Extinction Studies

Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew / Columbia University Press / 256 pages

A recent report published by the National Academy of Sciences warns of impending massive extinctions if corrective response is not initiated very soon–a sober indicator of the pertinence of this new collection of insightful essays.

Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations is a somewhat eclectic repertory, with each author providing a unique perspective of extinction, examining anthropological, literary, psychological, and moral implications, among others.

James Hatley’s work on ōkami, the extinct Honshu wolf, uses elegant prose to plead for the importance of protecting natural habitats as a key to preventing species extinctions. His essay evokes a haunting melancholy while leading the reader through tasteful haiku verse and the cultural impacts of this animal’s extinction.

Matthew Chrulew’s piece on the golden lion tamarin is less subtle, offering sharp judgments of hard-science wildlife reintroduction projects that deny their beneficiary species a modicum of animal welfare. In this case, tame zoo-born tamarins were released into a challenging Brazilian jungle with hardly any preparation or support. Not surprisingly, there was a very high mortality rate. Chrulew characterized the initiative as “lurching headlong into the wild with its salvific urgency and cutting-edge naivety.”

Chrulew posits that life in the wild is much more than the mere passage of DNA from one generation to the next. Rather, wild animal communities are repositories of skills, knowledge, and customs that are passed from one generation to the next and that “this cultural transmission is interrupted in crucial ways in captivity.”

As Thom Van Dooren’s essay on the extermination of Hawaii’s spectral crows argues, life is a matrix of biocultural inheritances. We are part of a “co-becoming” in which genes and ideas, culture and language, are all part of a rich inheritance. From this perspective, the extinction of a species is much more than the permanent loss of a particular arrangement of DNA.

With mathematical precision, he recites the numbers: There were 113 species of birds known to have lived exclusively in Hawaii when humans first arrived on those islands. Today, only 42 survive. Of those, 31 are now under the protection of the Endangered Species Act because they are at risk of extinction. Only 11 of 113 are not endangered or extinct. Nevertheless, there is still a vocal and influential group that resists setting aside about 20 percent of a forest area for these birds because it would interfere with their “tradition” of hunting feral pigs.

If there are callous people who are indifferent to this developing catastrophe, there are also many others who are engaged, and participate in efforts to protect these animals from extinction. Deborah Bird Rose, in her essay, interviewed volunteers who protect monk seals. She asked them why they volunteered. But those volunteers commonly declined to justify their efforts, or responded simply “because I can.” Rose surmises then that protecting endangered animals is a sentiment that flows from deep within the human psyche. It is motivated by much more than simple rationality.

And perhaps that is the hope for averting the impending mass extinction.

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