The Sixth Mass Extinction

Posted on 11th March 2008 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Ionian Enchantment - Tags:

Artist's Impression of the Chicxulub Impact

Artist’s Impression of the Chicxulub Impact
Image courtesy of NASA

The most famous mass extinction is the Cretaceous-Tertiary, which killed the dinosaurs 65.5 million years ago. It was most likely caused by a meteorite that left a crater 150 miles in diameter off the Gulf of Mexico and a layer of iridium-rich dust all over the planet.

However the Permian-Triassic extinction was the most dramatic. Scientists still debate what cataclysm could have caused 90 percent of all life on Earth to suddenly vanish 250 million years ago. Meteors, mass volcanic eruptions, global warming, and even a sudden burst of space radiation have been proposed to explain it.

A solid consensus of biologists have established that the Earth is now experiencing a Sixth Mass Extinction event, the Holocene Extinction. This Mass Extinction event began 100,000 years ago, it’s like nothing the planet has ever seen before, and it’s all our doing.

It is theorized that Native Americans wiped out 80% of the North American animals within 1,000 years of their arrival, driving the giant ground sloths, camelids, giant armadillos to extinction. The disappearance of Woolly Mammoths, Irish Elk, Cave Lions, Cave Bears, Cave Hyenas, and even Neanderthals occurred after humans arrived in Europe. The ecosystems of Australia, the Caribbean, and Madagascar suffered collapses in biodiversity shortly after humans appeared in their environments 40,000, 8000, and 2000 years ago respectively.

Today the Earth is losing 30,000 species per year. That averages out to three species going extinct every hour, and with them go their genetic uniqueness, beauty, and contributions to our ecosystem. Each species lost detracts irretrievably from our own quality of life. Extinction is forever.

Physicist Adam Lipowski, through computer modeling, has found that, throughout evolutionary history, mutations regularly produce “superpredators,” a life form so stressing on the ecosystem that it extinguishes entire food chains, destroying even itself in the process.

Are humans a superpredator? Obviously we once were, through no fault of our own, but through the success of our genetics. We didn’t know any better; today, however, we have science, which is a blaring klaxon, alerting us to what we are doing to our planet’s biodiversity and ourselves. Human beings, unlike sharks and bacteria, have a cerebral cortex. This component of our brains gives us the ability to override our baser impulses and become masters our fate.

Artist's Impression of the Chicxulub Impact

American bison skull heap.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The World Conservation Union currently lists 40 percent of all species on Earth as endangered. This is a terrifying statistic, but it also means that there is still hope. There were a scant 750 bison left in America in 1890. Today we have brought their numbers up to 350,000, far less than the 60-100 million estimated to have roamed the United States in the mid-1800s, but proof that we still have some time left to change our course.

The world’s frogs, bees, polar bears, whales, and fish stocks are our planet’s “canaries in the coal mine,” and what drives them to extinction may mean our own demise. Unlike miners who can escape to the outside, we have no other planet to run to. Over 99% of species that ever lived are now extinct. Let’s not join that statistic.

Additional Sources

Michael J. Benton, When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time, Thames and Hudson, 2003.


  1. Great read. fyi, your link for super-predators does not work. I’m a little thrown off by the losing 30,000 species per year. The article you link that cites that doesn’t explain where that number comes from. I’m curious to know how that number was determined.

    Comment by Sour Swinger — March 11, 2008 @ 11:48 am

  2. Does anyone know what the rate of extinction is during the NON-cataclysmic phases? I.E “normal”? Because death exists for a reason, even species-wide. We’ve obviously accelerated the pace beyond what is considered “natural”, but are we not also part of nature?

    We should be mapping the genome of any species that is going extinct, so that we can still milk its genetic benefits years down the road, past its extinction.

    Comment by Clint — March 11, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

  3. Agreed but I believe there are some issues there that will prevent us from mapping the genomes.

    1) We are assuming there are species going extinct that we haven’t discovered yet.

    2) The process of mapping a genome is still very hard and time consuming.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but #2 is still not 100% accurate. Didn’t the human genome map change quite a bit depending on how the process was done?

    It would be cool to map every genome though. I’m sure somewhere down the line we will be able to create life by merely synthetically constructing a genome structure.

    Comment by Sour Swinger — March 11, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  4. Sour Swinger,

    Do’h! Stupid Newsweek. Adam Lipowski is main mind behind the super predator hypothesis in extinctions, I found this article and this one summed it up best.

    The 30,000 species a year is a number that gets thrown around quite a bit, and it’s not without controversy. The biologist E.O.Wilson is the most notable scientist pushing it (linked article goes through many of the factors considered in the estimate). The number should be taken in the context that there are an estimated 10 million species on Earth, including the ones we haven’t found. So these are definitely best guesses.

    It’s important to remember also that many species are highly localized, so we can wipe out a species of beetle just by clearing an acre of Amazon forest for farmland. The other day I mentioned the Orsonwelles spider. Two different species of this spider are apparently only distinguishable by the size of their sex organs, a distinction few people would notice, but they do count as separate species. So there’s that perspective to keep in mind too.


    Very true that species go extinct all the time. The idea of “balance with nature” is a complete myth. Nature is never in balance, but always changing and evolving. It is indeed the rate of extinction we are seeing presently that is so terrifying.

    As for collecting DNA. It’s unknown whether this will ever do us any good. According to Dr. Daniel Dennet, having Tyrannosaurus Rex DNA is completely useless if you don’t have a Tyrannosaurus Rex placenta to grow the embryo in. Environment has a lot to do with reproducing the species in question.

    Comment by ideonexus — March 11, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

  5. Correction: That should read “Tyranosaurus Rex Uterus.”

    Comment by Ryan Somma — March 12, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  6. Tyra Banks Rex? Oh sorry, thinking of uteruses causes my mind to wander.

    Anyway — Is the genetic code for a Tyrannosaurus Rex placenta not in the DNA too? We are already growing tissue from scratch — what makes you think uteruses are more than a decade away?

    I view DNA as simply a genetic program to be executed. Once we develop the Life 1.0 platform, you simply load the DNA program onto a USB flash drive, insert the drive into the Life Recombinator, make sure your Recombinator has enough carbon, water, and Trace Element Cartridges(tm) [now available at Wal-Mart], and run your program. Voila, there’s your life!

    I know this is unrealistic now, but what’s stopping this from ever being the case?

    Comment by Clint — March 12, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  7. […] For more information about the sixth mass extinction, click this link, and here, here, and here. […]

    Pingback by | Which species will survive the current mass extinction? — May 9, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

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