Environmentalism for the 21st Century

On pages 48 and 49 of the Sixth Extinction article there is a graph depicting the number of taxonomic families that have existed on earth for the past 600 million years. The graph shows that despite the five great extinctions that have occurred during this period, the number of living families has risen steadily, from around 200 families 500 million years ago to over 1,000 families today. This tendency to diversify over time is one of the major features of evolution. The line of the graph is a thick, solid one until it reaches the present day whereupon it turns abruptly downward as if to indicate a loss of families due to the “mass extinction” now underway. But the line does not remain thick and solid; it turns fuzzy right at the point where it turns down. I wrote to National Geographic and asked, “Why does the line turn fuzzy? Is it because there are actually no known families that have become extinct in recent times? I do not know of any families of ‘beetles, amphibians, birds and large mammals’ that have become extinct as implied in the text.”

The reply to my inquiry came from Robin Adler, one of the researchers who worked on the article. She thanked me for “sharing my thoughts on this complicated and controversial issue” but offered no answer to my question about the graph. Instead she asked me to “Rest assured that . . . the many members of our editorial team . . .worked closely with numerous experts in conservation biology, paleobiology, and related fields. The concept of a “sixth extinction” is widely discussed and, for the most part, strongly supported by our consultants and other experts in these areas, although specific details such as the time frame in which it will occur and the number of species that will be affected continues to be debated.”

Nowhere in the National Geographic article is there any mention that the “sixth extinction” is a controversial subject; it is presented as if it is a known fact. It is clear from the reply that the “mass extinction” is actually in the future (“the time frame in which it will occur”). In other words there is no evidence that a mass extinction is actually occurring now, even though the article plainly implies that it is. The reply also refers to the sixth extinction as a “concept” implying that it is just an idea rather than a proven fact. Perhaps a better title for the article would have been “No Mass Extinction Yet, Maybe Someday.”

It is very frustrating when a trusted institution such as the National Geographic resorts to sensationalism, exaggeration, and misleading illustrations. There is enough bad science and misinformation in the popular press as it is. One can only hope that the present tendency to ignore science and logic, rightly referred to as a “bad intellectual climate” by environmental philosopher Henry H. Webster, will eventually come to an end.

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