Neil Shubin talks biological extinction at Vatican conference

In the past, scientists have estimated that up to half of all species on earth could face extinction by the end of the century if steps are not taken to improve conservation and change human practices. That was part of the backdrop for a workshop on biological extinction held this week at the Vatican, titled “How to Save the Natural World on Which We Depend.” One of the participants was Neil Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy. Shubin spoke with UChicago News by phone from Rome after the conference concluded on March 1.

Why did the Vatican ask you and the other scientists at the conference to talk about biological extinction? And why did you decide to go?

This Pope and the Catholic Church have a longstanding interest in issues of poverty, disparities between the rich and poor, human stewardship of the environment, and they have an interest in extinction from a variety of viewpoints. It’s at the convergence of poverty, wealth disparities, human consumption and climate change—all of which are issues the church has been focusing on and what Pope Francis specifically has been thinking about and writing encyclicals about.

I went because when you think about impact of the Catholic Church on pressing problems, with more than 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, there are few institutions that cut across different parts of the world the way the church does. If you think about levers for impacting people, there are just few institutions like it. I’m not Catholic, but I appreciate that on these issues they’re trying to make positive changes.

What did you focus on in your presentation?

I was talking about the baseline for extinctions. If you look at the 4.5 billion-year history of life on earth, what causes extinctions? I talked about some of the research that Profs. David Jablonski and Susan Kidwell here at UChicago have done, on what makes species resilient to mass extinctions. You also have a baseline of the history of the Earth without humans. How has humanity changed the course of extinctions, and how has biodiversity changed as a result of human impact? Sue Kidwell has looked at fossils from 10,000, 50,000 years ago, which help show how humans have impacted the biological diversity of planet. It helps to know what are the general rules of mass extinction, how have species recovered and what would a post-catastrophe world potentially look like?

How do you connect the deep history of extinctions with what’s happening now?

That’s what we talked about for much of the conference. We’ve had extinctions for all of the planet’s history, but this epoch of extinctions is caused by us, we’re responsible for it. It’s entirely different. My work has been to show the interconnectedness of life on our planet. We’re not just stewards, we’re part of this. If biodiversity drops, we pay a price. We depend vitally on plants, and biodiversity helps sustains us.

Ultimately it comes down to the choices that humanity is making. The social problem of poverty is a major player in species loss. And the consumption decisions we make are going to affect our ability to consume in the future. Some species face extinction because fishermen, many of them poor, don’t see an alternative to their current practices. But if you fish too much, there’s nothing to catch anymore.

Did the conference discuss potential solutions?

Absolutely. I left a little more cheerful than I was on the first day. It’s pretty scary, because even if we stopped new development and growth now, we’d still be losing species at a fast rate—and of course we’re still growing.

There was a lot of talk about smart villages, smart cities. It’s about how we design cities, the way villages function in less developed parts of the world: We can take steps to reduce consumption and increase human well-being. We looked at case studies from China and South America—people who are working with local communities to use agricultural land in a way that maintains biodiversity. We tend to think agricultural land is a threat to biodiversity. But there are ways to manage agricultural land, particularly the interface between agricultural land and its surroundings, that maintain biodiversity.

With population and consumption increasing we need to ask: How can we be more efficient in the use of resources? A shift to using more of some genetically modified crops, like golden rice, could play a role in increasing nutrition. People have concerns about GMOs, and it pays to be careful and think about the consequences. But it would be irresponsible to write them off when you have technology that could improve human welfare.

What comes next?

A published volume will come out of the conference, and the Vatican certainly will continue to work on this subject. It was exciting to be part of it. I learned a lot that I’ll take back to my own research.