Penn Press logo
 
Extinction and the Human

In Extinction and the Human Timothy Sweet ponders the realities of animal extinction and endangerment and the often divergent Native American and Euro-American narratives that surround them, focusing especially on the force of human impact on megafauna—mammoths, whales, and the North American bison.

Extinction and the Human
Four American Encounters

Timothy Sweet

Oct 2021 | 224 pages | Cloth $37.50
Literature / Native American Studies
View main book page

Table of Contents

Introduction. From the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene
Chapter 1. A Prehistory of Extinction
Chapter 2. Mammoths, the "Oeconomy of Nature," and Human Ecology
Chapter 3. Does the Whale Diminish? Will He Perish?
Chapter 4. Buffalo Commons, Buffalo Nation
Reprise. The Human Exception Revisited
Notes
Bibliography
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction
From the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene

In 2017, a team of Harvard University scientists announced that they were close to creating a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo. Whether this creation could eventually lead to the successful de-extinction of the mammoth depends on the criteria by which we measure success. The closest hybrid that is hypothetically possible according to current science is an animal that is "capable of living where a mammoth once lived and acting, within that environment, like a mammoth would have acted" but that remains genetically "more elephant-like than mammoth-like." We may be interested in cloning the mammoth for various reasons. For some, "it would be cool!" For others, it would advance our understanding of reproductive biology; it might enable the restoration of the Arctic tundra ecosystem; it might bring back a species that we humans likely had a strong hand in exterminating. The Harvard team members are interested in ecosystem restoration and may be motivated by these other factors as well, but their immediate goal is to help preserve, albeit in altered form, the endangered Asian elephant by adapting it to a different environment. Their project is thus an attempt to use an extinct creature to intervene in our current crisis, often termed the Sixth Extinction event. In this context, the Harvard team's work mixes responsibility, atonement, and assumptions about agency in one particular form of engagement with nonhuman beings. They hope to repair the results of human excess by caring for a species and, by extension, an ecosystem.

The mammoth may be the original charismatic megafauna. Large, fascinating animal species onto which we can project humanlike qualities and with which we have a significant history of (often violent) interaction, megafauna invite us to reflect on human exceptionalism. The question of the human is more visible here than in cases of the endangerment or extinction of less charismatic animals, however important to human purposes (such as coral polyps), or plants, however beautiful or useful (such as the American chestnut). By human exceptionalism I mean any account of a distinction between humans and nonhumans that we use to deal with a troubling practice or to negotiate difficulties concerning our relation to nonhumans. Human exceptionalism in this fairly broad sense is not necessarily unique to the modern West. All humans who eat animals, for example, mark the distinction in one way. Even so, a particular version of the human/animal distinction and its exceptionalist corollaries is specific to the modern Western separation of Nature from History. The present study's focus on humankind's relations with certain large animals is one means to provoke reflection on this separation, its consequences, and its prospects. Rather than mount yet another theoretical critique of the human/animal distinction, however, Extinction and the Human brings some of this distinction's motivating concerns—morality, communicability, historical destiny, sovereignty—to case studies of human-animal relations in which animal species have become extinct or endangered.

Extinction and the Human focuses on mammoths, whales, and the North American bison beginning with the moments that these species' extinction or endangerment began to generate significant print archives. These archives include transcriptions of traditional Indigenous oral narratives, historical narratives, scientific narratives, and literary narratives by Indigenous American and Euro-American authors. If the Sixth Extinction is a hyperobject—an event so massively distributed in space and time that it cannot be experienced directly—these cases of particular megafauna have consistently commanded our focus and attention. They form a starting point for a coherent, approachable history. Before Enlightenment naturalists identified the fossil bones of mammoths as differing from those of living elephants and established extinction as a geohistorical fact, those bones were often said to be the remains of extinct races of beastly giants, destroyed either by a deity or by a group of civilized humans. Thus the book begins with a prehistory of the extinction concept, as manifest in early Spanish colonial historians' transcriptions of Nahua and Inca narratives and taken up in cross-cultural dialogs in eighteenth-century New York and New England. The mammoth became a national icon in the early U.S. republic because it connoted power and indigeneity, even as it was often characterized as a tyrant deserving of extinction. The mammoth did not maintain this iconic status, as the fact of its extinction became firmly established, probably because its fate augured ill for the young republic's future. Later, the mammoth's fate was taken up as an object lesson for European settler-colonists. Whales and buffalo were threatened by extractive industries during the nineteenth century and became objects of both instrumentalist concern and preservationist activism. For millennia prior to this modern trajectory, they had been subjects of human social engagement—and still are, especially in tribal traditions. Throughout these cases, various accounts of the distribution of agency and responsibility give rise to different accounts of the human role with respect to nonhumans. Analyzing these cases, I hope to inspire further reflection on this question of the human place and the related question of belonging.

Megafauna provide a focus because, as my opening example suggests, they have been perennial sources of fascination. Easy to anthropomorphize, they are limit cases for the human/animal distinction and thus can provide particular insight into the problem of exceptionalism. Animals can seem especially humanlike if they engage in ostensibly moral behavior, as for example the white whale does in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick or the mammoth does in Joseph Nicolar's Life and Traditions of the Red Man. Accounts of animals' moral behavior and humans' moral judgments regarding that behavior, important components of many of the interactions examined in this study, are more frequent in stories of megafauna than in stories of, say, insects or plants. The focus on megafauna is not meant to discount whole ecologies, however, but rather to suggest larger networks of relations. In many instances, megafauna are key environmental shapers. Pleistocene-epoch megafaunal herbivores such as the mammoth, for example, were "constant gardeners," keeping forests in check and thereby producing a diversity of ecosystems including savannah and various kinds of woodland, depending on rainfall, temperature, soil, and other factors. After their larger Pleistocene kin became extinct, the buffalo (Bison bison) "cultivated the prairie . . . ecosystem" in the North American west. On the other hand, the vast forests of precolonial eastern North America, in which the passenger pigeon flourished, may well have been an effect of the Late Pleistocene extinctions.

The project focuses on the Americas, primarily North America and its oceanic environs, because the Americas were the site of two distinct waves of human migration, during the Late Pleistocene epoch and the modern time of European settler-colonization, both associated with anthropogenic extinctions. Of course, there is no doubt about the second wave's acceleration of extinctions and endangerments caused by market-driven hunting, the intensification of agriculture, and other kinds of habitat destruction. While this second wave has become part of the global Sixth Extinction with the carbon economy's alteration of the earth's geophysical processes, the present study focuses on cases whose histories began prior to the development of the carbon economy and, for whales and buffalo, continue into the present. While the causes of the Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions remain an open question, recent reviews of evidence point, in the words of one study, to a "bigger kill than chill." That is, strong correlations exist between extinction events and the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Australia (some 80,000 to 40,000 years ago), Europe (50,000), and the Americas (50,000? to 10,000). In contrast, only weak correlations exist between extinction events and climate changes.

North America has an especially rich archive of implicit and sometimes explicit dialogs between Indigenous peoples' and Euro-American settler-colonists' stories of species extinction and endangerment. Such stories reach back to Late Pleistocene events, via associations with fossil remains, and forward to the present, when tribal buffalo projects enable the buffalo's persistence in an ethical manner (unless one brings a vegetarian perspective ) while the renewal of ancient tribal whaling traditions is criticized by many Euro-American environmentalists and by some Native Americans as well. Although South America and Australia saw these same two waves of colonization and extinction, here Indigenous stories of extinction and endangerment and their interactions with Euro-American stories have been less fully archived. While Chapter 1 explores archives from sixteenth-century Mexico and Peru, such sites invite further investigation. In Europe, it is more difficult to parse extinctions neatly into separate Pleistocene and modern events, and the continuity of oral tradition seems difficult to trace. Whether Indigenous American oral traditions preserve memories in unbroken continuity from the Late Pleistocene epoch remains an open question, which will be explored in Chapter 2. In any case, those traditions give accounts of Pleistocene megafaunal extinction that Euro-American settler-colonists engaged with from the sixteenth century on. In the colonial era and continuing into the present, encounters between Euro-American and Indigenous American stories have shaped memories of the mammoth and the fates of whales, buffalo, and other species.

This juxtaposition of Indigenous and Euro-American stories in the context of extinction will inevitably evoke two prominent images, the "vanishing Indian" and the "ecological Indian." Although productive interventions will be noted at relevant points, and Chapter 4 will necessarily engage with the "vanishing Indian" motif's linkage to the decimation of the buffalo on the Great Plains, this will not be my primary focus. The counter-discourse of Native survivance, to use Gerald Vizenor's term, becomes pertinent here insofar as it focuses on human-animal relations. We will see specific examples of survivance narratives in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Indigenous accounts of the mammoth, the revival of a tribal whaling tradition, traditional buffalo stories, and recent tribal buffalo projects. The "ecological Indian" is another matter. An updated version of the "noble savage" image, it is not generally conducive to survivance because it suspends Native Americans in a timeless past rather recognizing them as historical actors, and because it depends on Western concepts of conservation and environmentalism. That is, the "ecological Indian" is a fiction that Westerners hold up to other Westerners as a nostalgic example and to Indigenous peoples as an ideal against which they are measured and inevitably found lacking—although Indigenous peoples can use this image tactically in assertions of sovereignty against the Westerners who invented it. As Shepard Krech has further argued, the image assumes an understanding of ecology in terms of balance and harmony rather than, as recent research indicates, in terms of dynamic systems prone to disequilibrium and sensitive to small actions. Native Americans, like all humans, are dynamic forces whose environmental impact is uncertain in particular cases. The Late Pleistocene human migration to North America, for example, may very well have had a dramatic impact on indigenous fauna with significant consequences for North American ecosystems.

Whether humans caused the Late Pleistocene extinctions has no bearing, however, on present-day Indigenous nations' sovereignty or their right or capacity to manage natural resources: the latter follows from sovereignty and is a political right under the purview of treaties and other agreements such as the convention of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and must be treated as such. Moreover, other peoples ancient and modern have hunted animals to extinction in other places. The Maori's extirpation of the moa from New Zealand six hundred years before European colonization, for example, is the most familiar of some two thousand such extinctions caused by the Polynesian colonization of Pacific islands. The Late Pleistocene extinctions do, however, have a bearing on later Indigenous and settler-colonial stories concerning the human/animal distinction and environmental relations. As such, along with stories of modern-day extinctions and endangerments, they bear investigation during the heightened awareness of the present crisis.


Belonging

The Sixth Extinction began to attract public notice in the mid-1990s, as evidenced by a handful of books bearing that title. Humanities scholarship followed beginning in the late 2000s. Of this work, only Mark Barrow's account of the origins of species conservationism significantly addresses responses prior to the 1980s. By contrast, Extinction and the Human investigates how assumptions about agency and responsibility—and thus judgments both factual and moral regarding human causality in extinction events—have varied historically. Humans have been causing extinctions for about as long as we have been humans. We have not, however, always understood or admitted this, nor have we always felt it was wrong or sad. At the same time, there are limits to human agency—limits that Moderns, to use Bruno Latour's convenient terminology, now confront in the Anthropocene concept and that Nonmoderns, including Indigenous Americans and colonial-era Euro-Americans, have managed through attributions of superhuman or spirit-power agency. The moral terms of responsibility and atonement persist in the Anthropocene, now in relation to superhuman agencies—geophysical forces—that seem fundamentally noncreative. Hence the Harvard project's response to one particular extinction event, an event in which humankind seems have borne a large measure of responsibility.

Extinction and the Human explores historically informed self-reflection at a time when, as conservation biologists realize, hard choices are inevitable and the possibility of "multispecies justice" remains in question. One approach to the emerging field of extinction studies within the environmental humanities argues that there is no singular phenomenon of extinction. Each case is different and is experienced, measured, performed, and enunciated in different ways by all the forms of human and nonhuman life which are entangled in that case. Each individual animal can be recognized uniquely as "a single knot in an emergent lineage, a vital point of connection between generations" that can provide insight into the precarity of a species. Yet while each individual animal and each species or kind of life is undeniably unique, concerns over biodiversity and species extinction take shape, as Ursula Heise demonstrates, in one of several genres that make up the world's literary repertoire: elegy, tragedy, or apocalypse most obviously, but also other genres such as comedy, epic, or encyclopedia. Thus configured, they gain traction as stories that human communities can tell about themselves and their future. Such stories shape our assessment of "what we value." From this perspective, biodiversity is a cultural question as much as a scientific question.

Incorporating the insights of both case-specific and genre-based approaches, Extinction and the Human investigates the ways in which several extinction and endangerment archives frame the question of human exceptionalism, in order to provoke moral reflection on questions of belonging and the place of the human. I use belonging here in the sense that Aldo Leopold did in his now classic collection of environmental essays, Sand County Almanac, for its evaluative connotations. If we reflect on human exceptionalism, such reflection cannot help but be evaluative. Leopold posited that we abuse our environment if "we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." Assuming an expansive sense of "land" that includes a place's whole biota, Leopold famously formulated the Land Ethic, which directs us to "examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (224-25). The Land Ethic is not based on the principles of deep ecology. For Leopold, humans are not harmful parasites on the body of Gaia but rather an integral part of the biotic community. The Land Ethic "changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for . . . fellow members, and also respect for the community as such" (204, latter italics added). While any number of environmental writers have used the idea of community, few have used the political language of "citizen." In this usage, readers of Latour might hear a resonance with the project of assembling a "parliament of things" to organize environmental relations. Working out Leopold's criteria of "what is ethically and esthetically right," with or without Latour's help, would mean constant reflection on the assumption of human exceptionalism (although Leopold did not use this term). The Land Ethic looks like a rule, but really it provokes a set of questions, all centered on relations between humans and nonhumans. One feature of these relations is that only humans seem to be able to speak. Thus Latour has suggested that we expand our understanding of what counts as language, observing that nonhumans can participate in the "parliament of things" by means of the sciences, which provide "speech prostheses" through which nonhumans can speak (parler) their positions and interests.

An alternate account of the program signified by "multispecies justice" or the Land Ethic is the Indigenous American practice of treaties with animals. As the Chickasaw novelist Linda Hogan puts it, "That we held, and still hold, treaties with animal and plant species is a known part of tribal culture. The relationship between human people and animals is still alive and resonant in the world, the ancient tellings carried on by a constellation of stories, songs, and ceremonies. . . . These stories and ceremonies keep open the bridge between one kind of intelligence and another, one species and another." To take just one example, for thousands of years the Mississauga Nishnaabeg met with the fish nations twice a year at a particular narrows between two lakes "to tend their treaty relationships and to renew life just as Gize-mnido (creator) had instructed them." Such treaties are now difficult to maintain, Hogan asserts, since "the Western mind has resulted in a way of living in the world that has broken the trust between human and animal."

The practice of treaties with animals bears further examination for several reasons. Like Latour's suggestion regarding scientific speech prostheses, treaties require a common language (or translation) in order to reach a legitimate agreement which would then be ceremonially renewable. Like Leopold's use of the term "citizen" and Latour's proposal for a parliament, the treaty form organizes environmental relations as political relations. As distinct from "biophilia," the cross-species love that conservation biologists such as Edward O. Wilson and Michael Soulé hope will promote species preservation, treaty relations are grounded not in love but in mutual respect. Moreover, the treaty form suggests a historical dimension to the problem of human exceptionalism: the idea of a broken treaty holds out the possibility of repair, rather than the narrative of decline and mourning that shapes so much modern environmental discourse. It should be noted, however, as the subsequent discussion of Amerindian perspectivism will indicate, that treaties are not the only Indigenous American means of organizing human-animal relations.

Beyond the analogies to Leopold's and Latour's programs for multispecies justice, the treaty form foregrounds humankind's potential for violent, destructive relations with nonhumans. One formulation of human exceptionalism is the presumption of environmental sovereignty, naming humans as the sovereign exception in the biosphere, the "point of indifference between right and violence," as Giorgio Agamben puts it, in ecological relations. Treaties with animals, by contrast, figure reciprocal recognitions of sovereignty. Treaties among humans presume the reciprocal recognition of sovereignty in order to resolve a history of (or potential for) violent relations. This history of violence may be formally encoded in treaty negotiations, as exemplified by the condolence ceremony that opened the Haudenosaunee's several treaty negotiations with the British during the eighteenth century, or it may remain implicit. In treaties with animals, the resolution of a history of unorganized violence takes shape as a cycle of debt in which animals sacrifice themselves to humans, who reciprocally incur obligations to undertake certain practices, rituals, and ceremonies respecting the animals.


Responsibility and Agency

Leopold argued over a half-century ago that Darwin repositioned humans as "only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow creatures, a wish to live and let live, a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise" (109). Yet living and letting live have always encompassed countless individual acts of violence. The scale of these acts of violence has increased as the human economy occupies more and more of the biosphere through population growth and technological intensification. Humankind itself now seems endangered, even as the anthropogenic nature of the Sixth Extinction event is being recorded in the indelible geological signature of the human, as denominated by the term "Anthropocene." This term indicates the supposition of human responsibility for having shaped our environment, even as the resulting forces exceed the capacities of human agency to alter them. Yet humankind has always been a shaper of environments, even before the Neolithic revolution and the development of agriculture. Species extinctions have been a frequent consequence of that shaping. Since even preservationism, protectionism, and other such "wilderness" orientations involve the active shaping of the environment, our future depends on greater awareness of our capacities and reflection on the accompanying responsibilities.

Each of the cases examined in this book poses the question of the human and related questions of responsibility and agency in different ways. Sixteenth-century Indigenous American narratives about the extinction of beastly giants were based on remains we now identify as those of Late Pleistocene-epoch megafauna, species that were very likely extinguished by humans. These narratives, whether or not they carried the historical memory of the Late Pleistocene extinctions, investigated the nature of society and social organization. Early Euro-American accounts of these Indigenous narratives, not fully able to take up the concept of extinction, further extended their investigation to the nature and history of organic life itself. Some narratives named human causal agents and appealed to human social norms in the moral assessment of extinction events; others named superhuman causal agents and appealed to transcendent norms. Eighteenth-century Indigenous American accounts of the extinction of mammoths named superhuman causal agents but appealed to an anthropocentric moral assessment of environmental management. Euro-American accounts during the same era shared this moral assessment but were divided on the question of causal agency, human versus superhuman. Nineteenth-century concerns over the impending extinction of whales, as the whaling industry rapidly intensified its extractive processes, asked whether there is a natural limit on species' persistence and if so, what force might impose such a limit—and, in some cases, what such a limit might mean regarding humankind's ultimate fate. As recent controversy over Indigenous Americans' whale-hunting traditions indicates, such cases raise the question of sovereignty. Late nineteenth-century scientists' and preservationists' concerns over the impending extinction of the North American bison brought about by market hunting asked whether predation is a defining characteristic of humankind's species being and if so, whether there is a natural or a social check on this characteristic. While some preservationists blamed Indigenous peoples as well as white Americans for overhunting, Indigenous narratives from the same period resisted definitions of humans as heedless predators needing external checks. Rather, Indigenous narratives focused on ethics of access and distribution—thus anticipating considerations of the buffalo in terms of a communicative, social relation with humans that guide present-day tribal buffalo projects. The through-line of all these historical cases is reflection on the capacities of humankind as environment shapers. This line of reflection is critical in responding to our current crisis. We cannot help but intervene. The question is how and to what effect.

As forms of response and measures of responsibility have varied historically, so have accounts of agency and the occasions through which agency is produced or exercised. We might begin the analysis of these accounts in terms of Latour's refusal of the Moderns' de-animation of nonhuman nature and their concomitant reservation of agency only for humankind. A refusal to de-animate nature is also modeled, as I have indicated, by Indigenous American accounts of human-animal relations. In narrating extinction, humans may come to occupy the positions of agent, observer, and/or object (the latter especially in the case of dark-ecological narratives) with respect to other agents, observers, and/or objects, any of which are given by the narrative various powers and capacities. These powers and capacities can be parsed in various ways depending on one's ontological frame. Nonmoderns (to continue with Latour's terminology) have ways of maintaining the world's animation and thus of distributing agency among nonhuman as well as human actors. These ways became visible to the Moderns as superstitious appeals to supernatural agents such as spirit powers or idealist forces such as vitalism. Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson discounted Indigenous Americans' appeals to supernatural agents, even as these thinkers also imagined the world as being generated and held together by another kind of supernatural agent. Still later in the nineteenth century, a teleological misreading of Darwin—perhaps encouraged by Darwin's own reluctant revision of the last paragraph of On the Origin of Species to insert "the Creator" as primary agent—provided another quasi-animate driver for extinction as well as evolution. One kind of response to the Sixth Extinction returns to a theocentric account of agency, as manifest in humankind's evolved capacity for belief and a sense of the sacred, as the greatest hope for survival. An agnostic version of this position is voiced by Timothy Morton, who asserts that since "nonhuman beings are responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking," we ought to respond with Zen-like techniques of "mindfulness, awareness, simple letting-be." We have always needed to locate agency. The crisis of the Anthropocene has shown that Nonmodern accounts of agencies outside ourselves in powerful gods or other nonhuman forces are not misguided, for these accounts reflect on important universal questions for human being while rendering comprehensible certain powerful agents that shape our environment.

While a Latourian frame enables us to negotiate difficult matters of ontology—allowing, for example, Enlightenment and traditional Indigenous narratives to speak to each other, as we will see in Chapter 2 particularly—it does not necessarily help with the evaluative dimension that historically has been integral to extinction discourse. Moral evaluation has been important to critical analysis at least since Aristotle parsed the objects of literary imitation into "agents" that are either "admirable," "inferior," or somewhere in the middle, and organized the literary modes accordingly. Northrop Frye added an environmental dimension to this modal analysis when he observed that Aristotle's evaluative terms "spoudaios and phaulos have a figurative sense of weighty and light." Frye's move from Aristotle's moral classification to the ontological question of "the hero's power of action" with respect to other persons and "his environment" as a literary mode's constitutive feature silently bore with it Aristotle's evaluative frame. Of course, I am not making a case for Frye as a proto-ecocritic. But construing the question of "power of action" in a reanimated world that includes humans and nonhumans (and gods if they exist) returns us to ecocriticism's traditional function of linking moral evaluation with accounts of human environmental entanglement.
Moral evaluation has always been a crucial part of human responses to extinction. Those responses have varied historically. Investigating their variation will, I hope, provide us with perspective and a repertoire to draw on in our response to the present crisis, as we reflect on the question of belonging in relation to the possibilities and limits of humankind's environment-shaping capacities.


Species Being?

Typically, blame for the Sixth Extinction rests with either humankind's species being or capitalism: either we as a species are inherently destructive or capitalist accumulation is uniquely destructive. I will assume that this is a false binary. Capitalism was a significant cause of the near extinction of North American bison, some whale species, and many others. As a driver of global warming, habitat destruction, and direct consumption of biota, capitalism is responsible for a great deal of devastation, while socialisms focused on extraction and industrial production regardless of environmental costs have contributed as well. Whether we want to consider capitalism as the only cause depends on our frame of reference, for capitalism did not extinguish the moa, nor the mammoth and other Late Pleistocene megafauna. The extinction of the moa was a result of Neolithic colonization. The Late Pleistocene extinctions happened prior to the Neolithic revolution, to say nothing of the market revolution. There is strong evidence, as I have indicated, that human colonization has been causing extinctions for fifty or more millennia.

Thus broader views—such as Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress, Roy Scranton's Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, or Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement—locate capitalism in a larger trajectory of environmentally destructive behavior through the course of human existence. Ghosh, for example, puts imperialism chronologically and materially prior to capitalism as the primary driver of environmental catastrophe. And even in responding to the present crisis, as Dipesh Chakrabarty argues in a frequently cited essay on the Anthropocene concept, "a critique of capital is not sufficient for addressing questions relating to human history," since human activity has altered the earth's basic geological processes. Reckoning with this crisis, according to Chakrabarty, requires an investigation of "the species history of humans," a process that will "prob[e] the limits of historical understanding." One such broad investigation of species history is Kirkpatrick Sale's After Eden. Sale speculates that the human will to domination is an evolved response to a climate crisis some seventy thousand years ago, when a massive volcanic eruption produced rapid and extensive global cooling. Although humans had become anatomically modern some ninety thousand years earlier, they responded to this drastic environmental change by developing a cultural complex based on the innovation of big game hunting and fishing supported by wearing animal skins and using fire for environmental management. Symbolic communication, the production of material abstract symbolic forms, also developed at this time according to archaeological evidence. It is possible that genetic mutation enabled these cultural responses (and if so, could have enabled other species of the genus Homo, such as neanderthalensis). This cultural evolution seems to mark Homo sapiens as distinctly different from other hominins—as exceptional—although evidence for the "humanness" of Homo neanderthalensis continues to mount. Like Sale, Wright also recognizes the development of hunting as a key marker of human species being. He argues that the perfection of hunting was the first of many "progress traps," technological innovations whose success in turn threatens human persistence. The perfection of hunting, on this model, inevitably led to local extinctions of game animals and thus to many local Neolithic revolutions. The distinguishing feature of these Neolithic revolutions, agriculture, may in itself become a progress trap if global warming destabilizes the climate sufficiently. While Scranton tells a more conventional history of the development of agriculture and civilization focused only on the Middle Eastern Fertile Crescent, he emphasizes a feature that others overlook: the centrality of violence to human social organization. While he says little about humankind's stance toward other species, the consequences are readily extrapolated. Such histories of human world-shaping counter existentialist claims that humanity has no predetermined essence.

The questions of whether or when humans became extinction-causing agents could not properly be asked prior to the establishment of species extinction as geohistorical fact in the early nineteenth century. Prior to that, however, local extirpations were familiar, as for example the deliberate extermination of wolves in Ireland during the seventeenth century. Examining fossil remains of the Irish elk (now known to have become extinct about eight thousand years ago), the physician and naturalist Thomas Molyneux speculated in 1697 that as Ireland "became peopled, and thickly inhabited," the elk "were soon destroy'd, and kill'd like other Venison, as well for the sake of Food as Mastery and Diversion." Accordingly, he urged his countrymen to take "some care . . . to preserve" the red deer, which "is much more rare with us in Ireland, than it has been formerly." Not quite a century later, Jefferson commented on the effects of the fur trade, which caused "the general destruction of the wild game by the Indians, which commences in the first instant of their connection with us, for the purpose of purchasing matchcoats, hatchets, and firelocks with their skins." Speaking in the same moment in James Fenimore Cooper's historical novel The Pioneers, the white hunter Natty Bumppo complains that he will have to travel far to the west to obtain the beaver pelts necessary to pay a court fine; in the sequel, The Prairie, Natty finds abundant game on the Platte River.

Whether humans were capable of extinguishing an entire species, beyond local extirpations, was another question. As we will see in Chapter 2, Jefferson and many of his Enlightenment colleagues were slow to accept the idea of species extinction. Similarly, the Native Americans with whom they exchanged stories did not refer to the mammoth as extinct—in their languages, extinction and death could only be differentiated by context—but rather as escaped, hidden away, absent. (Genetic engineering projects such as the Harvard lab's work on the mammoth may yet confirm this sense of temporary absence.) Georges Cuvier, whose work in comparative anatomy at the turn of the nineteenth century established species extinction as geohistorical fact, did not believe that humans were powerful enough to have caused the extinctions that were evident in the fossil record. Rather, he argued, evidence pointed to "a great and sudden revolution" of the globe, or perhaps several such revolutions over eons, that had buried many creatures alive, shifted the locations of oceans, and caused drastic climate change.

By the early nineteenth century, however, naturalists began to generalize from local anthropogenic extirpations to the concept of anthropogenic extinctions. Charles Lyell, whose uniformist geological theory would influence Charles Darwin, regarded extinction not as a result of geophysical catastrophe, as Cuvier had done, but rather as a result of ongoing regular natural processes. He argued that "no one of the fixed and constant laws of the animate or inanimate world [can be] subverted by human agency." Yet humans had clearly caused extinctions and continued to do so. Lyell cataloged numerous animals that had been wholly extirpated from the British Isles—including "the ancient breed of indigenous horses, the wild boar, and the wild oxen," beaver, wolf, bear, and Scottish wood grouse—and predicted that the colonization of Australia would eliminate the kangaroo and emu. Such anthropogenic extinctions must have proceeded from one of the "fixed and constant laws" that Lyell's uniformist theory championed. In elaborating these natural laws, Lyell refused the emerging modern elegiac narrative of extinction as loss: "If we wield the sword of extermination as we advance, we have no reason to repine at the havoc committed." The extirpation of other species is part of the ordinary course of nature, Lyell asserted, and this is evidently a feature of humankind's own species being, as it is of every other species' being in different ways. Figuring competitive extermination in terms of "encroachments," he went on to erase the Indigenous human presence in colonial territories, arguing that extinctions will increase as "highly-civilized nations spread themselves over unoccupied lands."

Lyell cast his account of anthropogenic extinction as an ontological rather than a moral claim, a claim of is rather than ought. Even so, the fact that he paused to address the moral question suggests that he worked against a powerful impulse to "repine." Such exceptionalist logic worked to produce the human/animal difference, along with a colonialist corollary, that Lyell's disavowal refused yet reprised. In this way, his claim about species being encoded the "sacrificial structure" according to which the animal is separated from the human through its designation as the potential object of "a noncriminal putting to death," while also claiming difference within the human species.

Questions of human nature in this context—formulated perhaps as a question of whether humankind is inherently rapacious, or is inherently an invasive species, as environmental biologists might put it —are related to the question of whether human culture results from a suppression of animal nature. In a suggestive critique of this question of human and animal natures, Marshall Sahlins argues that modern Western culture (since Hobbes, although with roots in Augustine) is unique in propounding the repressive hypothesis. Many non-Western cultures by contrast treat the human essence not as an overcoming of animality but as a coming into sociality. This is consistent with the ontology that anthropologists such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro describe as Amerindian perspectivism, according to which humanity is the world's originating substrate and all the various species differentiated themselves while retaining their humanness-for-themselves in the primordial time when the world came to order. A perspectivist account of human being contrasts with the Western sense of human being in which a distinctively human quality, such as the soul or cognition, is layered onto a preexisting organic substrate, thus forming the topmost link in the Great Chain of Being. In a perspectivist ontology, every species is human for itself but not-human for other species. Perspectivism thus recognizes that human action inevitably leaves an impact on nonhumans—the difference from the Western conception of such interaction being the reciprocal recognition that nonhumans are equally alive and also have souls. In cross-species confrontations, such as getting food, "it is inevitable that one [species] will finish by imposing its humanity on the other, that is, that it will finish by making the other 'forget' its own humanity." This is why, for example, the Runa of upper Amazonia advise you to sleep face up in the forest: if "a jaguar sees you as a being capable of looking back—a self like himself, like you—he'll leave you alone. But if he should come to see you as prey—an it—you may well become dead meat." Perspectivism thus distributes the human exception to all species, even as it posits an animal's imposition of its own will, its humanness.


Responding to the Sixth Extinction

Responses to the Sixth Extinction are predominantly of two kinds, elegiac and optimistic. The emergence of elegy as a modern response suggests a shift in attitude concerning the justness of extinction. That is, to the extent that mourning responds to death as an injustice, the elegiac response to extinction casts a species' death as unjust. A prominent variation on the mode—we might call it future elegy—worries that the Sixth Extinction will include humankind, the ultimate injustice (or will it be justice after all?), because it will eventually extinguish so many species as to destroy the biotic networks necessary to support human life. Thomas Jefferson, as we will see, had already arrived at such a position, speaking in the Enlightenment language of systems. Cross-species mourning is another matter, however. Historically, as this study will show, responses to the extinctions or endangerments of charismatic megafauna have not necessarily been elegiac—certainly not in the case of early modern accounts of the extinction of giants and many Enlightenment and Indigenous American accounts of the extinction of the mammoth, all of which view certain extinctions as instances of justice.

Elegy also traditionally performs continuance, be it in the assertion of eternal spiritual life or the consolation of earthly community. Again, cross-species mourning introduces a complication. One means of enacting the consoling function of elegy for species extinction would be to build allegiances for the future among persisting beings—making kin, as Donna Haraway would say. A communal orientation is suggested in a different way by Indigenous American forms such as the Haudenosaunee condolence ceremony or the Tlingit potlatch, which restore vitality in human communities. Although the capacity for public response is built into Maya Lin's web-based memorial to extinctions, What Is Missing?, its project of collecting accounts of loss does not produce communal relations. Communal revitalization is performed however—as Chapters 3 and 4 will suggest—by tribal buffalo projects and by the Makah nation's renewed ritual celebrating the hunting of a once-endangered species, the gray whale. In both cases, deaths of individual animals mark the recoveries of key species, cross-species relations, and human community.

As grief can be transacted through debilitating melancholia or restorative mourning, so too can optimistic responses take escapist or restorative forms. According to the escapist line of thinking, an intensification of the same feature of humankind's species being that caused the crisis—our world-shaping capacity—can also fix the problem. This takes the form of either geoengineering solutions to end carbon pollution or other forms of toxicity or interplanetary colonization schemes to abandon the earth where, as Kim Stanley Robinson puts it in his novel Green Mars, "long-range carrying capacity . . . [is] massively overshot." Fantasies of interplanetary colonization put any remorse for the extinction crisis forever behind us. From the vantage point of colonies on Mars, where no indigenous biota exist (none larger than microbes, in any case) for humankind to extirpate, the Sixth Extinction might seem like a youthful indiscretion. Such present-day techno-optimistic responses resonate, as the following chapters will suggest, with anthropocentric progress narratives that grounded Indigenous Inca and Nahua origin stories (Chapter 1), structured Enlightenment accounts of the mammoth's extinction (Chapter 2), and framed Euro-American preservationist writing on the buffalo (Chapter 4).

Other forms of optimism are evident in resurrection ecology and restoration ecology. Resurrection ecology focuses on preserving the DNA of endangered species against future extinctions or recovering the DNA of extinct species in order to revive the species through cloning. Restoration ecology attempts to emulate an extinct ecosystem state by repopulating a space with the nearest living kindred species. A combination of both is at work in the Harvard team's effort to clone the mammoth using the Asian elephant to produce a creature that belongs in a tundra environment. Such projects manage the guilt of the Sixth Extinction not by putting the crisis behind us but through atonement, a response that was anticipated in some nineteenth-century preservationist writing on the buffalo and is evident in recent proposals for "rewilding." While technologies developed for de-extinction may be useful in preserving endangered species—for example, by introducing genetic diversity into small populations—nevertheless de-extinction projects may take up "intellectual bandwidth and financial resources" that could be used to address the extinction crisis in other ways. Resurrection ecology thus potentially diffuses public concern over the extinction crisis, species conservation, and habitat preservation. A different kind of restoration is performed, however, by bringing an existing endangered species back from the brink of extinction through protectionist measures. Such projects have been variously motivated. The International Whaling Commission, for example, was formed in 1946 to promote "the conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry" and its 1982 moratorium on commercial hunting (which is not universally observed) followed from that. On the other hand, tribal buffalo projects, as Chapter 4 will demonstrate, subordinate market principles to the goals of community revitalization and the reestablishment of social relations between humans and buffalo.

In assuming normative measures of climate and biodiversity, however, both elegiac and optimistic modes of response evade the moral question of whether any species, including humankind, ought to persist at all. This is the most radical form of the question of belonging, in which humanism's ought confronts Darwin's is. Ceding human exceptionalism—for example, through a posthuman account of the world as a set of interconnecting systems with no point of existential or epistemological privilege—would mean ceding any such moral judgment. Of all species that ever lived, 99.9 percent are extinct and humans are fated for eventual extinction as well, as a Darwinian inevitability. Deep ecologists have been insisting for decades that Gaia could get along just fine in our absence. Yet this point has in turn been rehumanized by Alan Weisman's bestselling book The World Without Us, which reassuringly imagines a familiar, rational subject who surveys the ecological results of human extinction and the gradual recovery of nature. Here, the imagination of the world without us becomes a Robinsonade: the imagination of a world without other humans. In the paleoecologist Jan Zalasiewicz's The Earth After Us, the role of rational observing subject is played by extraterrestrial scientists investigating earth's fossil record one hundred million years in the future. More radically, Henry David Thoreau imagined the persistence of human thinking embodied in durable fabricated objects such as stone arrowheads, which will exist after the human species' extinction. Freud's observation in the aftermath of the unprecedented carnage of World War I seems apt here: "We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators." Reflecting today on the extinction or endangerment of species, especially the human-like species on which this study focuses, we both register our fate and imagine our persistence.

Notes
Introduction

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved