Thursday, November 12, 2009


By Mark V. Barrow Jr.

University of Chicago Press, $35, 497 pages

Reviewed by Claire Hopley

We know of numerous extinct creatures from the dinosaurs to the dodo, the passenger pigeon to the ivory-billed woodpecker, so we no longer doubt extinction can potentially threaten any species. But although Thomas Jefferson and other 18th-century naturalists knew of fossils, including those of the giant mastodon and mammoth, extinction as an explanation of their demise was a hypothesis so improbable that it was actually unthinkable.

It’s worth considering why this was the case, and why little more than half a century later extinction was not only accepted as the fate of fossilized animals but as the likely fate of many more - including the increasingly rare bison, whose huge numbers had once famously darkened America’s plains.

As Mark V. Barrow Jr. explains in “Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction From the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology,” 18th- and early-19th-century scientists and thinkers believed that the world was created with a complete inventory of humans, animals, birds and vegetation, forming a chain of being.

The idea that a link in this chain could disappear undermined this fundamental concept. As Jefferson wrote, “Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.” He put the mammoth first in his list of American mammals because he expected that a living example would be discovered as explorers moved westward and encountered wildlife unknown in the east.

The existence of uncharted territories, not only in America but also in Africa and the South Pacific, fostered resistance to the idea of extinction. But as distant countries were explored it became clear that species were being wiped out. Charles Darwin is only one of many scientists who visited remote islands and quickly realized that their flightless birds and other extraordinary fauna had few natural predators.

Lacking fear of humans, they made easy prey for food gatherers and also for scientists, who killed large numbers of them in order to have specimens for study. By 1886, when William Hornaday of the American Natural History Museum realized that only about 300 bison were left, he nonetheless led an expedition to kill 100 of them so that museums would have specimens to display and scientists would have their cadavers to study.

“Under different circumstances nothing could have induced me to engage in such a mean, cruel and utterly heartless enterprise as the hunting down of the last representatives of a vanishing race,” he wrote, but he felt he had “no alternative.” Although he campaigned successfully to save the bison, like most 19th-century scientists, he was devoted to the classification of everything in the natural world, and for this, numerous specimens were needed.

But by Hornaday’s time, interests other than pure science were inspiring efforts to preserve wildlife. Prompted by John James Audubon’s drawings of birds, and equally by nationalist love of native species and the appreciation of their colorful plumage, bird preservation societies were springing up. In 1896 - a time when the extinction threatened the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and the heath hen - the Massachusetts Audubon Society had been formed. Branches soon appeared elsewhere, and in 1900, they helped get legislation passed to restore wild bird habitats. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the nation’s first wildlife refuge on Pelican Island in Florida.

This initiative depended crucially on vastly increased scientific knowledge, most notably the work of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who explained the diversity of wildlife by showing how all animals adapt to their environment, and hence will disappear if weather or human activity alters it. Mr. Barrow’s painstaking account of the 19th-century naturalists who first realized how vulnerable living creatures are to environmental changes shows how much our forebears took the plenitude of nature for granted.

In a different way, we still do so today. We do not doubt the reality of extinction, and while depredation in the name of economic development continues, we know that legislation and preservation can hold it in check. But we rarely stop to consider the efforts required to establish this legislation and create sanctuaries, nor the intellectual effort to develop the new field of ecology.

This book is therefore an invaluable reference source, not least in highlighting the work of 20th-century scientists who have campaigned against habitat destruction, or, like Rachel Carson, emphasized the perils of pesticides and other land, air and water contaminants.

“Nature’s Ghosts” is also a detailed intellectual history of the way Americans have thought about the natural world. Two-hundred years ago it was axiomatic that humans were the pinnacle of creation, licensed to use animals and land as they wished. By the late 19th century, national pride and scientific curiosity fostered the first serious and sometimes effective efforts to preserve species. In the 20th century, more species have been saved (although many are still being lost) as the intellectual focus has turned from individual species to the preservation of biodiversity - a variation of the old idea of a chain of being.

Mr. Barrow’s admirably thorough record of America’s efforts to preserve the natural world makes fascinating, if sometimes alarming, reading. The only thing that would have improved it is more information about similar efforts in other countries, both as they have influenced American practice, and as they have diverged in focus.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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