What’s the point? Ethics and extinction

Posted by: Jessica Devitt @Colette_Keeha


Figure 1. We must protect endangered species (Yadav, 2016).

Robert Alexander Pyron’s Washington Post article (Pyron, 2017) titled: ‘We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution’, caused somewhat of a stir in the natural sciences community. It was met with pushback and understandable outrage, especially from those who work to save endangered species and ecosystems. At first glance, I balked at what he was promoting too; my thoughts were that he is encouraging an anthropocentric world view, that the ability for humans to prosper is the only thing of real importance in this world, regardless of what they destroy in the process; and that it is not our moral obligation to save endangered species unless they provide something of practical importance for humanity.

All of that sounds pretty grim to me, yet I also think he has raised an interesting argument, and that he is probably not the only person that thinks this way: it should be noted that he later published a follow-up piece where he further clarifies his reasoning and thoughts with regard to what he wrote.


the end is nigh

Figure 2. Dinosaur extinction (Boblog, 2010).

Based on Pyron’s original article, I felt that the following were some of his main points:

  1. Extinction events are an evolutionary norm, and we should accept them.
  2. Humans are part of the natural world, therefore even if extinction is human-caused, it is no more inimical than ‘natural’ extinction events.
  3. Saving endangered species is a waste of time unless that species is of practical importance to humanity.
  4. Species extinction is not a moral issue for humanity if its loss does not negatively impact humanity.
  5. The animal kingdom is best left alone. For instance invasive species will naturally out compete less hardy native species, which could lead to native species extinction, which is just evolution at work.

Figure 3. Invasives must go (McMillan, 2012).

Like the Nature article by Antonelli and Perrigo (2018) in response Pyron’s piece, I too did not know whether to discuss my thoughts around his article from a scientific perspective or from an ethical perspective. The article also goes further with this issue asking if scientists should even enter into ethical arguments – is it not our job to merely present the facts? Antonelli and Perrigo (2018) note that half of their contingent felt that the rebuttal should be a purely scientific one, and half felt that it was most definitely an ethical argument. They conceded that it is most likely both, and urge fellow natural scientists to weigh in on topics such as this from both an ethical, and evidentiary standpoint.


Figure 4. The trolley problem (McGeddon, 2016).

For myself, I am more interested in exploring the ethical issues that Pyron’s article brings up, as not only am I not learned enough in the scientific mechanisms around his points, but I also think that one could probably find enough evidence to make a compelling argument either way, well at least to relative layperson such as myself. Pyron’s article made me think though, why is it important for me as an individual to conserve natural environments, and species? What’s the actual point in all this?


Figure 5.  Lepidoptera (Landcare Research, n.d.).

The point for me is that I personally think that the natural world, and the species within it, have intrinsic value in their own right.  Hence, that in and of itself is enough for me to try and protect it.  It brings me joy to know that, for instance, the Lord Howe Island stick insect (Dryococelus australis) exists, even though I will likely never see it in person. Further, this stick insect may not have any ‘practical’ benefit for humanity in existing, but I know I would be sad if it were to become extinct. Following this, how would we all reach agreement on what is an important species and what isn’t? Does an ‘impractical’ yet culturally important species get to be saved?


Figure 6. Lord Howe Island phasmid (Granitethighs, 2011).

Rightly or wrongly I also fall into a slippery slope argument where if humanity collectively is not willing to protect endangered species, if we are only interested in preserving what directly serves us, then where does that end? Does that then eventually extend to other humans? Would we later decide that some people are not worth helping because they are not ‘useful’? This reminds me of the medieval christian Great Chain of Being, where all living and non-living things are divided up hierarchically by importance or closeness to god, if you were lower on the chain then you were of less importance (Nee, 2005).  If you were a commoner for instance then you had less rights than say a noble person.


Figure 7. Great Chain of Being (Valdes, 1579).

I realise that this might be somewhat of a stretch to say that not saving endangered species will end up with humanity disregarding those people that are deemed not useful or of ‘less importance’. However, it seems to me that we have been, for the most part, progressively moving away from categorising beings on importance and usefulness, and instead moving in a direction that identifies all living things as important in their own right. Whether I am wasting my time or not I want to stay on this path of protecting what cannot protect itself, because I think at the very least this is a mind-set that will benefit all humanity in the long run.

jessJessica Devitt is a PhD student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and Plant and Food Research. She is researching the respiratory responses of the golden-haired bark beetle to advance fumigation techniques. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs from the University of Auckland, Adriana Najar-Rodriguez and Matthew Hall from Plant and Food Research.


Antonelli, A., & Perrigo, A. (2018). The science and ethics of extinction. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1.

Boblog. (2010) Dinosaur extinction.  Retrieved from http://thechurchofbob.com/boblog/tag/dinosaur-extinction/

Granitethighs. (2011). Lord Howe Island phasmid.  Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dryococelus_australis

Landcare Research (n.d.) Lepidoptera. Retrieved from https://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/science/plants-animals-fungi/animals/invertebrates/systematics/lepidoptera

McGeddon. (2016). The trolley problem: should you pull the lever to divert the runaway trolley onto the side track? Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

McMillan, S. (2012). Invasives must go.  Retrieved from https://www.cartoonmovement.com/cartoon/827

Nee, S. (2005). The great chain of being. Nature435(7041), 429.

Yadav, P. (2015). We must protect endangered species. Retrieved from http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/we-must-protect-endangered-species/

Pyron, R. A. (2017). We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution. The Washington Post (22 November 2017).

Valdes, D. (1579). Great Chain of Being.  Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_chain_of_being





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s