The great extinction



There is a great die-off under way, one that may justly be compared to the disappearance of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, or the sudden downfall of so many great mammals at the beginning of the Holocene. But how far can such a comparison really take us in assessing the present moment?

The hard data tell us that what is happening to animals right now is part of the same broad historical process that has swept up humans: We are all being homogenized, subjected to uniform standards, domesticated. A curiosity that might help to drive this home: At present, the total biomass of mammals raised for food vastly exceeds the biomass of all mammalian wildlife on the planet (it also exceeds that of the human species itself). This was certainly not the case 10,000 or so years ago, at the dawn of the age of pastoralism.

It is hard to know where exactly, or even inexactly, to place the boundary between prehistory and history. Indeed, some authors argue that the very idea of prehistory is a sort of artificial buffer zone set up to protect properly human society from the vast expanse of mere nature that preceded us. But if we must set up a boundary, I suggest the moment when human beings began to dominate and control other large mammals for their own, human ends.

We tend to think about history as human history. Yet a suitably wide-focused perspective reveals that nothing in the course of human affairs makes complete sense without some account of animal actors. History has, in fact, been a question of human-animal interaction all along. Cherchez la vache is how the anthropologist E.E. Evans-­Pritchard argued that the social life of the cattle-herding Nuer of southern Sudan might best be summed up—\”look for the cow\”—but one could probably, without much stretching, extend that principle to human society in general. The cattle that now outweigh us are a mirror of our political and economic crisis, just as cattle were once a mirror of the sociocosmic harmony that characterized Nuer life.

Most of history, to the extent that it is understood narrowly as a human affair, has consisted in a patchwork of interconnected but still largely autonomous human societies; or at least they were autonomous in their self-conception, even if they were always intricately interconnected by trade, war, and migration. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant came to understand history precisely as the process whereby European civilization radiates out and progressively engulfs the Arctic, the Americas, and the South Sea Islands—bringing them, that is, into the fold of history.

And however we define history, it is certain at least that these areas were enfolded into something new and unprecedented. When Kant was writing, the Inuit, for example, lived more or less independently, as hunters and foragers, in a mode of life that was directly adapted to and integrated with their environment. Today the Canadian Inuit live under the administration of a Euro-American colonial state, and many depend for their food on transport of mass-produced, processed commodities from the urban, industrial south.

What is often overlooked in the familiar summaries of this process—overlooked, perhaps, for fear of appearing disrespectful by running indigenous peoples and wild animals together—is that it has not been limited to a single species. Animals are swept up in the same frenzy: Either join up with what is increasingly the only game in town, and you will grow fat and homogeneous, and your body will be instrumentalized for economic ends; or die out. Mammalian biodiversity is dropping, while the biomass of cattle is skyrocketing. Cattle are even driving indigenous humans out of their habitats, most notably in the Amazon, either to assimilate into the urbanized proletariat or, likewise, to die off.

We do not need to exaggerate the analogy between human cultures and biological species in order to appreciate the unitary nature of the process that is under way. History has always been the history of humans within their environments, and it is crucial to understand history in this trans-species way in order to place the recent idea of the Anthropocene in proper perspective.

It may seem presumptuous to propose that the principal characteristic of the present period of the Cenozoic era is the presence of human beings. After all, these are divisions in a geological time scale, and the rocks go deep. But all of the epochs and eons, going back to the boundary of the Archean, 2.5 billion years ago, have been named according to their representative life forms, and no life form represents the present better than Homo sapiens.

But we couldn’t have done it without the animals. We brought the world to its present state, but we did so by putting nonhuman nature to work for us. A crucial part of this has been the exploitation of, and occasional cooperation with, animals, and it is not surprising that, as we appear to be approaching some sort of climactic finish, the animals that remain are principally the ones that have been incorporated into the process in some way or another—the ones that are regulated, conserved, bred, consumed.

There are, however, many losers in this history, many animals that cannot, by reason of their niche or behavior, be incorporated into the Anthropocene. These are the victims of the \”sixth extinction\” described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her recent book of the same name. The subtitle declares it an \”unnatural history,\” but it makes little sense to view this massive die-off as unnatural: Human history is natural history.

Strictly speaking, the earth does not itself mind being brought into the Anthropocene. There is nothing about the earth that justifies any talk about the temperature it \”ought\” to maintain, or the size of the polar ice caps it \”should\” have. The fact that recent climate change is, beyond any reasonable scientific doubt, anthropogenic in nature makes no difference to the earth.

The environmental philosopher and anthropologist Thom Van Dooren writes of \”incredible loss\” in his penetrating new book, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (Columbia University Press). But a loss to whom? Or to what? Van Dooren gives us intimate, detailed biographies of a handful of imperiled species of birds. We learn, for example, of the American whooping crane (Grus americana), now being taught to discover new migratory routes by conservationists guiding them in ultralight aircraft. And we learn of the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus), whose bloody sanitation work makes it both a fearsome sight for humans (its head is featherless, better to insert it into the innards of carcasses) and a link in the chain of life and death. The crane’s prospects are looking better than those of the vulture at present, thanks largely to the differing attitudes and policies of the humans around them. Humans can occasionally help the animals, though even here, as Van Dooren clearly sees, there is a troubling mixture of care and violence. When we guide cranes along new routes, we are making choices about life and death, just as when we slaughter or let an animal die by neglect.

In all of this, again, nature itself is indifferent. The earth does not resent its humans, nor does it have any interest in preserving its polar bears or its rain forests. In fact, many species would do very well in a significantly hotter environment. Snakes like the giant Titanoboa thrived during the late Paleocene, as the tropics approached one of several thermal maxima. Attempts have been made to account for the current state of the earth as the one that is fitting and \”healthy.\” But unless one accepts the Gaia hypothesis, there are no plausible grounds for supposing that the earth is an organism, and thus that it might really be healthy or sick, or that it might have a suitable body temperature or ideal set of charismatic megafauna. We talk about \”saving the earth,\” but what we really want is to save ourselves.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But we must be clear about the motive for our conservation efforts, if for no other reason than that it will help us to better understand the true character of the misfortune of animal extinction. This improved understanding could, in turn, have significant policy implications. For one thing, more honesty about the fact that we wish to save polar bears because we love them, and not because the earth loves them, could help to reorient conservationist arguments in a direction that skeptics would find more compelling.

Ironically, much conservationist thinking involves an implicitly mythological conception of species diversity that agrees in its essentials with the creation account offered in Genesis. In the scriptural tradition, God looked upon his work and deemed it good, and what ensued was a stable order of fixed, discrete, and well-bounded kinds, with no relations of descent among them. The best metaphor for conceptualizing biodiversity in this view is Noah’s ark, where each kind can be neatly separated from the others in its own compartment. The conservationist view generally leaves the creator out of the picture, yet the creatures are still deemed good, intrinsically good, and if they do not remain fixed and unchanging, then we may conclude that something is out of order—or \”unnatural,\” to use Kolbert’s term.

Darwinism, properly understood, is the opposite of this mythological outlook. It tells us that no particular arrangement of biodiversity is good in itself, and that no species has any absolute reason to exist. For a given species to be \”better\” than another is simply for it to have an adaptation that enhances its likelihood of surviving to reproductive age. Are humans better than fish? It is impossible to answer, without specifying whether the contest is to take place on land or under water. Should there be air-breathing animals at all? That depends on whether the planet has a breathable atmosphere. If not, it would be better to live in the ocean and to breathe through one’s gills. And so on.

The point here is not to relativize the current ecological crisis, or to call for an approach to mass extinction that simply says, que será, será. Rather, it is to suggest that conservationism might do well to acknowledge the endurance and the strength of the mythopoetical conception of nature, the one that sees our fellow creatures not only as more or less well adapted, but also as good, truly good. This would not require any overt theology, as it is already implicit in conservationist thinking, and many if not most conservationists have no patience for cosmological arguments for the existence of God. But it would require an abandonment of our piecemeal wisdom about animals and our relations with them, a wisdom thrown together out of sloppy scientism, utilitarian half-­measures, and basic ontological mistakes.

We try to convince ourselves that our commitments to animals flow from their neurophysiology alone, from a recognition of their capacities to experience pain, to have episodic memories, or to plan for the future. We blame ourselves for inconsistency when the well-being of an animal with lesser capacities concerns us more than that of one with higher capacities—a pet cat, for example, as opposed to a pig bred for food. In thinking this way, we fail to note that the boundaries of moral community have never in human history been drawn along species lines alone, nor have they been drawn in view of a theory of the complexity of other beings. Rather, moral commitments emerge out of the way creatures, human and nonhuman, enter into meaningful exchange with one another.

At the same time, somehow, a strange, vestigial Platonism coexists with this crude utilitarianism, and attributes a moral status to kinds themselves. There is, to be precise, a peculiar, implicit equivalence in the way we tend to think about killing animals, and about driving animal species to extinction: One animal species is morally equivalent to one human individual. Thus we say that the Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction, in much the same way we might say that the vicar has succumbed to gout. This switch, as we move from humans to animals, is significant for a number of reasons. It helps to explain why the argument that slaughter, at the end of a happy, free-ranging, species-appropriate life, is acceptable for a lamb but not for a child. It explains why culling zebra herds is \”for their own good,\” while Jonathan Swift’s plan for Irish population control is self-­evidently satirical.

Errol Fuller’s Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record (Princeton University Press) calls to mind the sort of commemorative volume that might follow a singular human disaster, such as September 11, which aims to testify to the unique, irreducible existence of each of the victims. But each of the victims in Fuller’s book is not an individual at all but a species. Many of his short biographies of the recently vanished are touching, even revelatory. There is the Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), whose existence remained unconfirmed until 1917, when the 17-year-old Charles Hoy shot one with his rifle, ate some meat, and took a photo. He contracted a parasitic flatworm in that same river and died, back in the United States, in 1922. Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward placed dams throughout the Yangtze and cut interbreeding populations of dolphins off from one another. The last of them, Qi Qi, died in captivity in 2002. Qi Qi’s funeral was broadcast on Chinese national television.

There is the Tasmanian thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), which looks like a dog or wolf but belongs to an ancient marsupial lineage and is far closer to a kangaroo than a canine. The last known thylacine died in captivity in 1936, though it lives on in cryptozoological circles of varying degrees of reputability. The thylacine, previously known as the Tasmanian wolf, had been a great success in the zoos of Europe, and numerous photographs survive showing the creature, behind bars, gaping.

One cannot help reflecting, in reading this profound volume, on the way photography, as a medium of representation of the natural world, both bears witness to the process of destruction and, in a way, emblematizes and perhaps even facilitates this process. As with war photography, the technology that testifies coevolves with, and is set up alongside, the technology that kills. The period of history that has witnessed some of the worst violence, both ecological and military, is also the best documented. We have unprecedented electronic surveillance not just of human settlements but also of all of nature, and yet this surveillance seems to be doing nothing at all to turn back the process of homogenization and reduction of biodiversity. On the contrary, the two developments seem to be of a piece.

And yet one can’t help wishing that the photographic record extended much further back still, that there were a way of recovering images of species lost well before the late 19th century. We have cave paintings of woolly rhinoceroses and mammoths, and these are precious, but they allow us to go on imagining these vanished animals as fantastical, as the products of human phantasm, rather than as our fellow beings in every sense but the temporal one. Iconic war photographs, of flaming monks or naked children fleeing napalm, are said to humanize their subjects, and therefore to help turn public opinion against violence. What do photographs of extinct species do? There is no word for it. We cannot say \”animalize,\” since that means something very different, and indeed the fact that it does could very well be a sign of the depth of the problem.

Animals are turned into fellow beings through this documentation. We are reminded of our fellowship with them. It is by appeal to this fellowship that we can begin to make sense of the question: Who, or what, loses when species go extinct? What is the nature of this loss? Bacteria that induced mass extinction would have no regrets, and neither would the earth itself. We do. But we must not suppose that this is because we stand apart from nature, sizing it up, measuring its inherent value, taking stock of it like the takers of inventory in a warehouse. Human beings are no less natural than bacteria, and so human history has always also been the natural history of the environment. It is because we are fully in nature in this way, and not above it or apart from it, that the mass extinctions we cause cannot be unnatural—in fact, the very notion of the \”unnatural\” is generally nothing more than a shrouded moral judgment.

It is for the same reason that our true fellowship, in spite of centuries of spurious theological and scientific arguments to the contrary, cannot be contained within the boundaries of our own species, but extends out to all the creatures with which, or with whom, we enter into meaningful interaction.

Intensive livestock production and other abhorrences suppress the meaning of human-animal relations, deny that there could be such relations at all, and attempt to convince us that we are dealing with a mere commodity. Those practices deprive the animals of their creature­hood and take away the possibility of recognizing fellowship with them. But what we see when we are forced to look—by, say, the activists who bring hidden cameras into the slaughterhouses—are fellow creatures greatly reduced: ghoulish shadows, living ghosts.

These animals are the ones that have been caught up in the system. In some respects, it is psychologically less demanding to recognize the fellow-creature status of the ones that remain outside the system, and that therefore are now threatened with extinction. They are the noble natives, adorned with feathers and shells, while the cattle are the rude and lowly workers that polite society does not wish to see. Still, this very psychology can help us confirm the point that our judgments about where community lies are not determined by species boundaries, despite our modern efforts to have them so. What is lost when the thylacine goes extinct is a history of community and any possibility of future community. And that is a loss to be mourned.

Aristotle wrote more than 2,300 years ago that hunting is \”a form of war.\” He wrote this, appropriately, in a treatise called Politics. This was the Iron Age, and it was already clear to Aristotle that humanity had definitively won this war, at least against our fellow top predators. For the most part, ancient Athenians did not have to live in fear of other carnivores.

Yet now, at the beginning of the Anthropocene, we find that the war continues, in new and vastly more destructive forms. For one thing, we no longer discriminate between friend and foe; we don’t hunt only those who hunt us. History proceeds apace, on both sides of the boundary we pretend to maintain at the limits of our species. Literally and slightly less literally, in both forms of war we’ve entered the napalm era. We’re smoking out the jungle now, and we need as much testimony as possible, from photographs and from lucid witnesses and critics and from every other imaginable source, to not let us forget that our fellow creatures are being massacred.

Author Bio: Justin E.H. Smith is university professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris Diderot. He is the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy, forthcoming from Princeton University Press.