruction of the rainforests that should trouble us. Healthy ecosystems the world over provide hidden services like waste disposal, nutrient cycling, soil formation, water purification, and oxygen production. Such services are best rendered by ecosystems that are diverse. Yet, through both intention and accident, humans have introduced exotic species that turn biodiversity into monoculture. Fast-growing zebra mussels, for example, have outcompeted more than 15 species of native mussels in North America's Great Lakes and have damaged harbors and water-treatment plants. Native prairies are becoming dominated by single species (often genetically homogenous) of corn or wheat. Thanks to these developments, soils will erode and become unproductive-which, along with temperature change, will diminish agricultural yields. Meanwhile, with increased pollution and runoff, as well as reduced forest cover, ecosystems will no longer be able to purify water; and a shortage of clean water spells disaster.

In many ways, oceans are the most vulnerable areas of all. As overfishing eliminates major predators, while polluted and warming waters kill off phytoplankton, the intricate aquatic food web could collapse from both sides. Fish, on which so many humans depend, will be a fond memory. As phytoplankton vanish, so does the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. (Half of the oxygen we breathe is made by phytoplankton, with the rest coming from land plants.) Species extinction is also imperiling coral reefs-a major problem since these reefs have far more than recreational value: They provide tremendous amounts of food for human populations and buffer coastlines against erosion.

In fact, the global value of "hidden" services provided by ecosystems-those services, like waste disposal, that aren't bought and sold in the marketplace-has been estimated to be as much as $50 trillion per year, roughly equal to the gross domestic product of all countries combined. And that doesn't include tangible goods like fish and timber. Life as we know it would be impossible if ecosystems collapsed. Yet that is where we're heading if species extinction continues at its current pace.

Extinction also has a huge impact on medicine. Who really cares if, say, a worm in the remote swamps of French Guiana goes extinct? Well, those who suffer from cardiovascular disease. The recent discovery of a rare South American leech has led to the isolation of a powerful enzyme that, unlike other anticoagulants, not only prevents blood from clotting but also dissolves existing clots. And it's not just this one species of worm: Its wriggly relatives have evolved other biomedically valuable proteins, including antistatin (a potential anticancer agent), decorsin and ornatin (platelet aggregation inhibitors), and hirudin (another anticoagulant).

Plants, too, are pharmaceutical gold mines. The bark of trees, for example, has given us quinine (the first cure for malaria), taxol (a drug highly effective against ovarian and breast cancer), and aspirin. More than a quarter of the medicines on our pharmacy shelves were originally derived from plants. The sap of the Madagascar periwinkle contains more than 70 useful alkaloids, including vincristine, a powerful anticancer drug that saved the life of one of our friends.

Of the roughly 250,000 plant species on Earth, fewer than 5 percent have been screened for pharmaceutical properties. Who knows what life-saving drugs remain to be discovered? Given current extinction rates, it's estimated that we're losing one valuable drug every two years.

Our arguments so far have tacitly assumed that species are worth saving only in proportion to their economic value and their effects on our quality of life, an attitude that is strongly ingrained, especially in Americans. That is why conservationists always base their case on an economic calculus. But we biologists know in our hearts that there are deeper and equally compelling reasons to worry about the loss of biodiversity: namely, simple morality and intellectual values that transcend pecuniary interests. What, for example, gives us the right to destroy other creatures? And what could be more thrilling than looking around us, seeing that we are surrounded by our evolutionary cousins, and realizing that we all got here by the same simple process of natural selection? To biologists, and potentially everyone else, apprehending the genetic kinship and common origin of all species is a spiritual experience-not necessarily religious, but spiritual nonetheless, for it stirs the soul.

But, whether or not one is moved by such concerns, it is certain that our future is bleak if we do nothing to stem this sixth extinction. We are creating a world in which exotic diseases flourish but natural medicinal cures are lost; a world in which carbon waste accumulates while food sources dwindle; a world of sweltering heat, failing crops, and impure water. In the end, we must accept the possibility that we ourselves are not immune to extinction. Or, if we survive, perhaps only a few of us will remain, scratching out a grubby existence on a devastated planet. Global warming will seem like a secondary problem when humanity finally faces the consequences of what we have done to nature: not just another Great Dying, but perhaps the greatest dying of them all.

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. Hopi E. Hoekstra is John L. Loeb Associate Professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and curator of mammals at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.