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Mass Extinction: the past, the present and the future


Deze informatie is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Topics: Mass Extinction, Evolution, Ecological crises, Paradigm Shifts
Disciplines: Biology, Economy, History, Philosophy
Skills: Critical Thinking, Interviewing, Podcast making

Admission requirements:

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an elective course within the Honours College programme. Third year students who don’t participate in the Honours College, have the opportunity to apply for a Bachelor Honours Class. Students will be selected based on i.a. their motivation and average grade.


Extinction is rule. Survival is exception. This phrase, by Carl Sagan, is meant to illustrate the ruthlessness of nature over geological time frames of millions of years. Probably more than 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct.

If extinctions have been rule in the past, extinctions are certainly rule today. With some extinction rates exceeding 100 times the baseline rates of non-human eras, as deduced by palaeontologists from fossil records, we can assure ourselves that humans play a major role in today’s germinating ‘6th mass extinction event’ (the 5th event meaning the end of all non-avian dinosaurs - and the rise of the mammals). Many drivers lay at the foundation of this current mass extinction event, including climate change, land-use change, poaching, and deliberate or accidental introduction of non-native species into fragile environments.

In this course we look into the past, the present and the future of extinction and will focus our attention on several questions. In case of extinction, what exactly is lost? What are the consequences of this loss? How does an ever increasing extinction rate affect ecosystems, and thus the very base of our own livelihoods? Can we substitute the functions that extinct species had? How does extinction affect the economy? Do we as a dominant species have the moral obligation to protect - or even bring back from extinction - other species? What are current strategies to counter extinction? And finally, are we ourselves doomed to go extinct?...and what to think about that?

Note: This course is explicitly designed for students from different backgrounds. That means that it will offer a rewarding learning experience for people from all different bachelor programs, ranging from ecology to philosophy and from mathematics to business. We hope to include you in our first group of students.

Course objectives:

Upon successful completion of this course, students will:

  • show insight into basic biological definitions of species (plants, animals, micro-organisms, etc.) and the dynamics of speciation and extinction;

  • show understanding of the scale of extinctions in historical perspective. Specifically, you have insight into: palaeogeological knowledge. Including the rate of extinction, in current and past extinctions and drivers behind the current mass extinction a changing public perception on extinctions during the last few centuries;

    • show basic insights into the psychology and sociology surrounding extinctions;
    • identify what the economical drivers and consequences of extinction are;
    • formulate your own position in ethical (and other philosophical) debates surrounding species protection and preservation. Critically evaluate normative debates about extinction, and distinguish different values ascribed to species (moral, esthetical, utilitarian, financial, psychological, social, etc.);
    • generally describe potential measures to counter the current mass extinction events, by governments, ngo’s (WNF, IUCN, etc.) and private parties (companies, philanthropists, etc.). Furthermore you show awareness of modern practices and methods (and can give a funded opinion on their sense or nonsense) surrounding ‘de-extinction’: the recreation of extinct species by scientists;
    • show relations between the methods and concepts used in the different scientific disciplines and those used in their own field of study.

Programme and timetable:

The sessions of this class will take place on the following Tuesdays from 17:15 – 19:15.

Session 1: October 10
Introduction to Extinction – Thinking the Unthinkable

Session 2: October 17
Causes of Extinction – A Perfect Storm

Session 3: October 24
Making a Podcast – Start of the Assignment

Session 4: November 14
Effects of Extinction: Economy, Ecology & Ethics

Session 5: November 21
On de-extinction – Making a Mammoth

Session 6: November 28
Future Perspectives – Where are we heading?

Session 7: January 25 (in Hortus Botanicus from 17.15 - 19.15)
Presenting the Podcasts

Pieter de la Court, room 1B.09

Reading list:
We will read (parts of) the following books and articles:

  • Memoir on the species of Elephant, both living and fossil – George Cuvier (1796)

  • On the Increase of the habitable earth – Carl Linnaeus (1744)

  • Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History - Elizabeth Kolbert (2015)

  • Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? – Barnosky et al. (2011)

  • Ecological Consequences of Extinction – Rao & Larson (2010)

  • The Ethics of Reviving Long Extinct Species - Sandler (2014)

  • Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction – Ceballos et al. (2015)

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 ECTS, which means the total course load equals 140 hours:

  • 16 hours: 8x lectures (2 hours each), working groups or presentations

  • 44 hours: preparations to the lectures & reading literature.

  • 65 hours: working on the podcast assignment

  • 15 hours: working on reflection assignment

Assessment methods:

The main assignment of this course will be the making of a Podcast in small groups. Also a short personal and individual reflection will be part of the assignment. In the assessment the teacher will look at content, critical reflection on the topic, use of sources and effort of each individual contributor. Both the podcast assignment and the reflection will be assessed and marked as ‘pass’ or ‘fail’.

Brightspace and uSis:

Brightspace will be used in this course. Upon admission students will be enrolled in Brightspace by the teaching administration.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Bachelor Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Registration process:

Submitting an application for this course is possible from Monday 21 August 2023 up to and including Tuesday 12 September 2023 23:59 through the link on the Honours Academy student website.

Note: students don’t have to register for the Bachelor Honours Classes in uSis. The registration is done centrally before the start of the class.


Joris Buis: