Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

How little we know about the only planet known to be teeming with life …

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A team of Penn State University researchers have used genetic data to formulate a plan of action to prevent the extinction of the Tasmanian devil. (Credit: Stephan C. Schuster, Penn State University)

In “A Home Before the End of the World” (Design Observer Group, 06.09.11), Adelheid Fischer reminds us,

To date, only about two million species of plants and animals have been identified and described. An estimated 10 million species still await discovery, description and naming. But this taxonomic handshake is just the beginning and tells us little about how organisms actually make their day-to-day living in the world — and therefore how they might also be of use to us.Our ignorance is truly staggering. According to some estimates, 95 percent of organisms in the soil alone are unknown to science. Many of them labor unseen, in the dark, serving as the churning stomachs of our planet, digesting dead plants and animals and, in the process, enriching the earth we depend upon for food and fiber. Other organisms expel their gaseous waste — a precious resource known as oxygen —to create the atmosphere that supports and sweetens the earth with such glorious creatures as toucans and manta rays and blue morpho butterflies, not to mention writers and academics. Some bacteria are even thought to contribute to the formation of clouds. [5]

“Not to mention writers and academics”? Oh no indeed. Well, if you really must mention them, do so at best, under “labor unseen, in the dark, serving as the churning …”

Fischer has a serious purpose:

And yet, in the earth’s sixth great extinction event, currently under way, many organisms — great and small — are silently sliding unnamed into oblivion. According to some estimates, by the end of the 21st century, one-quarter or more of all species of plants and animals now living will have gone extinct or been issued a non-refundable one-way ticket off the planet. And they are being snuffed out at a rate that is 1,000 times more rapid than that of any extinction event documented in the fossil record. This great disappearing act, as Gruchow points out, is “one of destroying, and thereby rendering forever nameless, more information about life than we are gaining.” [6]

It’s a dire situation, but her statistics cited prompt a question: If only about one in six species has been catalogued, how can we be confident of rates of extinction? One is reminded of the confident (and contradictory) cosmological schemes based on the estimated 4 percent of the universe we actually know much about.

Claims of extinction seem often to be wrong, and it’s not even clear how many species there are.

Some worry that media weaken the public’s interest in a serious problem by turning the issues into tomorrow’s fishwrap via constant alarms without context. People bombarded with apocalypse stories tend to just tune them all out. It’s hard to envision an alternative response – not to the problem, of course, but to the usually context-free bombardment.

10 million species. 1 million new species per year = 10 yrs 100,000 new species per year = 100 yrs 10,000 new species per year = 1000 yrs 1,000 new species per year = 10000 yrs 100 new species per year = 100000 years 10 new species per year = 1,000,000 years 1 new species per year every 10,000,000 years How man new species should we expect to see every year. Every 10 years. Has evolution ceased? Mung
how can we be confident of rates of extinction? There is quite nice summary in the Encyclopedia Briticannica online. It comes to down sampling from groups we know a lot about. The article finishes: To draw reliable inferences from these case histories about extinctions in other groups of species requires that these be representative and not selected with a bias toward high extinction rates. In reviewing the list of case histories, it seems hard to imagine a more representative selection of samples. With high statistical confidence, they are typical of the many groups of plants and animals about which too little is known to document their extinction. In short, one can be certain that the present rates of extinction are generally pathologically high even if most of the perhaps 10 million living species have not been described or if not much is known about the 1.5 million species that have been described markf

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