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Extinction and the Integrated Liberal Arts

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Although you may never have heard of Benjamin, I'm willing to bet that his story will interest you. He lived a tough and lonely life in Australia. His death, 80 years ago today on September 7, 1936, came after years of abuse. On his last day he suffered from dehydration during an unseasonably warm spell and he died during the night having been kept from his bed due to the neglect of those charged with his care. When he died in Hobart's Beaumaris Zoo the world lost more than just Benjamin, though, because Benjamin was the last of his kind. Benjamin was a thylacine, a Tasmanian tiger, but not just any thylacine. No, Benjamin was, by all accounts, the very last thylacine. When he died 80 years ago, the 25 million-year-long thylacine lineage went extinct.

Benjamin left behind a small trace of himself, however. Three years before Benjamin's death Australian naturalist David Fleay filmed him in his small, stark enclosure. The 45 second clip gives you a sense of Benjamin and his meagre existence.

What you can't see is what happened after the film ends. The opened mouthed gape or yawn Benjamin displays, it turns out, was characteristic of thylacine behavior when it felt threatened. The tripod with a camera on it with Fleay behind covered by a curtain triggered fear in Benjamin and he bit Fleay on the butt - twice.

There's no doubt that we are in the midst of a massive extinction event with many species going extinct every year. How many? It's impossible to know, partly because we don't know how many species actually exist. But what we do know is that since humans came on the scene extinctions have increased significantly and today the rate is likely between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural extinction rate. That means that we are probably losing at least 200 species and perhaps as many as 100,000 species each year.

It's difficult for many of us to fully process what that means, partly because the numbers are so large and partly because we don't know much, if anything, about most of the species that are being lost. But we know Benjamin and our knowledge of him makes his loss more personal, perhaps moving some of us to act.

I hasten to point out that Benjamin was not alone in being the last of his kind to have been lost, lost not in obscurity but lost under our control as named individuals.

  • Celia, the last Pyrenean ibex, died on January 6, 2000 in the Spanish Pyrenees.

  • Incas, the last Carolina parakeet, died on February 21, 1918 in the Cincinnati Zoo.
  • Orange Band, the last dusky seaside sparrow, died on June 17, 1987 at Walt Disney Resort, Bay Lake, Florida.
  • Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise, died on June 24, 2012 at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos.
  • Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.
  • The extinction of a species that each of these deaths represent is just a drop more poignant to most of us because, as I said, we have personal knowledge of the individuals involved.

    But even as we might grieve for these individuals and the species they represent, does it really matter that because of our collective actions the world is losing species at a dizzying rate? I believe it matters a great deal, for a host of reasons. I'll summarize just three such reasons.

    1. Natural environments are composed of interrelated webs of interactions. As various species are removed via extinction, the integrity of the entire ecosystem is at risk conceivably leading to increased extinction or collapse of ecosystem functioning.
    2. From a completely utilitarian perspective, it's worth remembering that every day we discover fascinating natural products, including medicines, that benefit humans. These opportunities disappear as species are lost.
    3. We lose a bit of our humanity with every species that we drive into oblivion. We have a moral and spiritual obligation to consider those with whom we share the planet.

    Species extinction is but one of many complex problems we face as a society. While telling people about the large number of species going extinct each year will rouse some to action and sharing information about Benjamin, Celia, Martha and the rest will stir others, action must be informed by knowledge. It is important to recognize that addressing the myriad problematic issues we face today requires us to think holistically. To develop a citizenry capable of solving wicked problems of this sort, educators have been making progress in transforming the way students are taught by looking beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries while, at the same time, understanding that different perspectives offer different insights and attempting to integrate those perspectives.

    Biologists alone will not be able to slow the rate at which we are driving species into oblivion. Knowledge gained from climatologists, from natural resource managers and from physicists is needed. Fully understanding the importance species play in the world requires the expertise of sociologists, psychologists, drug developers, theologians, artists and humanists.

    Increasingly educators are recognizing the criticality of the full stretch of the liberal arts and, even more than that, the importance of teaching students how to integrate the different insights that each discipline offers. Such a perspective can be very powerful and will likely lead to unexpected and positive results.

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