Thinking Through Extinction

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of bringing the passenger pigeon back through cloning.  If we leave aside for the moment the pros and cons of such a move, we can more clearly see the ways in which extinction as a phenomenon continues to haunt our collective human imagination, reminding us of just how precarious our own existence as a species remains, especially as the consequences of our rapid march toward modernity become increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.  We have, in essence, left behind us an enormous trail of vanished creatures of all stripes and, if current trends continue, we might be on the very brink of another mass extinction.  That being the case, it is worth spending time thinking about the function that extinction serves, and how it can be not only a warning of things to come, but also a potent tool for considering how we engage with our present place in the world.

I have always been particularly drawn to and enthralled by those creatures that have been brought to extinction by the actions and influence of humans.  The great auk, the Stellar’sea cow, the passenger pigeon, the Chinese river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet…the list goes on, each of these mysterious and intangible creatures haunting my imagination, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of life on this planet.  Paired with this is also the fact that their presence in the cultural imagination is so powerful precisely because they cannot be seen again.  This also goes a long way toward explaining why there continue to be sightings of some of these creatures, as well as debates about the feasibility of resurrecting some of them via genetic technology (the passenger pigeon is but one example; there have been similar discussions about the Tasmanian tiger and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth).  We as a species are so guilt-ridden over what we have wrought that we will do almost anything to undo the damage that we have caused, even while a part of us also recognizes that it is too late for such measures.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that our media is so glutted with images of the devastation wrought by nature.  I am speaking here not just of how much the 24-hour news cycle revels in the joys of chaos delivered by natural disasters (though that is certainly the case.  Nothing drives ratings like a forest fire, a hurricane, or an earthquake).  I am also referring to films such as Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and so many more that serve as expressions of our collective guilt over the damage that we have perpetrated against entire species, though in this case we get to to be the ones that face utter annihilation, at the mercy of a force or forces that we cannot control nor effectively combat.  Whether that be a pair of giant creatures that feed on radioactivity or a virus that spreads and decimates the human population, these forces are the spectres that continue to haunt or collective human imaginary.  These media texts are also a recognition that extinction is, ultimately, the fate that has awaited almost every distinct species that has ever emerged.  There is clearly something cathartic about seeing our destruction writ large,  about embracing the oblivion that is the ontological root of extinction, even if only for two hours in a movie theater.

Extinction is a potent and troubling reminder of how tenuous and sometimes unsustainable this idea we have of progress truly is.  We want to believe, we are constantly encouraged to believe, that the world is headed toward a better place, that a brighter future is always on the horizon, just waiting to be grasped, if we but continue to believe in it.  There is much in our world, both in the present and in the past, that hauntingly reminds us of the essential fallacy that lies at the heart of this notion of progress, as well as the terrible price it exacts.  We who inhabit the conceptual and temporal space of modernity must constantly remind ourselves of the price that has been paid by numerous species as we continue our march into the future.  There is both a pleasure and a pain to the contemplation of extinction, and we as a species would do well to spend more time reflecting on both.

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