What's Lost When a Species Goes Extinct?

Guest blogger Ross Barham writes…

A sketch of the author sweeping the skeletal remains of the mythical Sphinx into the abyss. Illustration by Elliott Bolt

A sketch of the author sweeping the skeletal remains of the mythical Sphinx into the abyss. Illustration by Elliott Bolt

It’s relatively easy to come up with reasons why extinction is a bad thing (especially when it rises above normal background rates). Here are just a few of the more obvious concerns:

•   the death of each individual belonging to a species typically involves suffering, which, if the rate of extinction is increased beyond background rates, amounts to an increase in suffering also;

•   ecological interdependence means increased extinction rates can snowball, perhaps eventually even posing a threat (existential or otherwise) to humans;

•   extinction deprives us of experiencing the species first-hand, limiting our aesthetic and zoological access; and,

•   the fact of extinction keeps paleontologists and philosophers of paleontology from performing more economically stimulating work. [Just jokes!]

These reasons, however, all turn out to be extrinsic to the value of species themselves. Consider the first example: it’s possible to imagine a world where, although the species still goes extinct, each individual member of the species is anaesthetised to keep them from suffering.

Intrinsic reasons, on the other hand, are notoriously difficult to establish. The challenges in relation to species are twofold: 1) to explain how the intrinsic worth of a species belongs to the species itself and not, say, the collective membership of all individual creatures belonging to said species; and 2) to explain how the worth of a species can exist independently of the appreciation of that value.

In what follows, I offer a rough sketch of Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysically grandiose attempt to overcome these challenges in his 1818 work, The World as Will and Idea. I don’t mean to endorse, let alone try to salvage his philosophy here. Rather, in the concluding remarks, I wish only to hint at some parallels between Schopenhauer’s philosophy and the way we now extol the worth of species in the context of evolutionary theory.

The Significance of Species

Schopenhauer’s pre-Darwinian argument for the intrinsic worth of species centres around his notion of the will. Hoping to resolve the difficulties arising from Cartesian Dualism, Schopenhauer proposes that there two distinct fundamental aspects to the world: will being one of them; ideas being the other.

Our familiarity with the will is most clear in our ability to move our bodies autonomously. For instance, we know how to move our limbs pre-conceptually. Motor control, however, is only the more obvious familiarity we have of the will. Simply being an embodied creature is also to manifest the will. But, if you’re thinking that will, then, is just proprioception, you’ve missed the point. Schopenhauer wants to say that it is not our awareness of the will that is the will. Rather, the will is our embodiment, whether it is perceived or not. Admittedly we gain the idea of our embodiment via the senses but, for instance, we recognise it is not the senses we will when we move our bodies. After all, it is possible to imagine moving one’s limbs even if we weren’t able to feel them. In such a vein, Schopenhauer claims even stones have will – the will to be stones. As Schopenhauer famously puts it in relation to the question of free will:

Spinoza says that if a stone which has been projected through the air, had consciousness, it would believe that it was moving of its own free will. I add this only, that the stone would be right.

Of species, then, Schopenhauer claims that they are specific instances of a will that is manifest in common anatomical and behavioural characteristics – i.e. the will to be Thylacine-like or Marsupial Lion-like, etc. Thinking about this in Platonic terms: animal species are shadowy manifestations of the Forms. As Schopenhauer puts it:

…plurality is directly conditioned by time and space, in which the will itself never engages. The will reveals itself just as completely and as much in one oak as in millions: their number and multiplication has no significance for the will itself…

Remember: the point of all this is to establish that species is a thing in its own right (and not just a loose collection of individual, albeit related members), such that intrinsic value might be attached to it. In this vein, Schopenhauer further argues that, accepting his account, we are provided with a resolution to the limitations of etiological science that only apprehends nature reductively, in terms of its more basic forces. In this vein, he writes:

In every age some aetiology or other has mistakenly tried to reduce all organic life to chemistry or to electricity […]. But certain original forces will always remain unaccounted for…

The reason why the will is thought to float free of such etiological difficulties such that species themselves can then come to be recognised as ontologically unified, is that the will is not itself physical, although it is objectified in the physical. Schopenhauer writes:

[Manifestations of will] can never […] themselves be called either effect or cause, but are the prior and presupposed conditions of all causes and effects through which their own nature unfolds and is revealed.

In such a light, individual conspecifics belong intrinsically to their species insofar as they manifest the will of a shared Platonic Idea, although they are not caused by it, in the etiological sense.

The Intrinsic Value of Species

So, allowing Schopenhauer his account of the ontological unity of species, the next difficulty is to find an inherent value in it – that is, a value which would exist even if no one were to value it.

Schopenhauer is an arch pessimist, so, strangely enough, the value that he ascribes to species (and indeed, all life) is a negative one. Schopenhauer argues that all life is suffering, as even the desire for things we hope will bring us happiness is in reality a form of suffering that, once ostensibly sated, immediately gives way to further painful desires. So too with species. The will, according to Schopenhauer, imperfectly manifests itself in the particular animals belonging to a species. There are no angels on Earth, just as there never will be a perfect kookaburra, wombat or platypus. Again, the inescapable imperfection manifest in the individuals that make up a species is a negative value without needing to be perceived. The point is not that imperfections are only negative insofar as they cause pain and suffering; it is enough that the will of each creature strives but inevitably fails to manifest itself as the ideal of the species to which it belongs – this too is a negative value. As he puts it:

…every organism expresses the Idea [of the species] it mirrors only according to the deduction of the portion of its energy expended in subduing the lower Ideas [e.g. gravity, chemical decomposition, etc.] that contest its claim on matter. […] The more or less successfully the organism subordinates the forces of nature which express the lower grades of the will’s objectification, the more or less completely it attains to the expression of its Idea, or, in other words, the more or less closely it approximates to the ideal of beauty in its species.

And yet, as he continues:

… the particular things arise and pass away, are always becoming and never are.

For Schopenhauer, then, when a species goes extinct, although certainly nothing is gained, what is intrinsically lost is only ever something deficient and so, negative.

Schopenhauerian Reflections

Most of us aren’t such gratuitous Platonists nor such dire pessimists, and so, Schopenhauer’s philosophy will likely gain little sympathy with a contemporary audience. That said, I do want to suggest that something of an echo can be heard of Schopenhauer’s Pre-Darwinian philosophy in the way we now tend to think about the value of species in the context of evolutionary theory.

Rather than thinking about animals as imperfectly manifesting a Platonic Ideal of the species to which they belong, Darwin instead tells us that species are the result of evolution. Recently, Daniel Dennett has felt it advisable to talk of evolutionary processes as ‘designing’ species (thereby hoping to take the punch out of Intelligent Design theorist’s appeal to common sense). He writes:

Which campaign do we evolutionists want to lead? Do we want to try to convince laypeople that they don’t really see the design that is stunningly obvious at every scale in biology, or would we rather try to show that, wonderful to say, what Darwin has shown is that there can be design—real design, as real as it gets—without an Intelligent Designer?

With this is mind, it might more significantly be said that each species is a manifestation of the evolutionary design process of that species. A particular koala, echidna, emu, or red-back spider, is, in both phylogenetic anatomy and behaviour, a living repository of the evolutionary lineage to which it belongs as a member of a certain species. Whether we appreciate it or not, it is a testament to the innumerable evolutionary pressures and random genetic mutations which contributed to its design. As Helena Cronin puts it:

We are walking archives of ancestral wisdom. Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears’ rare successes. This Darwin has taught us. The human eye, the brain, our instincts, are legacies of natural selection’s victories, embodiments of the cumulative experience of the past.

The inorganic universe itself has a remarkably rich (let alone long!) history. Every atom, star, galaxy, etc., is, in its manifest form, a result of causal history which made it so. However, when organic life evolves, the species that arise form a record of the behavioural and anatomical traits which best suited the survival of all the individual lives which preceded it. When we observe the hop of a kangaroo, we see in it, regardless of the environment in which it is currently observed, a reflection of the environment in which the species evolved. And, moreover, this ‘reflection’ is there whether or not anyone observes it.

So, rather than supposing that individual creature fails to attain to the perfection we espy in the general, shadowy form of each species, instead, Darwin has it that each species is at once a remarkably rich feat and recording of design. This, indeed, is nothing to be pessimistic about – evolutionary design is not aiming for some particular end, and yet the remarkably complex and sophisticated design of each species is a valuable record of the history of the lives and environmental conditions that preceded it. Moreover, such an understanding gives us intrinsic reason for species conservation, or failing that, at least, to create the richest, most philosophically appreciative paleontology we can.

I’m not saying that, if you asked him, Schopenhauer would be happy with this juxtaposition; but, then again, nothing makes a pessimist happy.


Stella Wederick, Elliott Bolt, Kemran Mestan, Blair Mahoney, Elisa Webb, Sam Bryant, Laura Schroeter, Kate Phelan, and an audience of The 2016 Victorian Postgraduate Philosophy Workshop.


Dawkins, Richard. Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (Oxford, 2008)

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Thinking Tools (Penguin, 2013)

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea (Everyman, 1818/1995)