Accepting the natural world is breakable took us centuries. Accepting we ourselves could break it took even longer.
Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, was rather obsessed with mammoths.
Teeth and bones from the mammoth, or ‘incognitum’ as it was often known, had turned up several times in the North American fossil record. (In fact these animals were mastodons, not mammoths, but at the time both were believed to be the same species). Jefferson seized on their elephantine heft to defend against the charge, made by leading naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, that New World animals were weak and degenerate. The fearsome incognitum, with molars the size of human fist, would easily see off such European snobbery. In a 1780 list of North American animals, Jefferson listed the mammoth as the largest of all, bigger than the buffalo or polar bear.
The problem for Jefferson was that while mammoth bones kept turning up, live mammoths did not. So where were they?
To us, the answer seems painfully obvious: the mammoth was long extinct. But as Mark V. Barrow Jr. notes in his book Nature’s Ghosts, Jefferson refused to even countenance the idea of extinction. In his writings Jefferson sternly denied there were any examples in the “œconomy of nature” of “her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.”
This was not a fringe view; in fact, it was biological orthodoxy. A century before, the Irish physician Thomas Molyneux had insisted that while some fossilised animals had disappeared locally, they must still be alive in some remote part of the world: the denial that no species was “so utterly extinct, as to be lost entirely out of the World” was “grounded on so good a Principle of Providence taking Care in general of all its Animal Productions, that it deserves our Assent.”
This is surprising. Perhaps it was still possible for figures like Jefferson to believe that cryptic woolly elephants were lurking somewhere in the vast interior of the continent – but surely such educated and curious people knew about other cases of extinction? What about the famed dodo, wiped out within a century of humans arriving in Mauritius?
In fact, even the extinction of the dodo wasn’t yet accepted. Dodos had clearly become very rare, but the realisation that none were left at all flew in the face of how Europeans understood nature itself.
For any one species to cease to exist ran up against deep assumptions that all species sat within a defined, immutable hierarchy: the ‘great chain of being.’ In the great chain, every single link has its divinely mandated spot, carefully gradated from God at the top to angels to humans, then down through nonhuman animals, plants, and ultimately things like rocks.
On this view, species are what philosophers would call ‘natural kinds,’ distinct and unchanging categories, much like chemicals are. Carbon dioxide is carbon dioxide, and a dodo is a dodo, no matter what happens. Moreover, each discrete species had its own rank that it was meant to occupy relative to other creatures. The idea that some species could be missing therefore offended the belief that creation was divinely ordered, perfect, and complete.
This was also of course a political idea. Just as dogs outranked mice and lions outranked dogs, so too kings outranked nobles and nobles outranked peasants. Jefferson didn’t buy that political vision (even if his slave-ownership gives the lie to his rhetoric about human equality), and theologically he was more deist than theist. But he was still invested in the great chain as a biological idea.
It wasn’t until 1796 that the French naturalist Georges Cuvier demonstrated that mammoths weren’t modern elephants but a distinct species that had died out at some point in the past. This wasn’t universally accepted, however. Jefferson continued to insist there had to be mammoths out there somewhere. In 1803, Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition – hoping, among other things, that it would encounter live mastodons.
The thought that species were contingent, and so could cease to exist, was too horrible to contemplate. Extinction would be bad enough for mammoths and dodos, but for us humans, just admitting species could go extinct would be worse. Extinction doesn’t just threaten the idea that we are special relative to all other animals. It threatens the sense that things are the way they should be, and that our existence is therefore intended, ordained – and assured.
We have a fairly recent name for this sort of attitude: puddle thinking.
In 2001 the British author and humourist Douglas Adams died, suddenly and far too young. Biologist Richard Dawkins gave a eulogy in which he recalled a parable Adams, a keen environmentalist, had offered; the parable was later published in Adams’ posthumous book The Salmon of Doubt.
Imagine that one morning a puddle suddenly becomes conscious. As it looks around at its world, the puddle starts to notice that the little dip in the ground it’s sitting in fits its watery body very well indeed – in fact, the hole fits its every contour absolutely perfectly!
Well now, thinks the puddle, this cannot be coincidence. The hole can’t just fit every single part of my body by accident. This hole in the ground must have been designed to fit me!
And so the puddle, now convinced that the world has been designed for him and with his comfort in mind, and so is clearly meant to have the puddle in it, doesn’t really worry too much as the Sun comes up and he starts to evaporate.
“I think,” said Adams, “this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
It’s easy to laugh at this puddlecentric view of the universe. How could the puddle be so silly, so self-important, as to fail to realise he is the shape he is because of the hole he was formed in, and not vice versa?
But consider how long it took for humans to reach the same realisation. (Even Cuvier rejected evolution, though his work on extinction ultimately paved the way for its acceptance). The anthropocentric view that stopped generations of scientists conceding that some species just aren’t alive anymore still exerts a powerful force on human thinking. Like the puddle, we’re just a bit too comfortable in our cozy little hole, snugly assuming that because the planet has kept us alive and made us rich, it’s meant to do so and won’t ever stop.
Accepting the natural world is breakable took us centuries. Accepting we ourselves could break it took even longer. Even today, when we understand better than ever just what humans are doing to the atmosphere and just how many thousands of species we’ve already obliterated, it’s hard to shake the little voice that says everything will turn out OK because we’re meant to be OK, somehow. But the laws of physics don’t, in fact, care if we live or die.
Jefferson, it seems, struggled with this until the end. In an 1823 letter to John Adams he finally admitted that “certain races of animals are become extinct.” Yet he also insisted that providence was somehow still holding the natural world together. After all, he reasoned, “were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.” And that would be unthinkable.