How Economists Are Saving Our Ecosystems

Comic villains are always hatching nefarious schemes. These usually involve forcing a superhero to choose between saving an entire planet or the woman he loves. Why are ecologists finding themselves in the same position?

Today, real-life ecologists are being forced to decide which species to save when it's clear that not all are going to make it. Endangered species—and plans to save them—stir up passions. But some scientists are turning to a rather dispassionate solution for this issue: economics.


For example, breeds of cattle are going extinct quickly, and there's not enough money or interest to save all of them. So Australian researchers have turned to the theories of Harvard University's Martin Weitzman to try to figure out what species has the best chance, and would be the best investment of ecologists' time.

They determined that it makes more sense to save Ethiopian cattle over the similarly threatened Somalian and Kenyan breeds after factoring in not only that Ethiopian cows was the most endangered, but also that the herders would be the most willing to adapt and embrace conservation tactics to protect their breed. Voila!

Hopefully the Aussie researchers are correct and economics can be a tool to show the best ways of tinkering with ecosystems, because there are plenty of great examples where humanity's attempts to rectify its own negative effects on an ecosystem resulted in even further calamity.

Take the case of invasive species insanity on Macquarie Island near Antarctica: sailors in the 1800s accidentally introduce rats, then send in cats to kill the rats. They bring rabbits, too, so that shipwrecked sailors would have something to eat. Rabbits, as rabbits do, get out of hand, so scientists introduce a disease to kill them. This left the cats with less food, so they started eating the native species and wiping them out. So people had to kill all the cats. 

Macquarie is an extreme example of environmental manipulation gone wrong, but it's certainly not alone—remember the cane toads in Australia. With human activity and climate change threatening more and more species, sitting on our hands because we don't understand perfectly how our actions will affect the ecosystem isn't really a solution, either. 

Consider a kind of plan you're going to be hearing more and more about in the future—assisted colonization. Some animals—and plants, too—have already begun migrating to new areas as their habitats warm up and become less hospitable. But the pace at which animals adapt might not be able to keep up with accelerating global warming, if it comes to that. So said a paper in Science last summer, which suggested that manually moving some species to a more hospitable climate might be the only way to save them. These ambitious plans remain controversial among scientists, however, as evidenced by the response letters to that paper.

If economics can help tell us which cattle breed is the most salvageable, then perhaps it can also help to tell us whether assisted colonization really worthwhile. After all, it is a cost-benefit analysis: the benefit of trying to saving a species versus the costs, known and unknown, or the relative value of one species to its ecosystem over another. Given humanity's track record on this one, any help would be appreciated. These decisions aren't going away.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.