Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday: Catastrophe

Georges Cuvier, born in 1769,  became the most proficient anatomist of his time. He established the sciences of comparative anatomy and paleontology.  
Carefully studying elephant fossils found near Paris, he discovered that their bones were indisputably distinct from those of living elephants in Africa and India. They were distinct even from fossil elephants in Siberia. Cuvier scoffed at the idea that living members of these fossil species were lurking somewhere on Earth, unrecognized—they were simply too big. (Interestingly, slightly earlier, there was an auroch hiding in the Polish forests. Her kind had not been seen for centuries.) Anyway, Cuvier declared that they were separate species that had vanished. He later studied many other big mammal fossils and demonstrated that they too did not belong to any species alive today. The fossil evidence led him to propose that periodically the Earth went through sudden changes, each of which could wipe out a number of species.
He introduced the concept of mass extinction and catastrophe. This created some anxiety in the world of Genesis where God created stable systems.

Benjamin Morgan writes in "Public Books" that the concept of "extinction" as raised by the idea of evolution "first came into being as a problem of human meaning."
Tennyson wrote in "In Memorium," “From scarped cliff and quarried stone / She cries ‘A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go."

Darwin, in On the Origin of Species, mocked the catastrophist view of extinction as scientific illiteracy: “So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysms to desolate the world!” Extinction was no cataclysm but rather a mechanism of life creation. Without it, the human species—along with all other life—would never have evolved.

But catastrophe is on the move. In Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History the argument is presented that  extinction must be understood as an internal feature of imperialist and capitalist attitudes--yes--toward nature that can be traced to antiquity. Homo sapiens guilt goes a long way back, 30,000 years; the global warming period is but a blip in the career of a destructive species that includes wonderful heavy metal-like descriptions such as  the “late Pleistocene wave of megadeath” in the wake of megafauna hunting and the Sumerian deforestation. The Roman Empire’s unsustainable agricultural practices and recreational killing of large animals like lions and elephants speak to “the exploitative attitude towards nature that accompanies empire.” (One can see there is only one solution coming here: Somebody, some strongman or group of strong men, must take control of our blind, self-destructive drives and save us.)

And there is more. A new book by  Ursula Heise,  Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species, argues extinction is inevitable. Some species will thrive at the expense of others. What is needed, Heise argues, is a path toward widely acceptable determinations of value. Instead, we need a new model of “multispecies justice” that balances interests across different cultures and species. 

“Multispecies justice.”

If extinction has always been a problem of human meaning, it has now also become a problem of value and justice. That should give you a tingle.​

Mass and background extinction Life’s history has been marked by both catastrophic extinction events (red spikes) and constant background extinction (yellow).

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