Always Trust Your Gut Extinct

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach, title from a Paula Abdul quote

The backstory for today’s adventure is that this is the first scientific question I seriously researched. It is also the reason I don’t trust the “experts” or the “consensus”. In 1988, E. O. Wilson, an ant expert with little knowledge of extinction, made a startling claim that extinction rates were through the roof. He claimed there was a “Sixth Wave” of extinctions going on, and that we were losing a huge amount, 2.7% of all the species per year. This claim quickly went viral and soon was believed by everyone. So back in 2003, a decade ago now, I researched the question, found that Wilson was wrong by orders of magnitude, wrote it up, sent it around to the journals to see if they would publish it,  and … well, let me just say that I was not received kindly. I was a voice crying in the wilderness. They didn’t give me a look-in, I was challenging the consensus. As far as I know, I was the only one saying that Emperor Wilson had no clothes … and as a result, I was not encouraged to continue publicizing my views.

But the world goes on, and three years ago I simplified and streamlined my work and published it as a post on WUWT entitled “Where Are The Corpses“. In it, I argued that there was no “Sixth Wave” of extinctions, that Wilson’s numbers were wildly exaggerated, and that current extinction rates (except in isolated islands and Australia) are not unusual in any way. Dr. Craig Loehle rewrote and developed the ideas, and he got it peer-reviewed and published in Diversity and Distributions, available here. Craig wrote about it in a post entitled “New paper from Loehle & Eschenbach shows extinction data has been wrongly blamed on climate change due to island species sensitivity“. Title says it all …

extinctions_birds_mammals_historicalFigure 1. Stacked graph of total historical bird and mammal extinctions by year. This charts of the spread of European species (foxes, cats, rabbits, dogs, humans, weeds, diseases, etc.) to Australia and the islands. The earliest extinctions are from the time Europeans arrived in the Caribbean. There is a second wave of exploration and settlement in the 1700s. Finally, the spread of empires in the 1800’s led to the peak rates around the turn of the last century. Since then, the rates have dropped.

Having written so early and so extensively to try to debunk the claims of massive extinction rates and the bogus “sixth wave of extinction” hyped by the alarmists,  I was pleased to receive a note from Anthony pointing out the publication of a new study in Science magazine (paywalled, naturally) entitled Can We Name Earth’s Species Before They Go Extinct? It’s gotten lots of media attention, mostly due to the fact that in the Abstract, they say that estimates of extinction rates are way overblown. My emphasis:

Some people despair that most species will go extinct before they are discovered. However, such worries result from overestimates of how many species may exist, beliefs that the expertise to describe species is decreasing, and alarmist estimates of extinction rates.

I must say, seeing that phrase “alarmist estimates of extinction rates” in Science made me smile, it was a huge vindication. However, I fear that they still have not grasped the nettle. I say that because at the end of the paper they say:

Conclusion

The estimates of how many species are on Earth (5 ± 3 million) are now more accurate than the moderate predictions of extinction rates (0.01 to 1% per decade). The latter suggest 500 to 50,000 extinctions per decade if there are 5 million species on Earth.

Why do I think that their conclusion is so badly flawed?

Like many modern scientists, rather than trying to find the most probable, they simply assume the worst. So they give their calculations assuming a 1% decadal extinction rate. Here’s the problem. That’s no more believable than Wilson’s 2.7% per decade rate. There are about 3,300 mammal species living on the continents (excluding Australia). If we assume that one percent of them go extinct per decade, that would mean that we should be seeing about 33 continental mammal extinctions per decade. It’s worse for birds, a 1% extinction rate for birds would be about 80 continental birds per decade. We have seen absolutely nothing even vaguely resembling that. That’s only slightly below Wilson’s estimate of a 2.7% extinction rate, and is still ridiculously high.

Instead of 33 mammals and 80 birds going extinct on the continents per decade, in the last 500 years on the great continental landmasses of the world, we’ve only seen three mammals and six birds go extinct. Only nine continental mammal and bird species are known to have gone extinct in 500 years. Three mammals and six birds in 500 years, that’s less than one continental mammal extinction per century, and these highly scientific folks are claiming that 30 mammals and 80 birds are going extinct per decade?  … once again I’m forced to ask, where are the corpses?

This kind of world-blindness astounds me. I’ve heard of living in an ivory tower, but if you were making the claim that it’s raining, wouldn’t you at least look out the ivory windows to see if water were actually falling from the sky? How can you seriously claim that we’re losing dozens and dozens of species per year when there is absolutely no sign of that in the records?

Because the reality is that despite humans cutting down the forests of the world at a rate of knots for hundreds and hundreds of years, despite clearcutting for lumber, despite slash-and-burn, despite conversions to cropland, despite building hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and fences, despite everything … only nine continental mammal and bird species have gone extinct.

That gives us actual, not theoretical but actual, estimates of the historical extinction rates for continental birds and animals. For continental mammals that works out to 3 extinctions per 3,300 continental mammal species per 50 decades equals 0.002% per decade, somewhat below their low estimate of 0.01% per decade. For birds, it’s 6 extinctions per 8000 continental species per 50 decades, which is only slightly lower. If we assume that we’ve missed four out of five of the historical extinctions, very unlikely but I suppose possible, it still works out to only about 0.01%.

So their very lowest estimate, that of an extinction rate of 0.01% per decade, turns out to be a maximum estimate of what we’ve seen on the continents over the last five centuries.

Now, this does not include the islands and Australia. Rates there have historically been quite high. But the high historical rates there, as shown above in Figure 1, are the result of what might be called “First Contact”—the first introduction of numbers of European plants, animals, and diseases to previously isolated areas. But in 2013, there are few islands on the planet that haven’t seen First Contact. As a result, the extinction rates on the islands and in Australia, while still higher than on the continents, are extremely unlikely to have another peak such as they had at First Contact.

Finally, let me say that the low extinction rates should not be any cause for complacency. What my studies have shown is that the real threat to mammal and bird species is not habitat reduction, as incorrectly claimed for the last couple decades. The real extinction threat to birds and mammals is now and always has been predation, either by humans, or by imported “alien” species, particularly on islands. Hunting by humans threatens bonobo chimpanzees and other primates, as well as tigers, rhinoceros, and other mammal and bird species. Hunting is the extinction threat, not habitat destruction, and always has been, whether the hunters were animals or humans.

CODA

People are always giving me grief about how I’m not getting with the picture, I’m not following the herd, I’m not kowtowing to the consensus. I have no problem doing that, particularly given my experience regarding extinctions. For years I was the only person I knew of who was making the claim that E. O. Wilson should have stuck to his ants and left extinctions alone. Wherever I looked scientists disagreed with my findings. I didn’t have one person I knew, or one person I read, who thought I was right. Heck, even now, a decade later, the nettle still hasn’t been grasped, people are just beginning to realize that they were fools to blindly believe Wilson, and to try to manage a graceful climb down from the positions they took.

What I learned in that episode was that my bad number detector works quite well, that I should stick to my guns if I think I’m right, and that I should never, ever, ever place any faith in the opinions of the experts. They were all wrong, every single last swingin’ Richard of them, and I was right. Doesn’t mean I’ll be right next time, I’ve been wrong plenty both before and since … but it has given me the courage to hold on to some extremely minority positions.

It is my strong belief that I will also be vindicated in my claim that the earth’s temperature is regulated, not by CO2, but by a host of interlocking and mutually supportive homeostatic mechanisms that maintain the temperature within a fairly narrow range … time will tell. In my opinion, the experts in the climate field have shown that they don’t know a whole lot more about the real underpinnings of the climate than E. O. Wilson knew about extinctions … but that’s just me, and YMMV.

The very finest of a lovely day to you all,

w.

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tgmccoy

As my scientific background was Biology- I agree. good points, Willis as usual…

I have written about this false claim many times. The most recent on my web site here;
http://drtimball.com/2012/david-suzuki-and-scientific-and-social-responsibility/

John West

The “consensus” of the experts at NASA on January 28, 1986 was that the space shuttle Challenger was ready to launch:

So, we’re going to base the decision to launch legislative (forced) restructuring of the global economy on consensus?

Wasn’t there an article some time back on WUWT that showed these extinctions are nearly all island species (except for a few cases) that became extinct once regular communications with other areas were established?

mark fraser

But what about the snailbat?

Hwan

great stuff Willis!

Willis here is some real science and they now prove the believed theory was wrong . .
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=shrunken-proton-baffles-scientists&WT.mc_id=SA_DD_20130125

GoodBusiness

You paper is well reasoned and will be attacked by the entire E=GREEN industry. For their goal is to reduce HUMAN populations by 2/3 as stated by the Sierra Club, Green Peace and others that pay for a green research institute – their chief Scientist got on TV and said for the earth to become 100% sustainable humans must reduce their population by 2/3 or maybe 4 billion need to die to save the world.
Consensus OPINION is just that OPINION and should not be confused with any kind of proper science. Keep up you good work for they have no facts in their data sets so like AGW it will fall apart in a short time. They can never obtain a SCIENTIFIC PEER REVIEWED PROOF as they will not provide the the base data set. Without the base data how can one recreate the hypothesis and to test the conclusion for validity?
Illegitimi non carborundum

nvw

Willis,
Did the Science paper reference Loehle & Eschenbach?

Gareth Phillips

It’s reported today that for the first time on record, Mistle thrushes are completely absent from UK gardens. Their population along with sparrows and starlings has crashed. On the other hand many species have done well. Big garden bird count next weekend for those who want to get involved.

Rick K

Willis, I always learn so much from you. Not only in the material you present but in the way you think. Thank you for sharing both with us. You just keep on doing what you’re doing! There are many applecarts that need upsetting and you do it better than most!

george e. smith

Well I think we need a public investigation of why during the Elizabethan era, there was not a single animal ever went extinct. With Frank Drake and his fellow pirates running all over the world’s oceans, they had to be killing off something; well maybe it was all fishes that they offed in those years.

nc

Willis, if you where ever on David Suzuki’s Christmas card list, you have now been scratched off.

analyticalsciencesblog

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
-Richard Feynman

It all boils down to Liberals refusing to accept just how insignificant humanity really is in the big picture. They just have to matter, so project catastrophe
in our wake.

John West

Public service announcement: Don’t copy-past while distracted; Challenger explosion does not equal discovery tribute. (sigh)

Willis Eschenbach

nvw says:
January 25, 2013 at 10:52 am

Willis,
Did the Science paper reference Loehle & Eschenbach?

No such luck. I figure the climbdown is going to be effected without anyone ever really admitting that Wilson had his head up his anomaly and fooled just about everyone.
w.

Paul Marko

Do you mean to say that human progress is not going to be responsible for more extinctions than our Pleistocene kin that hunted the mammoths into extinction, along with the saber tooth’s, giant sloths, wooly rhinoceros, giant beaver, etc., etc., etc.
If we were capable of that slaughter considering our population density, you need to re-evaluate. /sarc, if necessary.

Curious George

It depends on a definition of species. A Sierra Club docent once told us that trout from one stream is a different species than a trout from a stream on the other side of mountains. I asked him if Japanese humans were the same species as African humans. Of course, he said.

g2-55527e4d0e6a7560016aa81dbd8b142e

2010 – No Known Species Went Extinct . http://www.anenglishmanscastle.com/archives/009796.html
2011 – Another Year Of No Extinctions In the Great Extinction Event http://www.anenglishmanscastle.com/archives/010055.html
The number of species examined increased again to 62,000.
The Red List – Species changing IUCN Red List Status (2010-2011)
Species declared extinct – 0
Species previously declared extinct now unknown – 2

Willis Eschenbach

Gareth Phillips says:
January 25, 2013 at 10:53 am

It’s reported today that for the first time on record, Mistle thrushes are completely absent from UK gardens. Their population along with sparrows and starlings has crashed. On the other hand many species have done well. Big garden bird count next weekend for those who want to get involved.

I’ve always wondered why it is that folks love catastrophes. Half a catastrophe just won’t do. I do not find a single report saying that there were no mistle thrushes seen in the UK. I see reports that their numbers have decreased by half … but half a catastrophe won’t do.
w.
PS—If I were a Mistle Thrush, you wouldn’t find my okole in England, it’s an icebox right now …

albertalad

Might I comment the wolf became extinct in the US until Canada resupplied in Yellowstone as an experiment. Wolves are still rare in Europe. They seem to be thriving today in the US. Canada also resupplied Russia and other far northern nations with buffalo that had been wiped out previously. The US buffalo population is now also coming back after being almost wiped off the face of the earth. It seems to me modern man had done much to begin the process of re-establishing once original species back in their former ranges,rather than wipe out species. There are many more such projects ongoing even as I write worldwide. Whales come to mind. Not to mention most modern day tigers are in western zoos. Perhaps the world needs to understand extinctions levels are happening in third world countries, especially Africa and India, and China. There are problems. Perhaps we should remember then world isn’t North America.

Rick

I looked up Wilson and see that he is now 83 or 84 but I was wondering if he ever revisited his “sixth wave of extinctions” and if anyone ever called him on it?
Anyone know if he ever stepped down on his position?

Not sure if you mentioned it, but in addition to the lack of a surge in extinctions, there is also a constant flow of new species discoveries!
Birds: “During the 20th century, ornithologists published a number of periodic reviews of newly described species. The purpose of each of these was to collect together in a single paper, for ease of reference, all new species’ descriptions published in the period of study, and to present an analysis of these, indicating which represent valid species, and which, for various reasons, do not.
The first such review was published in 1934, by the ornithologist Wilhelm Meise, covering the period 1920 to 1934. Meise presented his review to the Eighth International Ornithological Congress (IOC) in Oxford. The review listed 600 new species’ names described in that period. Meise was of the opinion that between 135 and 200 represented good species. At the ninth IOC in 1938, Meise presented a second paper, listing 23 new species described in the intervening period, plus a further 36 which had been described during 1920-1934 and not covered in the earlier paper. ”
New species discovered in New Guinea, alone, from 1998 to 2008:
“Among the new species discovered from 1998 to 2008 were 218 new kinds of plants (of which around 100 are orchids), 580 invertebrates, 134 amphibians, 2 birds, 71 fish (including an extremely rare 8-foot-long river shark), 43 reptiles and 12 mammals.”

JamesNV

John West – that’s an offensive and idiotic comparison. WTFs with all these space shuttle disaster comparisons? Good grief.

D.B. Stealey

Excellent as usual, Willis.
Paul Marko mentions mammoths going extinct. This link [originally posted here by Gail Combs] is fascinating. [Pay no attention to the blog name, etc. Just try to figure out what really happened to the millions of Mammoths that roamed the Northern latitudes not all that long ago.]

Peter Crawford

Willis, E.O. Wilson is s scientist like yourself. Has the penny dropped yet, or the second shoe ?
Scientists are no cleverer than anyone else they just think they are.
Meanwhile my Institute in North Wales is investigating the relationship between Professor Steve Jones’s work on the DNA of snails and Italian musical thought in the 17th century.
The results may be devastating.. Then again further research may be required.

Craig Moore

How will John Kerry handle this news as he has taken up the alarmist drumbeat as his#1 priority as Secy of State?

L Nettles

I am better off trusting Willis’s Gut

SadButMadLad

There’s not much on E O Wilson’s wiki page about the extinctions study. Just a few sentences at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._O._Wilson#Ecology
Considering how wrong Wilson has been proven to be, there should be a few more words about it.

@John West: 10:39 am
Your point about Challenger and consensus is valid.
I think, however, the real lesson to be taken from Challenger are the facts that:
Challenger had been delayed 6 times prior to Jan 28 and NASA was becoming the butt of jokes.
On the morning of Jan 28, pad temperatures were 28 degs F. There was vocal dissent from Thiokol engineers
Consensus without opposition is one thing.
Consensus that doesn’t heed opposition is quite another.
Read: Telecon Meeting (Ethical Decisions – Morton Thiokol and the Challenger Disaster)
Author(s): Roger M. Boisjoly (former Thiokol engineer, “Seal Team”)
http://www.onlineethics.org/Topics/ProfPractice/PPEssays/thiokolshuttle/shuttle_telecon.aspx
The whole page is worth a read, but the plot thickens after “Figure 10.”

Then Joe Kilminster of MTI was asked by Larry Mulloy of NASA for his launch decision. Joe responded the he did not recommend launching based upon the engineering position just presented. Then Larry Mulloy asked George Hardy of NASA for his launch decision. George responded that he was appalled at Thiokol’s recommendation but said he would not launch over the contractor’s objection. Then Larry Mulloy spent some time giving his views and interpretation of the data that was presented with his conclusion that the data presented was inconclusive. …. The statement by Larry Mulloy about our data being inconclusive should have been enough all by itself to stop the launch according to NASA’S own rules,

Consensus is Opinion right or wrong in my humble opinion . . .

David L

You’re forgetting to add all the animals that have gone extinct that we never knew about, as well as Big Foot, the Yeti, Sasquatch, Chupacabra, the Loch Ness Monster, the Boggy Creek monster, and the New Jersey Devil, to name a few. Now the extinction percent is alarmingly high, isn’t it? /sarc

RHS

I once read that 99.9% of the Earth’s species which have ever existed were extinct before many harnessed fire.
Which makes me question is the green movement trying to preserve? I think trying to limit/manage the impact of man kind is one thing. Trying to take us back to the stone age is another…

Mikegeo

People never seem to look at the species creation or development side. The march of living beings is always toward extinction which naturally means that new species have taken up for adaptation and opportunistic reasons. If the experts are right, over 95% of all the species that have ever existed are now extinct and yet we are possibly in an era of huge diversity, perhaps unmatched for some time. So are there any papers estimating the march forward development rates for existence of new species?
I guess that would be far too optimistic for them.

RHS

Doh, meant before Man harnessed fire.

Why is the extinction of a species a bad thing? I thought that was just survival of the adequately fit and part of nature. Is there any evidence species numbers should remain static? Will “saving” a weak species damage other species?

oldseadog

Brilliant paper.
A lesson for us all, stick to our guns.

Ever since your last post here about this topic; was it really three years already?
Anyway, I raise various plants including orchids. When reading the historical information about the great biologists who established the families and genera; one finds that “original” species identification required dessication, drawings, habitat description and often microscopic criteria to separate closely related species.
There are many species that have a species identification filing; but have not been found again. No, these are not extinction events. Instead they’re attributed to various issues including bad information, poorly kept or dried specimens, loose or perhaps overzealous desire of the biologist to be the first to identify a species…
Which is along way round to get to the point; there is NO definitive original basis for species identification.
Looking at the ‘big’ peaks in the extinction charts above; there is a huge peak when the famous biologists were busy identifying/verifying species, there is another peak in the mid 20th century just when many of the original species cards/filings were reviewed. Perhaps many of the ‘assumed’ extinctions are species that were not originally ‘found’ properly and may have never ‘been’.
Add to this, the issue that when unusual species are found; there is no truly exhaustive effort to find ALL populations and all locations where populations are found. Critters are declared ‘in danger’ because where they were originally found they are not currently found. Again, no truly exhaustive search. Take the case of the elusive ivory billed woodpecker; first it was thought extinct, then it was maybe, again extinct, now it is a definite maybe.
Most populations thought to be extinct are originally sparse to begin with and limited in distribution. If the species is rigidly dependent on narrow habitat requirements then it is always in danger of extinction and it doesn’t require man’s interference to cause it; though there are plenty of examples where man did not help. A prime example would be the dodo, as someone else mentioned, isolated island populations.

Kelly

Mr. Eschenbach,
Unfortunately being proven correct is sometimes it’s only reward. Dire predictions of species extinction are based entirely on numerical sleight-of-hand. If I set the number of species (known and unknown) high enough I can make one extinction sound like a disaster.
I was reminded of a quote from P.J. O’Rourke who said, “A lay person might want to ask one or two questions. Are we talking rhinos and tigers or are we talking shower curtain mold and windshield bugs?” I would add “hypothetical shower curtain mold and undiscovered windshield bugs.”

Dave

One of the authors of this paper is Robert May, a very big mouth and a high priest of scaring people about the alleged consequences of AGW. Happily his star is on the wane, at least in the UK.

DCA

Willis,
@ http://judithcurry.com/2013/01/25/open-thread-weekend-7/#more-10986
A fan of *MORE* discourse commented on your post.
It appears he doesn’t have the nerve to address you directly.

H.M.

Bjorn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, published a decade ago or so, discussed at length the weakness (or absurdity, or groundlessness) of Wilson’s extinction fantasy (see his chapter 23).

Pat Moffitt

How many new species are being created at the same time others are going extinct? This should be an important question given the flexible and evolving definiton of what is and is not a species. This is compounded by the growing tendency to view unique subpopulations legally as separate species. Some species such as salmon can develop unique breeding populations within a human lifetime.
I would also bet there are more vertebrate and plant species in North America now than there was prior to 1600. I have found it convenient in these discussions to ask people to name any animal they have seen at any time in their life that no longer exists.
Agree wholeheartedly about the importance of predation/harvest.

Here is the long term answer to mass extinctions . . The fossil history backs the theory . .
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catastrophism

Thanks for the article as usual, Willis. Willis, I hereby proclaim you to be the Anti-Czar of Science of the USA.
Underestimate the current mass authoritarian anticultural mass media-government-corporate movement at your own risk. If they can get this much mileage on a carbon scam, there are a hundreds of more ways that you and your wallet will be conformed.
Point is, modern people view themselves as openminded, a dangerous, feel-good delusion.
Bottom line of the current world movement I just mentioned is that you must assimilate. We need to admit that something went very wrong in Western Civilization, that it’s on a fast and ugly descent; science corruption, sickly society, mass mental illness, creeping authoritarian socialism, self-asorbed, lame art. All marked by a serious lack of creativity and innovation.
Am I off topic or talking about Willis and why no one listens?
I remember Frank Zappa saying how the old generations were much more likely to let innovative people try things, and that the hip, younger generations are really more closed-minded. Listen to the crap on the radio and see for yourself, then listen to older music like this: http://stevemichaelsvaultovinyl.com/listen/ , one hundred years of American pop hits; not to mention jazz and classical music. I suggest that we invert reality in this way, that being modern absolves us from our stupidity.

richard telford

Habitat loss is a major factor in extinction dynamics, but two problems make this difficult to detect with simplistic analyses.
First is data quality – it is very difficult to prove a species is extinct. Just ask if the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct – a large bird in an area with many ornithologists – imagine how much worse the data is in West Africa.
The second problem is extinction debt. When an area of habitat is lost, we expect that the number of species that will survive in the remaining habitat will decline, but the species will not become extinct immediately, but gradually, perhaps over decades or centuries depending on the size of the remaining habitat.
If trusting your gut was such a good idea, diet related illnesses would be much less frequent.

The remarkable story of how the world’s largest insect wasn’t extinct as thought.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dryococelus_australis

Dr T G Watkins

Entertaining and informative as ever. Glad you are a regular again.

Steve P

Nice article, but I think you are incorrect about habitat destruction and/or environmental degradation, which I include as habitat destruction.
We know that birds like Falcons and Eagles in N. America were just about extirpated because of toxins in the environment, although there is disagreement, I believe, about precisely which toxin(s) were responsible; some say DDT, while others point to lead in gas.
Whatever it was that just about cleared (Bald) Eagles and (Peregrine) Falclns from the skies of N. America, it was not hunting.

u.k.(us)

albertalad says:
January 25, 2013 at 11:34 am
“Not to mention most modern day tigers are in western zoos.”
==================
That may be, but some are still taking precautions 🙂
Per:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_attacks_in_the_Sundarbans
“The locals and government officials take certain precautions to prevent attacks. Local fishermen will say prayers and perform rituals to the forest goddess, Bonbibi, before setting out on expeditions. Invocations to the tiger god Dakshin Ray are also considered a necessity by the local populace for safe passage throughout the Sundarbans area. Fishermen and bushmen originally created masks made to look like faces to wear on the back of their heads because tigers always attack from behind. This worked for a short time, but the tigers quickly realized it was a hoax, and the attacks continued. Government officials wear stiff pads that rise up the back of the neck, similar to the pads of an American football player. This is to prevent the tigers from biting into the spine, which is their favored attack method.[3]”

Jim Clarke

As for those who think that human population needs to be reduced by several billion…
When they start leading by example, I will take notice. I still won’t believe they are correct, but I will start to believe they were serious.