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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Animal Planet: Extinction confronted

I am informed by Animal Planet that most animals that have ever lived have gone extinct. This looks like a very interesting series, and it raises an issue that I think should properly be part of any discussion of evolution: How and why do life forms go extinct?

Here is one way of looking at it: How did medicine get to be such a useful discipline?: Not by explaining how and why people stay alive, but by explaining how and why they die (and - what we are really paying for, of course - how to prevent early death).

So thanks, Animal Planet, for starting to unpack the question of how all existing members of a life form can just die out. Are they doing something wrong? More important, is it something we could actually prevent?

Let's say we learned that the "Weird Macaque" is dying out, due to a monkey version of AIDS (yes, yes, of course I made up both the species and the disease, for illustrative purposes). Should we try to prevent that? How much should we invest in the problem, as opposed to investment in human health or in the welfare of less obviously endangered species?

This just in: I am also informed by Animal Planet that every monkey knows his place until he is pushed too far. I would have said the same about anteaters and coyotes, one of whom recently killed a chihuahua in Toronto. I am happy to report that almost everyone has sided with the coyote.

Look, here in Toronto, we have standards, okay? Just because you can breed a dog that looks like a rat ... don't push your luck! In the priceless words of the Toronto Star (Web edition),
Coyotes usually feed on rabbits, squirrels and mice but have been known to go after cats.
So, while I am here anyway, keep your overfed pussy indoors. It's better for her for a number of reasons; this is just another one to pay attention to, not the only one.

This is a coyote - a canine somewhat smaller than a wolf.

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