The Watch of Life

“Mummy, can you check my spelling?”

It’s a little after 7am and my daughter presents me with a whiteboard. I scan my eyes over it. “You need an “a” before the “i” in Taipan,” I tell her. “I think it might be a Chinese word.” I am thinking of the word typhoon that we use but which, in Chinese, is “tai feng” meaning very big wind.

“But it’s an Australian snake,” she objects. “Why would it have a Chinese name?”

She has a point so I hunt for my phone and google the origins of the word. It turns out that taipan is adapted from an extinct Aboriginal language which, of course, makes far more sense. My daughter is satisfied and carefully copies her corrected prose onto a piece of paper.

Meanwhile, that word “extinct” is echoing inside my head. There’s been a lot of press lately about mammalian extinctions, nearly all of which are (directly or indirectly) due to human activities. While I eat my breakfast, I google some more about how languages become extinct. I get referred to an article in The New Yorker (from March 2015) which posits that by the end of the 21st Century more than half the current living languages (of which there are about 7000) will be extinct. Since the ‘60s, we have lost a language approximately every 4 months.

Among other things, the article tells the story of the Selk’nam tribe from Tierra del Fuego. In the late 1800s an influx of sheep herders and gold prospectors coveted the land of the Selk’nam and put a bounty on their heads. The Selk’nam population, numbering about 4000, was quickly reduced to 300 who were settled in Missionary-run reserves. Today there is one speaker of the Selk’nam language left.

The word “Taipan” came from a language called Wik Mungkan and the people were of Northern Queensland – specifically a long narrow strip running parallel to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Below is a quote from Wikipedia:

Making an inference from the number of clans and their members, Ursula McConnel calculated that traditionally the Wik-Mungkan must have had numbered some 1,500 to 2,0000 people.[40] By the 1930s it was estimated that the Wik-Munkan around the Archer River, and 200 on the Kendall and Edward Rivers, having experienced a demographic drop in the order of 60%-75% in the wake of white settlement. A combination of traders taking off men to work on the coast, introduced disease, cattle ranchers squeezing them off their hunting grounds, and occasional punitive forays to wipe out entire camps account for the reduction. At the turn of the 20th century a coastal reserve was set aside for them on the Gulf.[41]

I am constantly horrified by the effect of humanity on this planet (not least by what we do to each other). P assures me that the evolution of humans is just one of many possible circumstances which might have these massive effects. According to Wikipedia, scientists estimate that 99% of species who have ever lived on Earth are now extinct. That does seem to reduce the human input significantly since we have only been here for such a short time. So I guess, logically speaking, P is right.

I think what’s also curious, is how many other species are responsible for causing extinction. We know things like asteroid strikes are a cause. And I suppose evolution itself accounts for a lot. But how many other species, like humans, have systematically destroyed another species or a branch of their own species? It seems unlikely that it could be many.

Imagine the timeline of our planet is a huge watch. Then picture the ecosystems within that as being the cogs that keep the watch functioning. The species within the ecosystems are the teeth on each of those cogs. It seems, if you get rid of too many teeth, the cogs will start slipping and the watch will simply stop.

Wikipedia says: “A 2018 report indicated that the phylogenetic diversity of 300 mammalian species erased during the human era since the Late Pleistocene would require 5 to 7 million years to recover.”

If a herd of buffalo kills off all its grazing land, the herd will naturally reduce until the grasses recover. If a hive of bees can’t find sufficient food to feed themselves, they will move elsewhere or reduce in numbers. My point is, most species have their numbers modified by the living conditions. But humans have refused to accept that order. We insist on surviving in spite of living conditions, in spite of killing off food sources and causing desertification of huge areas of land. We use our brains to help ourselves to the detriment of all else – including smaller groups of humans!!

We are very proud of our brains and we think they make us more valuable than other species. Elon Musk thinks our technology and knowledge are worth saving and that’s why he wants to start a colony on Mars.

But I don’t get it. If we’re so smart, how come we still can’t think beyond the immediate future? How come we can’t even plan ahead enough to keep our home comfortable? We set fire to our house to keep ourselves warm now. But where do we go when the whole house is burned down?

With our big, clever brains (as clever as an asteroid propelled randomly through space?), we seem to be trying awfully hard to stop the watch of life.

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