The World Human Extinction Will Leave Behind, with Michael Tennesen

March 16, 2015

As climate change progresses and takes its toll on the planet, the life forms we share it with continue to evolve and adapt. Some species thrive while many face imminent extinction. What we often fail to realize as humans is that the world will continue to exist long after we’re unable to live on it.

Our guest this week is science journalist Michael Tennesen, author of The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man. Tennesen explores the environmental impact climate change is having on the ecosystem, and discusses how its impact on the planet’s surviving species will be felt long, long after we’re gone.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, March 16, 2015. 

Hello and welcome to a point of inquiry, a prediction at the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is environmental journalist Michael Tenison, author of the new book The Next Species. Michael, welcome to the program. Hello. So you’ve traveled to a lot of amazing places to report for this book and some of the more memorable destinations. 

I think that the most memorable destination I went to was basically Tanzania and Kenya in Africa. I visited. Let’s let loose go. And Jackson is Jao, who are professors at University of California at Berkeley and also University in Indiana. They had a field site in the Serengeti. I remembered me coming in to the area. We came in these trucks from Tanzania and we came up over a rise. It was like tropical. And then it dropped down to something that looked a little drier. It was this big, huge cauldron and the river coming down the mountain and looking at what is what it looked like. These little dots, specks. And then as you got closer and closer, you realize these little specks were a thousand wildebeest. 

A couple of thousand zebra, a couple, maybe a thousand water buffalo. We saw cheetah, African lions. We saw elephants. And we saw one rhino. 

And it was just the most amazing perforation of our life. Have seen this. This was Dean and Gore and then Gore and Faizon, which is famous in that area. And it’s actually on the road to the Serengeti when you get to the Serengeti here. The wildlife is more spread out. That was my favorite. 

One of the scientists they went to visit has a really interesting theory about how crocodiles as predators might have contributed to the evolution of human intelligence. Can you tell us about that? 

Well, that was really fascinating. This is Jackson Nazar’s work, too. And he’s from the University India, and he was native born in Tanzania. And he took me out to this place in the Serengeti where there is this big river, essentially where there were crocodiles and hippopotamuses in the river. And he was talking about how people in Africa still get caught, even like Rangers will get caught by crocodiles because they’re really intelligent. They really patient. They wait in the water by you. 

What he was doing, he was studying the bones of the animals that the crocodiles would take in that river and he would go there when the river was full and then he would go over when the river was dry and pick up the bones to see the marks of the crocodiles made. And he was doing another study in Holdaway Gorge. And this was actually a early study by the Leakey’s. And he was looking at how Homo habilis, which is a species of permanent species of man that goes back about two million years. Poliovirus was one of the first to start using tools. Loggers would come into this little valley where the predators were. There were crocodiles as well as other creatures, lions and paws. And that going into that area was like a real puzzle is a real mental task to actually navigate all of predators in a whole lot of places. It was like four feet tall and just really small. And he was using spears that essentially they don’t find any spare heads that go with these spears. 

So they’re just using spears and they’re coming in. They’re not. Jackson believed they weren’t capturing wildlife. They were just basically chasing the predators away from the prey they already brought down. So they’re chasing these fearsome predators away with these sticks. 

So they’re scavenging and they want to get to these carcasses and they’ve got these sharp sticks to try and fend off all the wildlife. 

Because the big thing is, if you can get me to bring it over, requires a lot of calories and you get meat. It’s a big source of calories. So if you can get chow, you can get meat, get the calories or we’ll get the problem to bring. 

It’s kind of funny because I think about ancient man, the Hunter, but it all started. We weren’t the apex predator, as we like to think. He had a more modest way of getting meat. 

Right. I mean, Man Over glorifies himself. 

He also traveled around to see some fossil evidence of some truly epic mass extinctions in the past. Tell us about some of those sites. 

Well, I went to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is in eastern Texas, and I visited the Capitán Reef. And it’s a famous spot for paleontologists. You grow up to see one trail. I went up with Joanna Hurst, who is a Guadalupe Mountain National Park geologist. We were going up this pretty steep trail. Lots of switchbacks up towards this capitán reef was just this big shed of rock that sticks out on the crest of the mountain. And as you’re going up there, I’m not noticing much in terms of fossils. And then all of a sudden, Joanna. Stops and starts pointing out the fossils that are in the rocks, and you just see that these are just these conglomeration of different preachers. And when they actually have gone in and look at these creatures, they’re not creatures like we know today. They’re a whole different set of animals that were cast to the ground or that were sponges or different species that existed back then just before the Permian extinction. They existed in the Permian era, which is about 250 million years ago. 

So these were sort of the inhabitants of a big, warm, shallow sea, basically covered that part of Texas. 

So not a shell. She kept 10 reasons, essentially where you are with all of these fossils is really you’re under 15 feet of water. 

So it’s a serious ocean. It’s a deep sea reef. And it’s an area that 250 million years ago, like Texas and much of the area south and even to the west, was covered with ocean. This was getting to the shoreline. We’re looking at this and you’re seeing her comment that it’s really amazing. She at the end of the hike, she took me to her office and he showed me these drawers where she’d kept different fossils and actually at one point just was shocked that he says, you know, they’re all dead. None of them survived. Was it? It was a really amazing thing to think about this. 

This was the Permian extinction that happened after there were 90 percent of marine life. What caused that to happen? 

You know, it’s a lot of things that are causing our problems. The Permian Reef is a product of there was a huge volcano in Siberia that the flow of that volcano covered actually an area of proximally inside the United States and they flowed over millions of years. And so what it’s given us is putting out year or two the whole time. So what it isn’t this is a world where you get extreme amounts of CO2. I talk to Andy Nohl at Harvard. If people discuss whether it was just CO2 from the volcano or if there were actually asteroids like Cretaceous extinction, which killed off the dinosaurs, and he did an experiment where he took out the animals that were kind of immune to CO2 and he ran round them back through a computer program. And he showed me where the animals are. We’re pretty much immune to to comprise 30 percent of the population before the Permian extinction in Africa. For me, an extinction of those 30 percenters become 90 percent. 

What kind of species are we talking about? What kind of animals have the CO2 immunity? 

Well, you’re talking about an. You don’t even know on Earth, right. Amphibians that are big as a bulldog. Are you talking about animals that are half reptile, half mammal that have huge wings that have used stands on their back? There’s a lot of different animals that work. We haven’t seen a museum. Harvard has some mockups. And it was pretty interesting right before the Permian was most complex in the sea. 

Today, life is more complex on land and what goes on as CO2 levels in water rise? How does that affect different life forms? You don’t have that immunity. 

Scientists were actually thinking that possibly a great place for the CO2, Tonko, would be the ocean. I remember reading maybe 20 years ago, fifteen years ago, about how maybe if we put a little iron in the ocean that might actually promote this activity, that ocean could gobble up more CO2. But what we found is that CO2 in ocean water tends to probiotic acid. And what it does is it starts to eat the exoskeletons of creatures such as the shell creatures that eliminates the ability to form a shell. And this is a big thing because forming a shell is not only important for coral reefs, but it is also important for shell creatures like the whales. There are various small species of fish that have a soft shell that are eaten by the whales. And this is the most important food source for whales. 

So we’re talking about sort of the foundation of the entire ocean food chain is at risk of rising CO2. Yeah. You’ve got one of the interesting themes in your book is this kind of idea of winner take all ecology where you get these big shifts in the kind of animals that you’re seeing because they have some mutation that allows them to take advantage of shifts that are going on in our climate right now. Can you tell us a bit about the Humboldt squid and its rising fortunes? 

That’s an interesting story. Bill Killie at Stanford has done much of the studies on that. He’s the one I pal around with a bit on. And I live in Southern California area, and I’m not too far from the Mexican border and I’m not too far from what they call the Gulf of California between borehole California and on the mainland. And they’re about 40, 50 years ago. They started seeing Humboldt squid. They got. 

Off a cliff, a few portent for more romantic kind of Spanish into it. 

But in a couple of Gaffar California, we usually call them mighty fish trap. When I was younger, I used to go down there fishing with my family and friends and always caught a lot of fish. I always was amazed at it, but I noticed as they got older, fish started vanishing. There’s the reason for that. Mostly it’s overfishing. 

But what’s what’s come in and taken its place? Or the Humboldt squid and Humboldt squid were a squid that existed off of Chile. And they’re called humble squid or jumbo squid as well. They’re called both squid because they can’t come from off literally where the humble currents. And we actually went back and looked for early references from missionaries and early biologists and can give me a litany of places, see look for reference to the humble squid in the Gulf of California. He couldn’t find. He couldn’t find a reference. 

These are very large animals right there. Hundred pounds. 

These are like seven, eight feet long. You pull them out. They went. I actually was unfortunately was on a boat when they pulled out one of these things. And it starts flashing. It starts changing colors right in front of you. Amazing creatures. But what the humble squid are doing is reacting to the spread of low oxygen water in the ocean caused by currents. And what it is, is that it can be the limit of light. In other words, how how far light goes down, life goes down to a point where it gets dark. And right at that point, used to call them the deep scattering layer because sonar from their naval ships would bounce off it. And the reason is because there’s all this plant life trying to get away from all the little mall to plant and animal life. And so there’s this huge concentration. And just in the process of gaining one another, they create an area that’s low in oxygen just because of the decay of their particles as they fall. And what’s happened is the oceans have gotten warmer. And if they do, that little layer has increased dramatically in both our Strugar biologists out of Germany. They did a big study. We went around in huge ships and tested where called the hypoxic layer of a low oxygen layer all over the Mattick in the Pacific. And it’s all expanding. And what they’re Kumbo Squid is doing is it can hang out and low oxygen layer and it can get all its meat. They can get all the food it needs, but it also can hide out from seals and sea lions and. Whales that don’t have the ability to hang out in Rossington Zone. Too much is reduced. And this seems like a safe area where it can eat all at once. What’s happened is this Humboldt squid is increased to where now they came from Peru to the Sea of Cortez, and now it’s working its way out into the Pacific Ocean. And there were some sightings up as far as British Columbia and Gulf of Alaska. And now they’re actually pointing calling out towards Y. So this is like a major shift in biology. 

And the squid are out competing. The gills fish because the fish can’t breathe in a low oxygen environment. 

What they are is to kill fish or being fished out. And the squid are taking their place. But there’s a little bit of controversy in terms of where disability services, whether it’s because the fish is gone or whether it’s because of this expanding low oxygen zone, which is a result of climate change. So there’s two theories you have for a real change in biology. You did a trip to the Gulf of California that just John Steinbeck did the jury in the Gulf of Cortez. And he did a trip all the way through with Ed Ricketts, who is a biologist in Monterrey at the time. And he was also a character one a couple of John Steinbeck’s novels. And Vaidya actually went around the Sea of Cortez Shores and check all of inshore life. Mostly the shallow water life. But they were also playing lines for catching fish all the time and they were catching tuna and all these species. And when clearly he tried to read replicate that, it was in two thousand six Emelie. And he found that the nearshore environment was really depopulated, really lost a lot of he didn’t find any of the numbers that scientists found. They didn’t find they didn’t catch the numbers of fish that Steinbeck did. And what the only thing that really finally came up with, he anchored off this San Pedro Island in the middle of the Gulf of California, and they came across sperm whales diving for Humboldt squid. And it was like what you described is as you’re really a regime change. It’s like a whole number of different biology. It’s come in and taken over from what? Used to be there used to be there is always sensationalists sperm whales and a humble squid. So it’s good for sperm whales and good good for their sperm whales. 

But a fabulous fish for eating calamari in restaurants. Is there any chance that it’s Humboldt squid that we’re eating? 

I don’t think so. I think that there’s what they have called market squid. That’s what you’re eating. They catch a water Humboldt squared off of Central Rosalia, which is a little French mining town or North Shore. And they it has a big fishery there for Humboldt’s. But mostly it’s sold to Korea and to Asian markets. 

Does it taste different than regular squid? 

You know, I haven’t tried that. 

They didn’t call up any Humboldt squid and throw them on the ground here. 

No. Did they fill up a humble quid and of using it for bait fish? I felt bad for the humble squid. 

There’s another part in the book where you talk about killer whales being unexpected beneficiaries of climate change at the expense of otters. Tell us a bit about that. 

It’s not how climate change is our answer to do. It’s just the reduction of whale numbers that have happened over the last hundred years. It’s kind of our results of that. 

And what you have is, I mean, orders, control orders on the Pacific shore all the way from California, all the way up to Alaska. They tend to control certain populations, which, you know, and these little spiny things. And the urchins get down there and they eat the bottom electrode, what the roots are, what they call the hold fast of the choplin from these kelp plants grow from the bottom all the way to the top. So there’s huge force of these cops and they’re all real vital for the fish. And when the sea otters were originally hunted because of their coast, but then they stopped hunting and the sea otters came back. But then Gilly starts noticing that what he thinks or suspected takes of sea otters by killer whales. He starts checking out. What’s this all about? I mean, this is an awful small animal for a killer whale. Killer whales eat big whales. They attack Bidwill. Pretty starting to notice that some instances where people who were working for him spotted a killer whale eating or an order. 

This is like popcorn sized or Furqan kind of popcorn size. 

Yeah, but what he’s doing this is he believes that the killer whales are actually the whales that the killer whales used to eat have been fished out to the point where killer whales are now turning on the seals and the sea lions and sea otters. And this is all in the. And it’s not off with Southern California. You don’t get 70. They throw up where it’s colder waters and sort of whales abound. They have kind of worked through the whole they started with the big seal and then went to the smaller SEALs Harbor seal and now to see otters. And this is his theory and it’s pretty good. 

You see the same scientists concerned that if sea ice continues to break up in the Arctic, the killer whales are going to come in and roll right over that beluga whales, the narwhals. 

Yeah, that’s another point. It’s like. Apparently killer whales have trouble in ice because their fins are there and they’re sticking up. It’s harder for them to navigate under ice. So if life is a little bit of a, you know, a safe place for beluga whales and a bunch more whales and a bunch of other animals, but the trouble is, is if we lose the ice from the killer whale, then has free range, then killer whale also has free range over the polar bear as well. 

It’s funny to think of the whales becoming a kind of pest. We tend to think of them as these noble, endangered creatures that we’re always impressing. But when things get out of balance, the killer whales could themselves become threats to other wildlife in the way that they weren’t previously. 

Folks of our whales are a major predator, and the killer whales and the white shark and the tiger shark are the three major apex predators of the oceans in the Pacific. They don’t need each other, but they they are pretty dominant over anything else. And this man has in places learned how to coexist with them. I know you have killer whales in your aquariums and all this stuff, but it’s not it’s not a natural thing. I mean, the killer whales are pretty bad predators and they’re pretty amazing. 

My mom is British Columbia and sometimes she sees them in the bay in your house and eat seals like it’s nothing. In the book, you talk about this really interesting concept called ecosystem services. What are they right? What are we losing as we lose these ecosystem services through mental degradation? 

Well, ecosystem services is expensive. Services that nature provide for the environment and for man in New York City, wouldn’t it? Gets its drinking water from the Catskill Mountains. And what basically cleans up to the water is a microbes in the soils and the roots of plants and trees. And these are all with filters. The water’s. Go down to New York. So New York doesn’t need as quite as an expensive filtration devices and ecosystem services are important to coastal environments, particularly the West Coast or the eastern coast of Central America, gets hammered by big hurricanes, or it’s a working niche, which they say was a four or five in the 90s to some pretty heavy damage to the countries along that shore. And what stops the continuation of the wells is essentially the normal pattern of fosler, coral reefs, inshore mangrove trees and also marsh grass. All these natural simulator’s natural breakwaters are much, much more actually efficient than what we have now. When we try to put up cement breakwaters because the trees they grow with, they they they grow up as the sea level rise. So they actually they monitor themselves with the environment. So they work better. But, you know, emphasis services. Nature has a real vital part to play in insect control. The bats and the birds are really heavy controllers of insects and they’re also major pollinators of our plants. And this goes down even to the creation of oxygen. I mean, the rainforest and the phytoplankton, the ocean or some of the major producers of losses. These are all real good cells, vital things. 

And we’re thinking we can live without nature or artificial debate about the role of biodiversity in wild spaces, play in shielding us from epidemic disease. It’s a really interesting part of the book. 

Oh, yeah. That was Rick Austell. Yeah. Jeff Karinski for Ecosystems did a bunch of studies on nature, basically plays a big role in attenuating diseases by essentially he describes that the disease cycle is if there is a cycle to disease. He looks at why the disease Lyme disease is spread by when you have lots of mice and you have lots of chipmunks, when you have lots of little small mammals. And if you get a more complex set of mammals where you have some pox and you have some predators, then there aren’t from many mice. So they don’t spread the disease as much. So that’s like controlling small mammals, which are real live fast die young creatures. They they don’t have a lot of immunity in their system. They just want to live fast and procreate and that’s it. So to have predators in the system controls these amounts and they actually control systems. And these are all important aspects for overriding food systems and business. 

And so beforehand, when we had a more about when there were more raptors and other things, the Lyme disease was under control and development came in and took away the larger predators that are keeping this small rodent population in check. And then Lyme disease is spreading to deer. And is that how that works? 

Yeah, the deer is not at risk assessment. Deer is kind of over blamed for this. They do do that. So, I mean, yeah, it’s a product of controlling the animals, not having a good biodiversity. Animals, a number of species is a better shield from disease than just a few. Especially for small mammals. 

Why is it better to have a lot of different kinds of predators in terms instead of just more in absolute numbers? Why is it better to have to be kinds of hawks versus three times as many as one kind of rock? 

Well, I mean, it’s just a matter of like what disease you have. And if you have more hawks, you have better chance of actually capturing the animals. Diversity is usually a good thing. And just in the fact that it keeps environment balanced better than in terms of disease, it could actually get it from different directions. It’s not a one way thing. If not, you lose this manimal and the disease go wild. You have brierty of predators. Things stay in balance better. The mammals, the small mammals that are good carriers of disease are not less likely proliferate. If there’s a variety of predators that are operating at different times, night and day, different environments, different times of the year. 

So between all these trends that you identify in the book in terms of how human activity is shaping the environment, what kind of environment have we created for ourselves? What kind of selective pressures have we created for ourselves as a species? 

Well, I mean, what we’ve created is a false promise that we don’t need the environment anymore. I say that we have to kind of come to the conclusion that we don’t really need nature anymore to do these ecosystem services are critical. That’s basically what’s happening. And as we lose these species, we learn the importance of them. As they disappear, we learn the importance of them. We learn how disease spreads. Also, there’s a whole issue of invasive species. When we take animal from one side of the world and put it into another, where it does much better because none of its natural predators are there. That’s another way that big balance is destroyed. And just we are getting into a. World, that’s really it’s a proper world. This is by offered. Russell was in 1876 when he says we live in a zero logically impoverished world from which all the hugest and fair system, strangest forms have recently disappeared. And he’s looking in from 1876. We look at it from the time now. I mean, we don’t even think about that huge pressure system exists in North America. And then there were the natural environment which destroyed one man for centuries. You keep feeding on that. Now, we’ve tried to pull the line back. We’re picking a left turn from our man first arriving in birth, America. We start thinking always when the Europeans arrived or maybe 40 years ago. But people that look at the environment think in terms of like 40 years ago. But we walk a lot over a long time. That’s what we’re missing. Does it work? What could be? We have this inflated ego by our importance and we think we’re going to last forever. I think that you and I and homosapiens have a limited lifespan and we should try to coexist and try to stop thinking or feel and end on dominant member of this natural society and start playing a part of that society. Maybe we can last longer and enjoy it more. 

Do you feel like there’s still time for humans to reign in their impact on the biosphere? 

You know, there’s good examples. New England, Wales force is growing. They’re part of the nest. That’s actually a good sign of California. The ocean environment is increasingly we’re talking about the blue whale might actually be back to prehistoric numbers, really kind of good things. 

It’s just that I don’t see them being done on a vast scale. In the book, I talk about the different changes in thought that have occurred over the last hundreds of years, the disappearance of slavery, women’s suffrage, and then more acceptance, better acceptance of gays in society. A major thought process changes. 

So it is possible that the world could actually become much more environmentally aware if we could widen the moral circle even further to include not just animals, but the system of life itself. 

Right. If we look at ourselves as part of a system rather than the fault of the land is not just for us to plant plants so we can eat more. There’s also other creature, too. And we need space for everything. 

That’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 

All right. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.