A New Age of Extinction


The recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-2) has turned the whole world upside down in a matter of days. With this new pandemic everyone has started dusting old memories and trying to understand the fate of humankind, because more or less this hasn’t been the first time the human race has faced a challenge beyond their control. While everyone is busy talking about the consequences of the effects of the epidemic, I think it’s the time to start a new conversation about the disaster that is swallowing thousands of lives as you read this.

66 million years ago an asteroid hit the earth. As a result, the biggest animals to walk on earth, the dinosaurs were washed away in a few years, never to be seen again. But the end of the dinosaurs led to the beginning of the age of mammals. With the space and resources provided by the extinction of dinosaurs, the earliest ancestors of modern man diversified all around the globe.

Although not distinct as such, in similar concepts, 650 years ago, a plague hit the world wiping out more than half of the population in Europe at that time. But as a result, the feudal age ruled by nobles enslaving the innocents was turned into a renaissance full of art and invention. Standing on the same basis we might as well say this is a similar era of transformation.

Italy and the Black Death

In the mid-14th century, the Eurasian sub-continent was struck by an epidemic outbreak which erased 60% of the human population in Europe at that time. This pandemic, called “The Black Death” was a bubonic plague caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis and transmitted through rodents.

The Black Death struck Italy harder than anywhere else, taking the lives of two out of every three people. After the catastrophe, in the 15th century a new era of human civilization was born largely centered on the Italian peninsula. This new world order, now called the “Renaissance” was the trigger event of all human socio-economic and cultural developments and innovations that made up the modern world we live in today. Even our schools taught us a different reason for the awakening of the renaissance. Many historians and scientists believe that the black death had a great impact, marking an end of one age and resulting in the beginning of another.

Due to the fall of the population after the black death there was a shortage of labor force all over Italy. This led to the decrease of labor-intensive agriculture, livestock farming and development of the industrial-based economy all over Italy. Devices of less labor-consuming methods were used. Labors were turned into merchants and merchants, into nobles. Overall, people all over Italy who survived the black death have been said to become much wealthier than before. The economy of Italy strengthened by several folds.

With the fall of medieval lords and the catholic church, new shades of flames were kindling inside people. With all the self-rulings and free speech, great works of art and literature were born. All the greatest artists, architects and authors flourished with groundbreaking creations where 14-meter tall paintings and 16-foot sculptures were made. Masterpieces of literature were written. Incomparable inventors like Leonardo da Vinci created magical works people have never thought of before. In simple words, a culture never had been was born in a matter of a few years.

All the major cities in Italy including Florence and Venice were devastated by the disease. Half the population of Florence was wiped out. But it was Florence that housed the wealthy family of De Medici. The Medici’s were the patrons of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael Santi and many more who were the gods of art and science living in the renaissance.

If we see this through, it’s clear that the black death made society more spacious, free, less confined and secular which lead to the birth of a new world order.

Extinction and Evolution

“The same factors that kill off some species cause others to evolve at lightning speed”

-By Lorraine Boissoneault, smithsonianmag.com, November 7, 2016

In simple terms, evolution is the process of changing the populations of species and the process which gives rise to new species. Extinction is wiping out every single member of a species from the face of the earth. Even though these two processes seem to be virtually opposite, surprisingly they co-exist.

Even though we don’t say extinction is a result of evolution, extinction is surely a cause for evolution. When studying evolution, we talk about 5 major extinction events.

  1. End Ordovician, 444 million years ago, 86% of species lost
  2. Late Devonian, 375 million years ago, 75% of species lost
  3. End Permian, 251 million years ago, 96% of species lost
  4. End Triassic, 200 million years ago, 80% of species lost
  5. End Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, 76% of all species lost

Even though these events have wiped out a colossal number of organisms, they have resulted in the appearance of more fit and adaptive groups of organisms over time. For example, by the time of the Cretaceous period the most successful reptiles to walk on earth; the dinosaurs, held dominion over earth. But at the end of the Cretaceous period was the most popular extinction event of all time. The extinction of dinosaurs. The extinction of the largest creatures to have lived on earth provided immense space and resources for mammals to diversify and finally take the reins of the world. It is because of this event that we, the humans have come so far through the ages of time.

Not only these great extinctions but also small events of extinction have similarly resulted in the development and domination of particular groups of organisms. For example, the disappearance of the Neanderthal man (Homo neanderthalensis) over 40,000 years ago had facilitated the distribution and variation of modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) to a great extent.

Sixth Age of Extinction

Some scientists consider that we are living at the edge of the sixth age of a great extinction, which they call the epoch of Anthropocene. Scientists considered Anthropocene extinction (a.k.a. Holocene extinction) is a result of human activity. A graphical representation presented by WHO in 2012 shows how all the factors that have been destroying the natural world have been increasing directly proportional to the growth of human population. Line graphs of CO2 concentration, ozone depletion, loss of tropical rainforests and woodlands, increasing temperature of north pole and extinction of species follow the same J shape, similar to the world population growth.

If we consider the fate of other species, human activities have already caused the extinction of numerous families of plants and animals including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods. Nearly half of the surveyed 177-mammal species lost more than 80% of their distribution between 1900 and 2015.

According to a charity based in London named ‘Population Matters’, “populations of wild animals have more than halved since 1970, while the human population has doubled and species are becoming extinct 100 times faster than they would without humans. Only five times before in our planet’s history have so many species and so much biodiversity been lost so quickly. The fifth was when the dinosaurs were wiped out. That is why scientists and conservationists call what is happening now the ‘sixth mass extinction’. Some have even described the loss of biodiversity today as ‘biological annihilation’.”

Even though scientists consider this sixth age to be the age of extinction of animal and plant species this might be the age of extinction of ourselves. If we consider all the other major extinction events, always the dominating species of that age had faced the greatest impact of extinction. So, this might be the age of extinction, not of other species but humans themselves. The latest outbreak of the SARS-COV-2 virus has brought us to this very assumption. It can either be an event like the Black death in  the 14th century or the beginning of the sixth great extinction

Either way the latest news related to COVID-19 shows that the world is going through a dramatic phase of transformation. Even though the human species is shaken by the epidemic outbreak, the natural world seems to be healing. The satellite images from NASA show a drastic decrease in air pollution over China. Channels of Venice have become crystal clear like never before.

According to China’s ministry of ecology and environment, “good quality air days” have increased by 25.6% over February, and from February 3 to March 3 at least 25% of carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced. Furthermore, this is happening all over the world with the global lockdown. With the shutdown of airways and less vehicles burning fossils fuels, the rate of CO2 emissions have been declining gradually. Wild animals are roaming care-free in their spaces. It seems the world is healing.

Even though the effects of black death and COVID-19 on Italy is similar, it might also be just an unfortunate event of coincidence. Either way in a time that this pandemic is controlled, we must hope this world turns to be a whole new world for every single living thing. Maybe after this, people will understand that they don’t own this planet and they have been overexploiting everything they see since the beginning of time. If that happens, hopefully, 2020 will be the year of the 2nd age of the Renaissance.

-By Sathira Deegala-


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