BOOKS: The Atlas of Endangered Species

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2009:

The Atlas of Endangered Species
Revised and Updated
by Richard Mackay
University of California Press
(2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94704-1012), 2009. 128 pages,
paperback, illustrated. $19.95.

If the entire content of The Atlas of
Endangered Species were to be redrawn into a
single huge map, the central portion would be a
succinct summary of current knowledge about
endangered species issues.
In the foreground, however, and in
several other prominent regions, unwary readers
might be warned “Here be flying bulls,” never
seen but known from bull feathers.
The back cover, for instance, warns
that “20% of the Earth’s species” are “facing
extinction by 2030,” a scant 21 years from now.
Atlas of Endangered Species author Richard Mackay
is far from the first to make that claim, but
Mackay provides an unwitting demonstration of how
it might happen, strictly through exercises in
modeling.


On page 14 Mackay writes, “Although 1.8
million living species have been named by
scientists, this is but a small fraction of the
estimated 10 million to 100 million species
thought to be alive on Earth. Most of these are
likely to be destroyed by humans before they have
even been identified.”
On page 88, Mackay asserts, “There are
probably about 10 million species in the kingdom
of animals. About 1.3 million of them have been
named and described,” along with about 300,000
plants, plus 200,000 species which are neither
plant nor animal, “but the total number can only
be estimated because much of the world has not
yet been properly surveyed.”
Most of the estimated nine to 90 million
unidentified species are believed to be
micro-organisms, insects, and deep sea
creatures. More than 90% might vanish just by
citng the low end of the unverifiable estimate
instead of the high end.
Most of these unknown species are so
small that probably no one will ever be able to
count them, or even confirm that they exist,
while deep sea creatures potentially have
habitats larger than twice the sum of dry land.
Further, most of the species that have
been identified are also too small to count, and
can so easily drift hither and yon that they
could be nearly ubiquitous without anyone knowing
about them, unless they transmit a deadly
disease. There is no cause, however, to
believe that many small species are declining.
Some, including problematic bacteria and
viruses, have been spread by human activity from
isolated niches in remote places into new hosts,
including our own bodies, and may be thriving as
never before.
Among animals who can be counted,
mammals are the phylum believed to be fewest in
number, and most mammals are more recently
evolved than the majority of birds, reptiles,
amphibians, fish, and insects.
Not surprisingly, the phylum including
the newest and fewest species includes the most
species deemed to be at risk by the International
Union for the Conservation of Nature: about 21%
of all known mammals. Adding to that the 4% of
mammal species whose population status is
unknown, one might claim, as the IUCN does,
that 25% of all mammals are in decline.
But just as many mammals are apparently
increasing in number. What the IUCN believes,
in other words, is about what one would find if
the whole projection was done by double coin
flips, with two “heads” being up, two “tails”
being down, and one “head” plus one “tail” being
no change.
Mammals are actually the only phylum
among whom as many as 20% of species are believed
to be at risk. The IUCN estimate for bird
species, who are about twice as numerous as
mammal species, is that about 12.5% may be at
risk of extinction.
The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened
Species, updated in 2008, includes 44,838
species, or about 3.5% of all the known species.
Among these, 16,928–barely more than 1% of all
known species–are considered to be at risk.
Just 3,246, .0025% of all known species, are
critically endangered.
The IUCN estimates that 76 mammal
species, 1.4% of all mammals known to exist at
any time since 1500, have gone extinct. This is
by far the highest known rate of extinction
among the phylums.
Yet Mackay asserts of all phylums in a
graphic on page 15 that, “In the 20th century
the rate of extinction increased to about 1% each
year–about 10,000 times higher than before human
technological society.”
If that rate had prevailed for the whole
century, Doomsday came and went. But Mackay
writes on page 88, “While the rate of extinction
through natural processes is estimated as less
than one species a year for every million
species, habitat destruction has led to a
current annual extinction rate of between 1,000
and 10,000 per million species.” Thus 1% is the
extreme upper end of his projection. The current
extinction rate, as Mackay reckons it, may be
one tenth of 1%.
And maybe this whole hypothesis is really
no more scientific than adding up the stated ages
of all the generations in the Bible to identify
the exact moment of Creation. In the end, The
Atlas of Endangered Species differs from tomes on
“creation science” chiefly in which articles of
faith it asserts.
A page of The Atlas of Endangered Species
captioned “Evolution” begins with Charles Darwin
and concludes with the insight that, “In the
20th century scientists studying life at the
molecular level recognized that natural selection
occurs only indirectly between whole organismsÅ at
a more fundamental level it is occurring between
genes.”
Yet this understanding is not linked to
recognition that many of the gravest challenges
to species, such as global warming, are the
engines driving evolution, altering habitat to
force adaptation, and sometimes giving immigrant
species an edge over those whose specialized
niches are shrinking, so that more species come
to share each habitat, bringing net gain in
biodiversity
Few rational people would want to
accelerate global warming, or cause extinctions,
but the case for more considerate behavior toward
habitat and other beings need not be supported by
bogus Doomsday scenarios any more than the case
for treating others as one would be treated
requires that this rule of conduct be enforced by
the threat of literal damnation to an eternal
fiery hell.

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