Hurrying Evolution

“The argument between “sparing” and “sharing” as a conservation tool has been raging since researchers first coined the terms more than a decade ago.”

                                                ~ Fred Pearce

Most people, and almost all scientists, see the effects of climate change as threatening our very existence, since every species on Earth is interconnected and dependent on habitats supported by other species. The factors causing climate change are many and addressed through myriad actions to reduce greenhouse gasses, and change lifestyles, diets and transportation mechanisms. Among the efforts to mitigate the effects are some directed at saving endangered species and the habitats they require. 

Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society identifies, “… ‘the four pillars’ of conservation in the modern era — a stabilized human population, increasingly concentrated in urban areas, able to escape extreme poverty, and with a shared understanding of nature and the environment.” We haven’t made much progress in any of these ‘pillars’ and concerns about human impacts on the stability of the Earth and life upon it continue.

According to Dharna Noor, researcher Catalina Pimiento says, “… 18 percent of marine megafauna may go extinct within the next century if current trends continue … Losing predators that sit at the top of food chains can cause massive collapses in ecosystems … this would have catastrophic effects in marine systems.”

If you tinker with the machine, you better be careful not to upset the whole system. Right now, we’re doing inestimable damage to the natural systems on Earth that support human life as well as other species.

Beyond tinkering, reintroduction biologist Elizabeth Kolbert reports that researchers are looking into assisting evolution to protect various species. The concept is not new and she notes, “has produced a genetically-modified American chestnut tree that’s resistant to chestnut blight, the fungal pathogen that, in the early decades of the 20th century, killed off nearly every chestnut tree in North America.”

Kolbet references Conservationist Katherine Moseby, “There’s a lot of evidence to show that evolution can occur over very short time periods, particularly when there’s strong selection. The hope that motivates Moseby’s work is that given a chance, which is to say more time, species may be able to adapt to introduced predators. The results so far have offered some encouragement, but have also proved difficult to interpret … Moseby’s is one of a growing number of conservation projects that proceed from the premise it’s no longer enough to protect species from change. Humans are going to have to intervene to help species change.”

“But at a time when the border between the natural and the manmade, the wild and the synthetic, is becoming increasingly blurred, gene editing animals to protect them — or to protect other species from them — may become increasingly appealing.”

I mostly trust in science and scientists, but I have seen many scifi movies with that exact theme. What could go wrong?

I also remember the old TV advertisement for Chiffon margarine, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

Additional information:

Richard Conniff, Earth Day Despair? Read This, April 22, 2018, The New York Times

Elizabeth Kolbert, Assisting Evolution: How Far Should We Go to Help Species Adapt?, February 9, 2021, YaleEnvironment360 

Dharna Noor, Losing Charismatic Marine Species Could Lead to ‘Massive’ Ecosystem Collapse, 4/17/20, Gizmodo

Fred Pearce, Sparing vs Sharing: The Great Debate Over How to Protect Nature, December 3, 2018, YaleEnvironment360

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