On the Origin of Extinction

Extinction has never been a purely scientific concept. When theories of extinction exploded onto the Western intellectual scene in the early 19th ...

Extinction has never been a purely scientific concept. When theories of extinction exploded onto the Western intellectual scene in the early 19th century, they upended a reassuring view of nature as more or less fixed and stable. Since antiquity, it had seemed that human history might ebb and flow, that civilizations might rise and fall, but that nature, at least, always had been and always would be the same. But with the appearance of spectacular fossils—championed, most famously, by Georges Cuvier—this stability suddenly disappeared. On Cuvier’s account these were evidence of a catastrophe that had wiped out strange, monstrous creatures that once inhabited a warmer, swampier Earth. Nature itself suddenly appeared subject to the same uncertain temporality, possessed of the same self-destructive energy, as human society.

Extinction, then, first came into being as a problem of human meaning. For Alfred Tennyson, fossils were nature’s way of mocking the poet’s grief at his friend’s death: “From scarped cliff and quarried stone / She cries ‘A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go.’”1 Tennyson is left grasping at dust. H. G. Wells later employed the horror of extinction spectacularly in The Time Machine’s chilling ending; elsewhere, he reminded readers that “the long roll of palaeontology is half filled with the records of extermination.”2

But should we be horrified by extinction? Charles Darwin didn’t think so. In On the Origin of Species, he mocked the catastrophist view of extinction as scientific illiteracy: “So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world!”3 Extinction was no cataclysm. Without it, the human species—along with all other life—would never have evolved.

We remain just as conflicted as 19th-century writers about what to make of extinction. Anthropogenic climate change is the first major development in the cultural story of extinction since Cuvier’s fossils and Darwin’s Origin. Tennyson and company were divided about whether to anthropomorphize nature as a callous fate or as a wise selective breeder. But none of them could imagine that humans themselves would become capable of causing planetary extinction. In recent years, however, the lethal combination of habitat destruction and global warming has elevated extinction rates to anywhere from 50 to 10,000 times the normal level. Most scientists believe that we are on the cusp of a mass extinction—only the sixth to take place in the three and a half billion years that Earth has existed.

Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species and Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History each wrest the extinction concept away from scientists. For Dawson, extinction must be understood as an internal feature of imperialist and capitalist attitudes toward nature that can be traced to antiquity. And for Heise it is a cultural narrative whose ethical implications are most explored in art, literature, digital media, and the law. But Heise and Dawson arrive at positions whose divergence reflects the persistent challenge of coming to terms with the human meaning of extinction.

Dawson is a catastrophist, like Cuvier and Tennyson. In Dawson’s judgment, extinction is properly understood as a cataclysmic effect of capitalism and imperialism, which depend on ever-increasing global expansion and resource expropriation. The solution is therefore obvious. Radicals must seize the assets of fossil fuel companies and initiate a transition to a postcapitalist steady-state economy in which there is no more imperative toward endless growth. This may seem extreme, but it is in fact a proportional response to the present scale of ecological crisis.

Expansion and exploitation are the threads of Dawson’s history, which takes a very long view of human responsibility for ecological degradation, or “ecocide.” Some historians have criticized the Anthropocene narrative propounded by scientists for presupposing a happy relation between humanity and nature prior to the industrial revolution. Dawson avoids this assumption, telling a story of humanity as a species that has been invasive for the past 30,000 years. The earliest moments of anthropogenic extinction include a “late Pleistocene wave of megadeath” in the wake of megafauna hunting and the Sumerian deforestation. The Roman Empire’s unsustainable agricultural practices and recreational killing of large animals like lions and elephants speak to “the exploitative attitude towards nature that accompanies empire.”

From prehistory and antiquity, we leap forward to early modern capitalism, where the exploitation of nature is perhaps more obviously endemic. The North American fur trade, which eroded beaver populations to the point that trapping itself became unprofitable, testifies to capitalism’s propensity to cause extinctions. The accumulation of capital depends on an endless extraction of natural resources, but limitations imposed by dwindling populations or resource exhaustion mean that at some point extraction must move elsewhere. “Capital’s logic is consequently that of a cancer cell, growing uncontrollably until it destroys the body that hosts it.” It is for this reason that Dawson takes a dim view of solutions to the present crisis that would be housed within the existing economic system of global capitalism.

Dawson asserts a direct causal link between political formations and attitudes toward nature. Empire entails extinction. “Capitalism is responsible” for most of the current extinctions. This perspective shapes the prescriptions offered in the second half of the book. De-extinction, the genetic recreation of extinct species, is cast as problematic because it enables a commodification of nature. More promising is a guaranteed income for the mostly poor inhabitants of biodiverse regions, which will discourage poaching and land clearing. Extinction ought to be understood as a symptom of the “terminal crisis of capitalism,” and so the tools to counteract it will be the same tools used to fight imperialism and capitalism.

Extinction first came into being as a problem of human meaning.

Drawing battle-lines is never an exercise in nuance, and dogmatic slogans often crop up: for example, “the only true conservation is a radical conservation.” Announcing itself as a “radical history,” Dawson’s book may seem to align with recent left critiques of the Anthropocene. Many have called to task the notion of the “Anthropos”—that is, humanity both as an aggregate of all individuals as well as the essential nature of the species—as the agent of climate change, when it is mostly rich people in the global North who are responsible. But Dawson embraces positions that others on the left have critiqued. By contrast with Dawson, Jason W. Moore’s widely adopted notion of the “Capitalocene” isn’t an argument that capitalism causes ecological degradation; Moore challenges the notion that economic systems act from a position outside a nature that pre-exists them. On Moore’s account, economic systems develop as ways of organizing nature rather than as entities separate from it; to argue, as Dawson does, that capitalism or imperialism cause extinction is to reinforce a dualism of nature and society. And Andreas Malm’s account of global warming as an effect of “fossil capital” concludes by enjoining readers to recognize scientific and political realities: “any proposal to build [socialism] on a world scale before 2020 and then start cutting emissions would be not only laughable but reckless.”4 By contrast with Dawson’s injunction to seize the assets of energy companies, Malm argues that even Marxists must prioritize a fast transition to wind and solar energy over ending capitalism. When Dawson makes extinction so entirely a symptom of economic and political formations—“disaster biocapitalism” as he puts it—he uses catastrophism to affirm a version of radicalism that some radicals have already seen as inadequate to the current crisis.

Heise’s way of thinking is much more like Darwin’s. Heise does not deny the reality or gravity of the current wave of extinctions. But in her view, apocalyptic stories about extinction run roughshod over scientific nuance as well as political and ethical dilemmas. What if the most effective way to slow extinction rates is to shoot thousands of elephants or kill millions of feral cats? (These were the solutions undertaken by South African government in 2008 and the Australian government in 2015.) What are we to make of the fact that even as scientists sound the alarm about the effect of melting sea ice on polar bear populations, the Inuit who live among them claim that bears are thriving? The appropriate response to these dilemmas is to move away from a commitment to “biodiversity” as an unquestioned good. Instead, we need a new model of “multispecies justice” that balances interests across different cultures and species.

The avenue into these ethical and political dilemmas is culture, broadly conceived. Heise discusses, in detail, an impressive array of material: toys; paintings; endangered species databases; photographs; laws in the United States, Germany, and Bolivia; animal studies scholarship; debates between conservationists and animal welfare advocates; novels by Mayra Montero, J. M. Coetzee, Amitav Ghosh, and T. C. Boyle; a graphic novel collectively authored by Stanford undergraduates; and the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson and Orson Scott Card. This collection of work shows how profoundly narrative conventions shape contemporary thinking about extinction, even among scientists whose database entries often tend toward elegy.

The extent to which tropes condition our understanding of extinction is evidenced in Heise’s corrective to Elizabeth Kolbert, whose widely acclaimed The Sixth Great Extinction describes in in sobering detail the extent and irreversibility of worldwide extinctions. Kolbert laments the extinction of the golden frog—caused, it was eventually discovered, by the previously unknown chytrid fungus. Heise notes that the discovery of a new fungus elicits for Kolbert no “wonder or celebration,” even though it represents a tiny increase in our knowledge of biodiversity. Heise’s point is not scientific; she makes no assertion the discovered fungus is ecologically more significant than the extinct frog. It is a claim about narrative. We are so primed to understand extinction through templates of elegy and tragedy that we are unable to see the other stories that weave through the phenomenon of mass extinction. Some of those alternative narrative templates, Heise goes on to argue, are to be found in comedy and epic.

Extinction is a cultural problem as much as it is a scientific phenomenon.

In her introduction, Heise offers as the book’s “central thesis” an uncontroversial claim: scientific studies of extinction take hold in the popular imagination “to the extent that they become part of the stories that human communities tell about themselves.” This justifies studying extinction via tropes rather than biomes. But it obscures a sharper point alluded to in the context of her chapter on databases: “databases … offer the potential of desentimentalizing extinction.” An activist might bristle. Most of the work to counter extinction has succeeded, precisely, by awakening sentimental attachments to so-called “charismatic megafauna” like penguins, birds, polar bears, whales, dodos, wolves, and seals. But Heise’s suggestion is that our visceral horror at mass death—an emotion that can be traced back to Tennyson—may prevent us from honestly confronting the fact that extinctions have become the necessary condition of our collective human life.

Extinction is inevitable. Some species will thrive at the expense of others. What is needed, Heise persuasively argues, is a path toward widely acceptable determinations of value. Biologists on their own lack the training in moral philosophy and the humanities more broadly that would allow for such judgments, so claims on behalf of biodiversity alone deserve to be challenged by specific, diverging needs of human societies and cultures. But, in turn, writers, academics, and artists who carry the baggage of Western ideas about untamed, wild nature are also limited in making these value judgments; their perspective deserves to be challenged, in particular, by indigenous communities. And, finally, humans as a whole are liable to species-centric thinking and therefore we all must allow other species to express—however possible—their own wishes.

Multispecies justice names the aspiration toward a “more-than-human diplomacy” that would take these many perspectives into account, but that is also very difficult to envision: can animals speak for themselves? Here again art and literature, with their capacity for speculation, become central to the extinction problem. Heise finds a model of multispecies justice in Orson Scott Card’s Ender novels, in which a human colony on an alien planet can survive only by exterminating a virus that is lethal to humans but necessary to the planetary ecosystem. Ecological harmony is unattainable, but the various actors must find a solution that takes the interests of various actors into account without fully satisfying any of them. What Heise says of this scenario is true also of our own: humans “are left with no innocent choices.” By contrast with Dawson’s radicalism, this looks very much like a transposition of liberal democracy into the realm of human-nonhuman relations.

To think about extinction is to be caught between extremes. On the one hand, it is naïve to find extinction remarkable or horrible. Extinction is an engine of biological complexity. As air-breathing organisms, we are beneficiaries of the first mass extinction, which took place 2.4 billion years ago when cyanobacteria released massive amounts of oxygen and poisoned Earth’s earliest life. But on the other hand, we are not cyanobacteria. Our capacity for moral reasoning means that we can reflect on humanity’s role in ecological, economic, and geopolitical processes that have escalated extinction rates. Extinction is therefore now a cultural problem as much as it is a scientific phenomenon.

It is easy to be a catastrophist. But what extinction means and what we ought to do about it remain difficult, open questions. Darwin, who reminded readers that “we need not marvel at extinction,” ended the Origin with a famous scene of contemplating the beauty and wonder of a tangled bank of earth where birds, worms, and bushes delicately coexisted.5 Their diversity attested to, among other laws of nature, “the Extinction of less-improved forms.”6 Darwin could find this wonderful because, unlike us, he could look at extinction from a safe distance. As agents of extinction, we no longer have this luxury. But the significance of the most recent plot twist in the story of extinction is not yet decided: to describe it as a disaster, cataclysm, or catastrophe is not incorrect, but these characterizations starkly simplify a situation in which the catastrophe has a very long history and in which the correct path forward is very hard to identify. If extinction has always been a problem of human meaning, its most recent uptake in the literary and artistic imagination demonstrates that it has now also become a problem of value and justice. icon

  1.  Alfred Tennyson, “Canto 56,” In Memoriam, edited by Susan Shatto and Marion Shaw (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 79.
  2.  H. G. Wells, “On Extinction,” Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, vol. 10, no. 509 (September 30, 1893), pp. 623–24.
  3.  Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, edited by Gillian Beer, (1859; Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 58.
  4.  Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016), p. 383.
  5. Darwin, On the Origin of Species, p. 237.
  6.  Ibid., p. 360.
Featured Image: Roeland Savery, The Paradise (1626). Oil on panel, 31.7 x 54.2 cm. Wikimedia Commons