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We Don’t Need to Save Endangered Species: All the Responses to the Washington Post Piece (Updated As New Articles are Published)

Hi all,
    Recently the Washington Post published a controversial Perspectives piece by Dr. Alex Pyron. To most readers, the piece seemed to argue that it does not matter if many species go extinct and we should not care. You can view this article here: “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution”.

   The response to this article was swift and widespread. Here I do not want to provide commentary on the article (I am currently writing an independent response) but I wanted there to be a repository for all the rebuttals and commentary regarding the original piece.

   Please let me know as you become aware of additional responses.

November 22 

I posted a link to the article on my Facebook page and a lively comment thread ensued, including in-depth comments from Dr. Pyron.

On The EEB & Flow, Dr. Caroline Tucker wrote: Of course we need to save endangered species, a response. A number of problems with the Washington Post article were identified and the author concludes that it, “presents a misrepresentative and potentially harmful position about the future of the earth’s biota.”

November 24

Ronald Bailey provides a summary of the Washington Post piece on the Hit & Run blog and describes it as, “fascinating”.

November 26

In Extinction, macroevolution, and biodiversity conservation, Dr. Santiago Claramunt Tammaro, Associate Curator in the Department of Natural History of the Royal Ontario Museum goes through the Washington Post piece pointing out the errors and misconceptions in the science and philosophy and states the conclusions are, “the result of a mix of a superficial handling of fundamental concepts and simplistic logic.”

Over at A Wilderness Journal, Dr. Christopher Janousek says of the Washington Post piece, “In taking a rather extreme view of the role of conservation, the visceral reaction of many biologists to publication of this op-ed in a major media outlet is understandable. But does the author miss the mark? I think so on several major fronts.”

On Greg Laden’s Blog, the author dissects the Washington Post piece and what he perceived as the problems pervading the entire thing. He concludes, “There is an editor at the Washington Post that totally stepped in it.”

November 27

Tom Toles, editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post responds with Don’t worry about climate change – it will all be fine if you can just wait a few million years. The author concludes that the arguments in the original piece are a, “short-sighted, self-serving rampage of destruction and extinction.”

Over at the Louis Project, the author offers some keen insights to help interpret the piece and put the points in context; I found the following section particularly apt: 

“There are one of two possibilities that explain Pyron’s incomprehensible fatalism. He might be an ideologue so committed to libertarian economics that the long-term prospects of civilization are indifferent to him, just as they are to the Koch brothers who could care less about the future of the planet. As they used to say during the Reagan presidency, those who die with the most toys wins. It also may be the case that the professor lacks the philosophical, ethical and historical breadth to put these questions into perspective. Unlike other scientists who make sweeping judgments on such questions like Jared Diamond or E.O. Wilson, Pyron has never written anything like this outside of his narrow scholarly interest in reptiles.”

November 29

In a letter to the editor in the Frederick News-post, Elizabeth Godfrey writes that, “We cannot afford to dismiss any small part.”

November 30

Dr. Josh Schimel, UC-Santa Barbara Professor, evaluates the writing and rhetoric of the Washington Post piece on his Writing Science blog: Do species matter: responding to an op-ed by R.A. Pyron in the Washington Post and concludes the author, “failed to live up to [his] basic responsibility as a scientist writer.”

Green Momster says on her blog that when it comes to endangered species and extinctions, she doesn’t want to get over it.

November 31

Dr. Pyron published a lengthy comment on his Facebook page detailing his intentions in writing the piece, describing what he felt he did wrong, and how  he felt his points were misconstrued.

December 1

At the PLOS Ecology Community blog, Dr. Jeff Atkins provides a summary of the controversy so far, puts it in context, and provides links to many other related articles.

The Washington Post published five Letters to the Editor written in response to the original piece. They all hated it.

On Why Evolution is True, Dr. Jerry Coyne provides a summary of the points in the Washington Post piece and says, “Well, as I always say, we can’t simply dismiss people like this by simply saying they’re wrong. We have to muster counterarguments…Here’s my view of why Pyron is misguided…”. Click through to see his detailed breakdown.

December 4

After reprinting the Washington Post piece, a Cleveland newspaper runs a letter to the editor suggesting it should be retracted. They later printed another letter to the editor pointing out that Dr. Pyron walked back a number of the claims in the original piece. 

December 5

Today bioGraphic published a great commentary with incredible photos detailing our responsibility to fight for endangered species. They write, “Scientists have a social responsibility to present science and its role in society as accurately as possible. In his recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Alexander Pyron, an associate professor of biology at The George Washington University, contends that many biologists fail this responsibility by communicating with “unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency” about the need to conserve biodiversity. In making his arguments, however, Pyron falls well short of this standard in at least four of his claims…”

December 8

On Vermont Public Radio, Ted Levin chimes in with his response to the Washington Post piece, stating that it, “may already have damaged our commitment to protect endangered species, especially at the Federal level.”

December 9

All the way from New Zealand, Bob Hughes writes to provide an opposite view from the Washington Post piece.

December 10

In his weekly column for The Aspen Times, Paul Anderson writes, “How easy Pyron makes it to deny moral significance as we knowingly kill off species through habitat destruction, recklessly ignorant of the contributions these species make to the complex web of life. The article made my blood boil, so I wrote my friend a retort condemning moral myopia as the same rationale Hitler used in Nazi Germany.”

December 13

As a Christian and a scientist, Joshua Holbrook provides a unique perspective to the discussion, “I have a couple things in common with Dr. Pyron – I’m a scientist, and more importantly, I’m also a herpetologist: a rare breed of biologist that will put 50,000 miles on their car in a year to see a handful of rare species only to decry corporate carbon emissions. As far as I can tell from this piece, though, that’s where the similarities cease…”

December 15

A mega letter-to-the-editor appears in the Washington Post, signed by nearly 4,000 people (including me), indicating fundamental disagreements with the original piece.

December 16

On the Bazely Biology lab site, the authors note Dr. Pyron did not effectively communicate his apparent points, writing, “I think that Dr. Pyron allowed himself to be caught in a hype cycle. Like many other ecologists, I cover all of his points in my undergraduate and graduate courses, but I am well aware of the implications of making these comments in a public space.”

January 19

The pitfalls of taking science to the public, appearing in Science. On the importance of scientists asking for advice before publishing stuff written for non-scientists..

January 24

The journal BioScience publishes an article entitled, Teachable moment: the relevance of ethics and the limits of science. From the article, “It is a philosophical value disguised as a scientific conclusion.”

January 28

I finally wrote my own response, which appears on Live Science: Making the Case – Again – For Saving Imperiled Species.

February 12

Carl Safina writes for YaleE360, “Much of what Pyron wrote is scientifically inaccurate. And where he stepped out of his field into ethics, what he wrote was conceptually confused…”

February 26

The Science and Ethics of Extinction is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. The authors suggest scientists reflect on their values and communicate them effectively: biodiversity is at stake.