Sunday, July 31, 2005
This morning I was finishing up an abridged audio version of Bill Bryson's wonderful book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Toward the end Bryson has a short chapter devoted to man's curious relationship with the other living creatures on the planet, and the profound modernity of the idea that we should not simply exterminate them because we can. He illustrates with the story of the extinction of the dodo, which is in itself fascinating:
In the early 1680s, at just about the time that Edmond Halley and his friends Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke were settling down in a London coffeehouse and embarking on the casual wager that would result eventually in Isaac Newton's Principia, Henry Cavendish's weighing of the Earth, and many of the other inspired and commendable undertakings that have occupied us for much off the past four hundred pages, a rather less desirable milestone was being passed on the island of Mauritius, far out in the Indian Ocean some eight hundred miles off the east coast of Madagascar.
There, some forgotten sailor or sailor's pet was harrying to death the last of the dodos, the famously flightless bird whose dim but trusting nature and lack of leggy zip made it a rather irresistible target for bored young tars on shore leave. Millions of years of peaceful isolation had not prepared it for the erratic and deeply unnerving behavior of human beings.
We don't know precisely the circumstances, or even year, attending the last moments of the last dodo, so we don't know which arrived first, a world that contained a Principia or one that had no dodos, but we do know that they happened at more or less the same time. You would be hard pressed, I would submit, to find a better pairing of occurrences to illustrate the divine and felonious nature of the human being -- a species of organism that is capable of unpicking the deepest secrets of the heavens while at the same time pounding into extinction, for no purposes at all, a creature that never did any of us any harm and wasn't even remotely capable of understanding what we were doing to it as we did it. Indeed, dodos were so spectacularly short on insight, it is reported, that if you wished to find all the dodos in a vicinity you had only to catch one and set it to squawking, and all the others would waddle along to see what was up.
The indignities of the poor dodo didn't end quite there. In 1755, some seventy years after the last dodo's death, the director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford decided that the institution's stuffed dodod was becoming unpleasantly musty and ordered it tossed on a bonfire. This was a surprising decision as it was by this time the only dodo in existence, stuffed or otherwise. A passing employee, aghast, tried to rescue the bird but could save only its head and part of one limb.
As a result of this and other departures from common sense, we are not now entirely sure what a living dodo was like. We possess much less information than most people suppose -- a handful of crude descriptions by "unscientific voyagers, three or four oil paintings, and a few scattered osseous fragments," in the somewhat aggrieved words of the nineteenth century naturalist H.E. Strickland. As Strickland wistfully observed, we have more physical evidence of some ancient sea monsters and lumbering saurapods than we do of a bird that lived into modern times and required nothing of us to survive except our absence.
So what is known of the dodo is this: it lived on Mauritius, was plump but not tasty, and was the biggest-ever member of the pigeon family, though by quite what margin is unknown as its weight was never accurately recorded. Extrapolations from Strickland's "osseous fragments" and the Ashmolean's modest remains show that it was a little over two and a half feet tall and about the same distance from beak tip to backside. Being flightless, it nested on the ground, leaving its eggs and chicks tragically easy prey for pigs, dogs, and monkeys brought to the islannd by outsiders. It was probably extinct by 1683 and was most certainly gone by 1693. Beyond that we know almost nothing except of course that we will not see its like again. We know nothing of its reproductive habits and diet, where it ranged, what sounds it made in tranquility or alarm. We don't possess a single dodo egg.
From beginning to end our acquaintance with animate dodos lasted just seventy years. That is a breathtakingly scanty period -- though it must be said that by this point in our history we did have thousands of years of practice behind us in the matter of irreversible eliminations. Nobody know quite how destructive human beings are, but it is a fact that over the last fifty thousand years or so wherever we have gone animals have tended to vanish, in often astonishingly large numbers.
Bryson goes on to describe at length the zeal with which American and European naturalists and scientists exterminated species that they had discovered, and how this enthusiasm extended well into the twentieth century. Among many bits of evidence:
In 1907 when a well-known collector named Alanson Bryan realized that he had shot the last three specimens of black mamos, a species of forest bird that had only been discovered in the previous decade, he noted that the news filled him with 'joy.'
It is striking that such attitudes prevailed as recently as the generation of my great-grandparents. Today, even (or especially) devoted hunters would have a very hard time even understanding Alanson Bryan's joy.
Finally, then, Bryson leaves us with this observation:
I mention all this to make the point that if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job.
But here's an extremely salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.
At six billion and counting and having spread to virtually every habitat on land, how could it be otherwise?