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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

So What if We Killed Off Megafauna?



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I don’t understand the thinking that disdains early humans–and by extension, moderns–for their role, if any, in the extinction of megafauna. But apparently, some in the scientific community are mighty ticked. From the Daily Mail story, “Are Humans Earths Biggest Enemies?”:

The Earth was once populated with enormous beasts, the likes of which we have never seen – from mammoths to giant beavers, and sabretooths to horned tortoises. Over the last two million years many of these giant beasts, known as megafauna, have either been wiped out completely, or replaced by smaller counterparts living side-by-side with an ever increasing human population. The debate on exactly what caused this mass extinction has been raging for years – on one side of the fence, the demise is being blamed on natural climate change, on the other, humans and our carnivorous ways have ‘destroyed’ the world.

Should we feel guilty if we drove some of the megafauna into extinction? Some, apparently, think so:

British environmentalist and writer George Monbiot is outspoken in his belief that humans are to blame for the mass extinction, a theory known as ‘overkill hypothesis. He believes there is a direct correlation between humans arriving and populating continents across the globe and the widely-seen demise of many megafauna species. ‘Before Homo erectus, perhaps our first recognizably-human ancestor, emerged in Africa, the continent abounded with monsters. ‘There were several species of elephants. There were sabretooths and false sabretooths, and giant hyenas,’ said Monbiot.

He continued that while most people believe the beginning of the Anthropocene – the period in which we live and impact the world – began during the industrial revolution, Monbiot believes it started much earlier ‘with a killing spree that commenced two million years ago. ‘What rose onto its hindlegs on the African savannahs was, from the outset, death: the destroyer of worlds.’

Good grief. As the old saying goes, excuse us for living.

Such bitterness is wholly unwarranted. Think about it: We were in desperate survival mode in those years, just as were the animals with which we shared territory. The last thing our forebears had the ability to consider was whether their activities might endanger huge rhino and dire bear.

Besides, if the mega fauna still existed, perhaps much of our civilization would never have been able to flourish.

Some anti-humanists yearn for that. Not me. If most megafauna were still here in large numbers, I think there is a good chance most of us wouldn’t be. Again, some anti-humanists would make that trade in a heartbeat. But as magnificent as those beasts were, I’ll take us.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t protect currently endangered species. Of course we should–and we can because in much of the world we have moved beyond kill or be killed. That is to say, we now have the knowledge–and frankly, the luxury–to care.

Whatever our role in the demise of megafauna, we should not look back in shame. Early humans’ successful fight for survival gave us the chance to thrive.

I am not upset with them: I am grateful.



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