I was apprehensive last night as I headed uptown to Columbia University to hear anthropologist Richard Leakey and three others remind their audience that our species is driving Earth’s sixth great wave of mass extinction. I thought the event might be a downer. Boy, was it.
In 20 or 30 years, Leakey projected, “60 to 70 percent of the species we know today will disappear.” The national parks and animal sanctuaries we’ve created are islands, and whenever there’s a significant climate change--like the one we’re causing right now--“island species disappear because they can’t get off the island.” Furthermore, while human evolution has slowed to a crawl or stopped, the pathogens that attack us are evolving like crazy. We exist ourselves because of previous extinctions, Leakey pointed out--if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out, our mammalian ancestors wouldn’t have taken over. However, he said, “There’s no guarantee at all that in a sixth extinction, our species would survive.”