Can you imagine being the first to discover the ichthyosaur? Even better: can you imagine being the first to discover an ichthyosaur before anyone even knew dinosaurs existed?
It might be the current socio-political and economic climate. It might be that the world is getting smaller every day—and humanity’s darker side clambers to the top of every news feed. Not to mention the preponderance of earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires blazing across the land these days. It might also just be a strikingly odd coincidence that several books I’ve dived into recently have centered on natural history—and how it all points to our own eventual demise.
No, it’s not time to build a nuclear fallout shelter. (Not that that isn’t a good idea to begin with.) But we, as a people, have discovered troubling ripples fanning out across the animal kingdom, etched in the earth’s geological strata, and even stretching out into the future—including us, at its pinnacle. These discoveries come to us thanks to our development of rigorous studies in biology, natural history, and genetics.
It all began while I was working in the stacks of our local university’s orchestra music library. While digging through stacks of Stravinsky, mountains of Mendelssohn, and bundles of Brahms, I listened to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. For better or worse, the title led me to expect a treatise on humanity’s sociopolitical and cultural history, boiled down to fifteen hours of audio. I should probably get better at reading book synopses.
A Short History took me down a very different historical path, via biology and the earth sciences. With this unexpected detour, I found a new set of lenses to observe the world around me and discovered a new way of understanding our place in history—and perhaps more importantly, our blunders and ego-filled attempts to ascribe it.
In Western Europe, this understanding shifted radically from the likes of Cuvier (and his fossil collection), Lyell (and his theory of gradual geological change), and Mendel (and his discovery of units of heredity using… pea plants?*). At one time, we believed the world around us to be immutable and permanent; every creature had its place in the world and was perfectly formed to live it in. God, it was reasoned, was incapable of making faulty creations. Thus, everything that is, was, and ever will be appeared at the moment of creation, of genesis. The world around us was created for our enjoyment, benefit, and sustenance.
- Who knew the humble pea would lead to the discovery of heredity—and a century-long fascination with eugenics and genetic purity? (Yes, I’m talking about Nazis. Bad logic warps good ideas in horrendous ways.)
This line of thought broke down with mankind’s population explosion after the eighteenth century. As humanity burst beyond their borders, explorers “discovered” new territories, bringing with them death and destruction wherever they roamed. Small colonies was more than enough to wipe out indigenous creatures, having lived for millennia without man’s influence. It was almost a joyous occasion from the settler’s point of view: in a strange new land, they discovered creatures who had no fear of man (or means to defend against them). In the span of decades, entire species disappeared. Slowly, it became obvious that god’s creation was not immutable. (While everyone points to the dodo, I find the Great Auk is a similarly classic and tragic example of such a careless case of extinction.)
- Weirdest hobby ever: sailing out at odd hours to kill the last of a bird species in the middle of Scottish waters. It really happened.
Even as mankind effortlessly wreaked havoc on abroad, scientists and intellectuals at home bickered over whether the world was shaped by catastrophic forces (the Cuvier school) or by gradual ones (a la Lyell).
What becomes obvious in following this intellectual evolution** is that man tries very, VERY hard to wedge the facts into his own preconceptions. We are very skilled at fabricating meaning and relationships out of nothing—and subsequently pigeonholing everything that follows after right back into this cobbled framework, like endless round pegs into square holes. Simply listen to these interviews done by Vice with white supremacists at Charlottesville; it becomes apparent very quickly that we will do anything necessary in order to protect our own worldview, no matter how riddled with holes and inconsistencies it may be.
This becomes even more troubling as we consider how we are still wreaking havoc across the planet. The Sixth Extinction explores this havoc, giving a gripping play-by-play of the development of natural history and paleontology into their current-day forms, all while recounting the stories of numerous species either on the brink or over the edge of extinction. (I seriously got a little teary-eyed at the bit regarding white-nose syndrome in bats in North America. Seriously, what did they do to deserve such devastation?***)
- There are estimates that 80% of bats in the US Northeast have died from outbreaks of white nose syndrome—a fungus which causes bats to use up more energy than usual while hibernating, They literally starve to death. Where did the fungus come from? Europe, where their bats are already resistant. It likely jumped the pond from human activities.
It quickly becomes obvious that the world around us is constantly changing—and we are vastly capable of changing it. Questions arise as we as a species continue to grow and wipe out ever-greater shares of the biodiversity around us (and subtly shifting the makeup of our oceans and atmospheres). Yes, a species’ first prerogative is to be fruitful and propser—but at what cost?**** When is destruction of the world around us “natural”, and when is it needless?
What becomes obvious is that there are many forces at work in our world, and any time we consider any of its events to be sudden, inexplicable, or inevitable, we simply haven’t studied or paid attention long enough to understand the actual processes taking place.***** Even disasters are simply the tipping-point of long and slow processes. It is vitally important, however, whether we decide to continue exploring these mechanisms and how their interrelationships shape the world around us—or continue to pigeonhole the facts into convenient mindsets. Just because we do not understand it yet does not mean it will forever be inexplicable.
Besides, we’re human. Figuring out how things work is what we do.
*Trust me, this humble-sounding experiment (and its even humbler husbandman) was the unassuming spark that began the wildfire into genetic study and inquiry.
**It is probably more apt to compare this evolution as an all-out war between different schools of thought. Darwin, originally an understudy and close friend of Lyell, was cast out after the publication of his seminal The Origin of Species. Science circles can be so fickle.
***Luckily, we’ve found a cure for our flying, furry friends. Long live batsy.
****It’s really not very hard to cause a major extinction event. Even bacteria can do it.
******Seriously, we used to believe that cancer was caused solely by viruses, and that we could find a “cancer penicillin”. That was within the last sixty years. What will we learn in the next sixty?