By: Myles Power Edited by: James Gurney & Hannah
As many of you know, I am not a fan of the BBC's Science Editor, David Shukman. In the past I have written and made videos about his unforgivingly poorly researched report on synthetic biology. I am still amazed at how someone who is so unqualified and so alarmist has been hired to not only report on science stories for the BBC, but also to work with science programme makers across the corporation. Having said that, it does help to explain the appalling TV show, ‘Bang Goes The Theory’. This is a show on which one of the presenters was asked if she had tried any of the GM-food she was favourably reporting on and she replied, 'No, I did not want to take the risk.' Now, I grew up watching some amazing science TV shows on the BBC, which is why I feel so compelled to call out those who I feel are damaging the corporation's image - Shukman's newest article is certainly doing that.
His article, ‘Why such a fuss about extinction?’ simply has no purpose. It does not discuss any new scientific findings, talk about any misconceptions of the public, interesting science trivia or any of the normal topics you find on the BBC Science News website. It is simply one man's views on extinction and why he thinks it's not such a big thing. It is also hard to read and to understand Shukman's point, as he constantly bounces between natural and 'man-made' extinction.
Shukman starts off by saying that extinction has been quite good for us, as we do not have to contend with velociraptors, sabre-toothed tigers and ‘one of those monster prehistoric insects like a vulture-sized dragonfly’. He then begins to talk about how extinction is not a new thing and five major extinction events have happened in the past. He even says that between 90% – 99% of all life has died out and that mammals do the worst when it comes to surviving (an average of 2 million years for a species), when compared to animals like clams which last between 5 and 7 million years. Here, Shukman is showing us his lack of scientific knowledge, as he seems to be unaware that the main cause of extinction is evolution. As life evolves, its precursors no longer exist and therefore become extinct. Even if life splits, eventually the original will evolve and change over time. Even life forms known as living fossils do evolve and are usually only superficially similar to their precursors. It is believed that there have been five major extinction events (Cretaceous-Paleogene, Triassic-Jurassic, Permian-Triassic, late Devonian and Ordovivian-Silurian) and although every living organism today has benefited from them in some way (not just humans) it is obvious that they were not good events for life on the whole. It is also obvious that 10% – 1% of all species that have ever existed are not around today. Scientists predict the number to actually be below 0.1%.
Shukman then shows his detachment from the scientific community by stating that the creature with the most adorable features and lovable eyes have attracted the strongest support and that no-one is fighting to save the tube worm. While this may be true for the average chap on the streets, it is certainly not the case for scientists and activists. Platanista gangetica, Blobfish, Proboscis monkeys, Chinese Salamander, etc, all have faces as ugly as sin but people are dedicating large portions of their life to ensuring that they will be around for future generations. As for the fight to save the tube worm, I was unaware that any were under threat, and if you ask me, I think some tube worms are adorable.
Shukman then speculates about Charles Darwin to back up his ‘why should you bother’ view on extinction. ‘Charles Darwin wrote of extinction in his landmark On the Origin of Species. For him, the process of evolution involved new species gaining ground and others losing out. He certainly did not mourn the passing of the losers.’ Darwin and other scientists like myself do see the extinction of a species as a major component of evolution. It is true that Darwin wasn’t concerned with extinction, because at the time the vast majority of observed extinction was natural, with a few noted exceptions. The thought that ‘man-made’ extinction could happen on the scale we see today would have been unthinkable and I believe that Darwin would have been concerned. He is even quoted as saying ‘The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.’
Unlike other mass extinctions in the past, the one that is happening now is because of us and is, for the most part, controllable. Shukman lists reasons as to why we should try to prevent the extinction of species. Most of the points I agree with, but one he lists is an example of him bouncing between man-made and natural extinction: ‘Another argument is moral – that as the most powerful species on the planet, we have an obligation not to obliterate others, especially if it is through wanton carelessness. In other words, a mark of civilisation would be to feel responsibility for the survival of weaker species.’ The morality of helping a species on the brink of natural extinction in its natural environment is very different to helping one that we have actively endangered, most of which are not considered to be ‘weaker species’.
At the end of his article, Shukman gives a Disney-esque reason for why we should care about all animals, even though the whole tone of the article has been, ‘Things die, get used to it’. He says we are the ‘first species to have gained the remarkable knowledge that every living thing has its DNA at its heart. We all share that.’ In closing, I feel I have to remind you that this is not some anonymous GCSE grade student posting their thoughts online, he is the BBC Science Editor. His job is to help bridge the gap between the scientific world and the guy on the street, to explain complex and often misunderstood scientific principles and to represent the scientific community; a community which is actually making one hell of a fuss about the preventable extinction of species.