We owe our existence to a mass extinction event 65 million years ago.
A perfect storm of volcanoes and asteroid impact wiped out three out every four animal species. But a small shrew-like creature surivived.
Its descendants flourished in the gaps left by the dinosaurs. They grew into horses, elephants, whales, tigers and humans.
A new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, provocatively asks whether extinction is really the end of the world.
Extinct beasts have always been the museum’s biggest stars, from the chasmosaurus skull that leers at the exhibition entrance to exquisite shiny moths in cases.
You can touch an ancient meteorite like the one that killed the dinosaurs.
There is also a computer game to play to simulate a species’ struggle to adapt and survive.
Nine tenths of the species that have ever existed died out through so-called background extinction.
One species in a million dies out every year, on average.
It’s refreshing to be reminded what a dynamic struggle natural history has been.
As science writer Stephen Jay Gould said, “Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress.”
There have also been five great mass extinctions. And we could well be on our way to the sixth.
Although the number of recorded extinctions in recent history remains relatively low, it’s accelerating fast.
The museum’s Plants Under Pressure project found that a fifth of plant species are now at risk of extinction.
Animals are faring no better.
In 2006 researchers went to China’s Yangtze river to capture Baiji dolphins for urgent breeding in captivity before they died out. They were already too late.
The exhibition points the finger squarely at humans for hunting, destroying habitats, changing the climate and introducing new competition.
It says that if we don’t want to see the natural world disappear we need to change our ways.
That is true but humans are divided by class, in a society driven by competition to accumulate.
As long as capitalism continues to subsume everything to the drive to profit, well-meaning attempts to, say, eat less bluefin tuna won’t work.
So while human society is a big part of the problem, human struggles within that society offer the only solution.
Conservationists don’t always put themselves on the right side of those struggles.
Fred Pearce has written of how conservationists have provided cover to corporate landgrabs.
And cuddly reactionary David Attenbrough has decided that too many people—especially poor ones—are the problem.
Fudging this question doesn’t stop the exhibition showing us some fascinatingly weird beasts of the past and present.
But it leaves the sections on what we do about extinction feeling unfinished.
The only live exhibit, Mexican pupfish, swim past in a tank they were transferred to before their unique lake was drained.
They feel like enticing relics of a world already lost. The question of the future remains unanswered.