Creation demands its wolves. I keep thinking this as I reflect on two, sort-of obscure anniversaries that surfaced recently. They’re both remembrances of extinctions. One of the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius, “wandering migrator”) and the other of the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus, crudely “Pouched dog-head”). The last individuals both died in zoos hammering an endpoint to a prior functional ecological extinction.
The passenger pigeon (Martha) died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914 and the thylacine at the Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, Australia on September 7, 1936, two months after the species was granted legal protection. Both were driven extinct, directly or indirectly, by human activity.
The passenger pigeon is my familiar ghost, haunting my Midwest home. She’s the empty-sky wind, when my shoes crush September acorns on the campus sidewalk. She’s there in the muscular bur oaks standing lonely and remembering in the prairies. She roars through my introductory lectures as an example of a population biology of abundance and hubris.
Passenger pigeons once numbered billions. Contemporary descriptions sound like science-fiction. Flocks blackened the sky for days as they wandered up and down and across the forest expanse of North America seeking mast, an extended ecological dance through distances measured by the horizon and music set to the cadence of seasons and rhythms of glaciers advancing and retreating.
The thylacine, colloquially known as the Tasmanian wolf, died out a world away. Despite the name and despite the fact that the thing looks like a member of the dog family (Canidae) and despite that fact that it occupied the same niche in Australia, New Zeeland, and Tasmania as wolves do in the northern hemisphere, it’s not at all related. It’s a marsupial, an early diversion from placental mammals.
I mean, look at this thing — watch the colorized video clip above. It looks for all the world as something dog-like and wolfish. But whales and deer and mice and people are much more closely related to canids than this thing, by a wide margin. Its as if, evolution decided that the deserts and forests and grasslands of the Australian orbit required an apex predator, and when there were no placental mammals available, natural selection took a marsupial ancestor and made another wolfy thing.
Creation demands its wolves.
Aldo Leopold commemorated passenger pigeons for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology in 1947 at the occasion of a bronze plaque placed on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers (inscription: This species became extinct through the thoughtlessness and avarice of man”). His remarks were captured as one of the most beautiful and haunting essays in Sand County Almanac (1948). In it he notes that “for one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun” and that “In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.”
Knowing Leopold (and knowing he was polishing his land ethic essay at the same time), I think it’s clear that the “superiority …” phrase is a rhetorical flourish or even a bit of sly shade for the idea. But, its remarkable that a year before he died, Leopold would survey a cultural landscape roiled by two world wars, a dustbowl, and a depression, and observe that it isn’t technological prowess that sets humanity apart, rather it was an emergent capacity for self-reflection about how we relate to nature.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, tracks trends in extinction for vulnerable species. Of the 150,300 species evaluated, 42,100 are threatened with extinction. That includes 41% of amphibians, 37% of sharks and rays, 36% of reef building corals, 34% of conifers, 27% of mammals and 13% of birds. The United Nations estimates that there are more than 8 million species world-wide with many, mostly plants and invertebrates, that are unknown to science (undescribed, population trends unmeasured). Using an extrapolation, they estimate a million species threatened with extinction.
A more sophisticated analysis in the journal Science Advances3 compared the rate of contemporary extinctions to the background rate in the fossil record. As a benchmark, mammal extinctions, prior to 1500 occurred at a rate of about two extinctions per 100 years per 10,000 species. Since 1500, the observed extinction rate has accelerated and since 1900 has accelerated even more. The current extinction rate from the last 100 years is 8 to 100 times (depending on how conservative your assumptions are) the background rate.
We are living in a period of extinctions not seen since an asteroid slammed into the region we know as the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago. That event destabilized the climate, causing the extinction of half of all the species on earth, including the dinosaurs. The difference today, of course, is human activity, especially the activity of modern, wealthy, industrial, humans.
The authors conclude that we are entering a sixth great extinction event, meaning that this rate of extinction has only been seen five other times in the 3.5-billion-year fossil history of life. They warn that: “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations—notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change (31–33). All of these are related to human population size and growth, which increases consumption (especially among the rich), and economic inequity (6). However, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.” The extinction crisis is inseparable from the climate crisis, the same drivers, interacting mechanisms.
I don’t know how to read these statistics without wondering that the Creator thinks of all this. The hubris of blithely assuming these other species are expendable if we find them inconvenient. We, whether we realize it or not, make passive judgments of the value of species based on our love of drama and spectacle – which is why the last passenger pigeon and thylacine individuals died in zoos. Pandas and tigers and condors and orangutans and polar bears command our attention, others mostly don’t. Are we to assume that the obscure and small parts of Creation are less worthy?
When I consider our sclerotic and tepid impulse to creation-care, I can’t help but conclude that our European-derived Protestant Christianity is broken. It is infected with an Enlightenment virus that separated humanity from the rest of Creation. It licensed and even blessed hubristic impulses towards domination, colonization, commodification, and indifference.
Leopold had it right, I think, in seeing an emerging understanding of relationship and connection as keys for how we relate to non-human creation (indigenous traditions were already there). Progressive Christianity is moving in this direction as well with various secular and non-Christian schools of thought. That’s at least hopeful. That’s at least a start, but so much work to do, so much to unlearn.