Humans Are “Mutilating” the Tree of Life
Sunday, September 24th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: Humanity’s “mutilation of the tree of life.”
KNEAD TO KNOW
A new political declaration adopted at the U.N. General Assembly this week calls for sweeping, immediate action and international financial reform to achieve the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). “The SDGs need a global rescue plan,” said Secretary-General António Guterres, who called on global leaders to reaffirm their commitment to end poverty and hunger worldwide. According to Guterres, while each of the 17 goals remain achievable, only 15% of the combined 169 target items are on track, while some have actually gone in reverse.
New data from the American Library Association (ALA) shows book challenges are on pace to set a new record for the third consecutive year. The ALA documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles in the first eight months of 2023, a 20% increase from the same period in 2022, the year in which the most book challenges occurred since the organization began tracking book censorship more than two decades ago. The ALA also reported 695 attempts to censor library books so far in 2023, finding 90% of the overall number of books challenged were part of an attempt to censor multiple titles.
An updated report by the Stanford Internet Observatory documents a network of sellers and buyers of self-generated child sexual abuse material on social media. The report found Instagram and Twitter were the primary channels used to advertise underage explicit content, identifying 162 Instagram accounts and 81 Twitter/X accounts that likely sell such material. The data updates a June 2023 report investigating networks that trade child sexual abuse materials on social media.
A new analysis by dappGambl, a community of finance and blockchain experts, found 95% of NFT collections are now worthless. The analysis examined 73,257 NFT collections, finding 69,795 (95%) have a market cap of 0 Ether (Ether is the second most-popular cryptocurrency behind Bitcoin). “This statistic effectively means that 95% of people holding NFT collections are currently holding onto worthless investments. Having looked into those figures, we would estimate that 95% to include over 23 million people [whose] investments are now worthless,” according to the analysis.
Humans Are “Mutilating” the Tree of Life
The world is rapidly losing species in what some describe as a sixth mass extinction event. New research shows it’s not just species of animals we’re “annihilating,” but entire groups as well.
Regardless of your level of familiarity with geological epochs and extinction events, you’ve likely heard the claim that we’re living through an era of mass extinction. From the Tasmanian tiger (pictured above) to the passenger pigeon to the Baiji river dolphin, the past century or so has seen human actions wipe out animal species hundreds of times faster than they would otherwise disappear.
Some scientists have already described our current era as the world’s sixth mass extinction event, while others say it’s a matter of debate, believing it’s too early to make such a call and, in any case, determining when an extinction event starts is a scientifically difficult endeavor.
Broadly speaking, a mass extinction event is defined as the loss of 75% of the world’s species over a given period of time (typically millions of years), which the Earth has experienced five times up to now. The most recent mass extinction occurred 66 million years ago, when 78% of the world’s species, including all non-avian dinosaurs, were wiped out, most likely by an asteroid hitting the Earth in present-day Mexico.
What makes the three species mentioned above unique isn’t only that they are now extinct, but that they were each also the last member of its genus.
A genus is the taxonomic rank that lies between species and families in the classification of living beings. For example, dogs are a species that belong to the Canis genus, which is itself part of the Canidae family.
To date, most of the public and scientific focus on extinctions has concerned species, like the three mentioned above, and much of the work is indeed grim. Scientists have previously warned that up to 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, some of which could be lost within decades. Other work describing the sixth mass extinction and claiming it’s already underway describe it as the first to be “directly induced by a single species – humans.”
New research examining the extinction of entire genera (plural of “genus”) paints a similarly grim picture, finding several are vanishing rapidly in what the authors call a “mutilation of the tree of life.”
What the research says:
A new study by researchers at Stanford University and the National Autonomous University of Mexico examined 5,400 genera of land-dwelling vertebrate animals (comprising 34,600 species), finding 73 genera have gone extinct in the past 500 years alone. Birds have suffered the most, losing 44 genera, followed by mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.
The study suggests the current rate of genus extinction exceeds that of the past 1 million years by a whopping 35 times, finding the genera lost in the last five centuries would have taken some 18,000 years to go extinct in the absence of human activity.
Extrapolating further, the study found that if all presently endangered genera were to go extinct by the end of this century, extinction rates would be a staggering 354 times higher than without humans, suggesting the genera lost in just 300 years would have taken between 106,000 and 153,000 years to go extinct in the absence of humans.
The authors describe the ongoing loss of genera as a “biological annihilation” and human-caused “mutilation of the tree of life,” resulting in a “serious threat to the stability of civilization.”
If the language strikes you as alarming, that’s intentional. The authors argue the gravity of the findings call for more powerful language than typically used by scientists.
“As scientists, we have to be careful not to be alarmist,” study author Gerardo Cebellos explained, before adding that it would “be unethical not to explain the magnitude of the problem, since we and other scientists are alarmed.”
“If you take one brick, the wall won't collapse,” said Ceballos. “You take many more, eventually the wall will collapse. Our worry is that ... we're losing things so fast, that for us it signals the collapse of civilization."
Why it matters:
The authors say genus extinctions “hit harder than species extinctions” because, when a species dies out, other species can step in and fill at least part of its role in a given ecosystem. When an entire genus disappears, nothing is there to fill the gap, creating a loss of biodiversity that could take tens of millions of years to regain.
Losing biodiversity also creates serious problems for humanity. The researchers presented the example of the increasing rates of Lyme disease among humans after the extinction of the passenger pigeon. White-footed mice, the primary carrier of the disease, once competed with passenger pigeons for food, like acorns. With the pigeons gone and the populations of predators like wolves and cougars on the decline, mouse populations have boomed, increasing human cases of Lyme disease as well.
The researchers say their work should be alarming to policymakers and world leaders, calling for “immediate political, economic, and social action on unprecedented scales.” They say conservation efforts should be focused on the tropics, where the most genus extinctions have occurred.
They’re also calling for increased public awareness of the “extinction crisis.”
“The size and growth of the human population, the increasing scale of its consumption, and the fact that the consumption is very inequitable are all major parts of the problem,” the researchers said.
“The idea that you can continue those things and save biodiversity is insane,” added study author Paul Ehrlich. “It’s like sitting on a limb and sawing it off at the same time.”
Asking People to Explain Why a Headline Is True or False Decreases the Intention to Share False Information
A new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University found prompting people to explain why a headline is true or false selectively decreases the intention to share false – but not true – headlines, suggesting asking people to pause and think about the validity of information may improve the quality of user-shared information on social media.
The study found the explanation prompts have the potential to increase the proportion of true versus false information shared by users, and bear a resemblance to other “friction-based interventions” on social media (e.g., Instagram asks “Are you sure you want to post this?” when a user attempts to share certain content).
The findings are in line with a 2020 study led by the same researcher that found asking people to consider why a headline is true or false reduced their intention to share false news. The work also counters concerns that interventions targeting misinformation may actually affect any kind of information being shared, including true information.
At What Age Are We the Happiest?
A new study by researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany found people’s life satisfaction decreases between the ages of 9 and 16, before increasing slightly until the age of 70, and then decreasing again until the age of 96.
The researchers believe the decline in satisfaction from 9 to 16 stems from changes to people’s bodies and social lives during puberty. In general, satisfaction rises again from young adulthood onward.
The meta-analysis included 443 samples from studies comprising 460,902 participants, focusing on three subjective components of well-being: life satisfaction, positive emotional states, and negative emotional states.
University of Liverpool
Archaeologists Uncovered the World’s Oldest Known Wooden Structure
A new study by researchers at the University of Liverpool in the U.K. uncovered the world’s oldest known wooden structure, excavating well-preserved wood (pictured above) at Kalambo Falls in Zambia that date back at least 476,000 years, predating the evolution of our own species, Homo sapiens.
The researchers identified stone tool cut-marks on the wood that show it was shaped and joined two large logs to make a structure, representing the earliest ever evidence of the deliberate crafting of logs to fit together.
“Forget the label ‘Stone Age,’ look at what these people were doing: they made something new, and large, from wood,” said lead author Larry Barham. “They used their intelligence, imagination, and skills to create something they’d never seen before, something that had never previously existed.”
506 - The number of mass shootings in the U.S. so far this year, according to new data from the Gun Violence Archive (GVA). The figure marks the fourth consecutive year the U.S. has experienced more than 500 mass shootings. The GVA defines mass shootings as those in which four or more people were shot or killed, not including the shooter.
333 million - The estimated number of children living in extreme poverty – defined as living on less than $2.15 per day – worldwide, according to a new report by UNICEF and the World Bank. The figure represents a decrease of 50 million over the past decade, but still represents around 1 in 6 children globally.
63% - The percentage of U.S. adults who say they’re more pessimistic than optimistic about America’s moral and ethical standards, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Just 16% of Americans say they’re more optimistic than pessimistic about the country's moral and ethical standards.
175,000 - The estimated number of people working for Mexican cartels in 2022, up from 115,000 in 2012, according to a new study by researchers at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna. The figure includes both full- and part-time workers, ranging from farmworkers cultivating opium poppies to leaders running global networks, and suggests cartels are the country’s fifth-largest employer.
Long Video. Meet Lisa, the lesser-known flop that changed Apple forever. (10 min)
Short Video. Learn about the interesting and unexpected origin of the Michelin Star. (3 min)
Fun Video. Dive into the engineering and construction behind the world’s largest cruise ship. (9 min)
Good Read. Read about why historical markers matter. (2,639 words; 13 min)
Neat List. Check out the winners of the 2023 Ocean Photographer of the Year awards.
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Written by Ryan Wittler