Charles Peale’s Mastodon skeleton. By Édouard de Montulé,1816.

The Departed

Extinction in America

This month, a study in Science reported the alarming rate with which plant and animal species on Earth could be lost to climate change: one in six. Many of some 20,000 species at risk are native to the United States — and some of our natural flora and fauna have already disappeared. On this episode, Brian, Ed and Peter explore how Americans have grappled with the idea of extinction, and what the loss of native species has meant for our ecosystems and our everyday lives.

When did we first realize that species could go extinct? To what extent did earlier extinctions shape the emergence of today’s environmentalism? And how have ideas about biological extinction factored into American thinking about human cultures? These are just some of the questions the hosts and their guests explore in this episode… in stories about dinosaurs and the obsession they’ve inspired, about the bird that helped the conservation movement take off, and about the unlikely fish that spawned a new generation of environmental activists.

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**This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight differences in content with the audio version above**


ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. In the mid 19th century passenger pigeons were so abundant that the massive flocks darkened the sky for hours. Their meat was sold by the ton in American cities. But by the turn of the century, they could barely found in the wild.

JENNIFER PRICE: People are saying, oh, I saw some in Bolivia. I saw some of the coast of Russia. They flew to Alaska. You know, there’s this sense that the pigeons just got disgusted and went elsewhere.

ED: Today on the show– how Americans have grappled with extinction throughout our history. We’ll consider the mystery of the missing Mastodon , as well as the case of the snail darter. The little fish, that in the 1970’s, came to stand for so much more.

BRIAN: The extinction of this little fish would mark the extinction of a remarkable a public resource.

ED: Extinction in America– coming up on BackStory.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, The University of Virginia, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities– this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, here, with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

PETER: And Ed Harris.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And we’re going to begin today with the incredible story of the passenger pigeon.

JENNIFER PRICE: Yeah, the passenger pigeon was, basically, unbelievable.

BRIAN: This is Jennifer Price– a historian at Princeton.

JENNIFER PRICE: Like, if you think about the biggest flock of starlings you’ve ever seen, that seems like a scene out of Hitchcock, and then you multiply that by, about, a million.

MALE VOICE: I can well remember that, in the spring of 1811, a flock passed over Templeton that was many hours in sight and so large as to cover the whole horizon. They first appeared about a half an hour before sunrise and continued until after 10:00.

BRIAN: This is from the diary of a Massachusetts man named Christopher Baldwin– one of the many terrifying accounts from this period of pigeon flocks that were many hundreds of miles long.

JENNIFER PRICE: Keep in mind that these passages are invariably preceded by a couple sentences saying, I was sober; I had witnesses; I didn’t make this up.

MALE VOICE: As the watchers stared, the hum increased to a mighty throbbing. Now everyone was out of houses and stores looking apprehensively at the growing cloud, which was blotting out the rays of the sun.

Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried to the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the Millennium. And several dropped on their knees and prayed.

BRIAN: If that wasn’t terrifying enough to contemplate, imagine what would have been like with these millions of birds actually landed.

JENNIFER PRICE: There were like 100 year old, foot-wide trees that would just keel over under the weight of the pigeons. And so there’s this– sort of this hail of falling branches and falling trees and bludgeoned pigeons that come down with the branches and the trees.

And then, you know, by the time the pigeons would actually leave a roost site, or especially a nesting site where they might stay for a few weeks, it would just look like the apocalypse had come. There was not a single green leaf left. There’d be, at least, a foot of dung on the ground. These would be, actually, very fertile places for awhile. There’d be fallen trees all over the place.

ED: The only they more striking than the sheer numbers of these passenger pigeons is the speed with which they disappeared from the face of the earth. In the 1880’s, this larger, more colorful, relative of the street pigeon we know today was still the most populous vertebrate in North America. A decade later, it was hard to find a flock of them anywhere.

They’d always been prized for their meat. What seems to happen is that indiscriminate hunting, together but deforestation and disease, reduced the birds numbers below a critical threshold necessary for the species survival. The very last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago, this September, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

BRIAN: It’s probably fair to say that the bird’s death– her name was Martha– marked a turning point in the way understood their role of the natural world. Today on the show we’re marking Earth Day with an in depth look at some of the other ways Americans have thought about extinction.

ED: We have stories about Thomas Jefferson’s resistance to the idea that living species could disappear, and about a court case, from the 1970s, that made extinction into a political hot potato. But first, we’re going to spend a few more minutes with Jennifer Price who has written about the twists and turns in American’s relationship with the passenger pigeon. She explained to me that these tremendous flocks of birds only came around every few years.

JENNIFER PRICE: So pigeons ate beech nuts and acorns, they relied on old growth trees, really. And beech trees and oak trees only have a really big crop about every two to eight years. And so that’s why the pigeons would move around quite a bit. And they wouldn’t show up in one place reliably. They would show up, maybe, every six or seven years.

Now whenever this would happen, beginning with the Native Americans, this was an event. This was a huge event. The Native Americans, actually, relied on pigeons for subsistence. And wherever the pigeons were, the Native American groups would gather. And they would often, actually, schedule their, sort of, inter-tribal council meetings around the pigeon nestings.

ED: So, we are in the early 19th century and the pigeons are coming through all the towns and cities of the East. But, for some reason, the locus of the pigeon hunting moves west. Could you tell us why that happens?

JENNIFER PRICE: Well, I think it’s, really, a story of technology and markets. What happens to the pigeon markets is the pigeon markets start out local on the East Coast, also, in the Midwest– wherever the pigeons are. Because, you just can’t send a pigeon very far before it turns into mush.

ED: I see.

JENNIFER PRICE: So there’s a limit on how big the markets can get. Then what happens is you get the railroads, which spread out across the country. And you, also, get really important new technologies for preservation. So you get cold storage cars on the trains.

So then what happens is you can have professional market hunters who are actually using the railroad lines to get to the communities– not just where the pigeons are, but where all the game species are. And then using the refrigerated cars to ship all this game back to the Eastern markets where the game has been eradicated, really, decades before that. And so what happens is– the reason you get the pigeon eradication in the 1870s is that’s when the markets and the railroads finally reach, sort of, the last piece

ED: Refuge–

JENNIFER PRICE: Of the continent.

ED: And so did people put out warnings– look out, if we keep shooting these pigeons we’re going to wipe them out. We’re there warnings like that?

JENNIFER PRICE: No, because you have to remember that the pigeons don’t show up in any one locale every year. So there’s a lag time in realizing that the pigeons are gone. Because they’re very– they’re travelers.

So there’s a real lag time of almost, I would say, a decade or two– even two decades– where people really– it really starts to sink in that the pigeons are gone. Because it’s also just so inconceivable to people. Like they just don’t think it’s possible that they could not be around. And

So, really, the first people to start to notice it is, of course, this small core of market hunters who actually makes their living by following the flocks from year to year. And they show up at 1880, and there’s a few thousand pigeons. And they go off to look for the main flock, and they don’t find it.

But it really takes a very long time to sink in. And people just assume– I mean really, up until, like, the 1960’s people are saying, oh, I saw some in Bolivia. I saw some on the coast of Russia. They flew to Alaska.

There’s this sense that the pigeons just got disgusted and went elsewhere. And by the time people realize that they’re really gone, it’s way too late to do anything about it.

ED: So you mentioned your book of the monuments ever put up Wisconsin to the last flocks of pigeons. And they say– the explanation for this is pretty straightforward. It’s the avarice of man.

JENNIFER PRICE: Yes, in general, every time you see people talk about the extinction it’s man’s greed, man’s avarice, man’s thoughtlessness. My explanation is a little bit longer than that. And it’s really two parts.

First, is that it’s not man greed. It’s particular people, in a particular economy, with a particular social structure, who are putting particular kinds of pressures on natural resources, for particular reasons. And you really– if you don’t really look very specifically at the market forces that really drove the pigeons extinct, then, I think, you don’t get much of a lesson out of it.

But the other thing that I think is really important, that we lose track of, is that these pigeons were actually really meaningful to people. Yes, people were shooting them like crazy in ways that were actually, ultimately, really destructive, but they also really loved pigeons. And pigeons represented things to them.

The pigeons would come in, and it was just this abundance beyond imagination. And it really said a lot to people about their identity as Americans. Game had been long depleted in Britain and in Europe–

ED: Right, right.

JENNIFER PRICE: In the European countries, it had been depleted for centuries and centuries. And one of the things that was really defining about American identity was this abundance of natural resources. And when the pigeons would come in, it would just tell that story 50 times over.

And, also, about independence– the people could go and they could shoot. Again, in Europe, you had a lot of restrictions on who could hunt game. In the United States, everybody could hunt game.

And then the pigeons, also, brought communities together. Everybody in the community would drop what they’re doing. Shops would be empty. Restaurants would be empty. People would just all go to the pigeon roost.

And so, it also told you a story about your community, and about people coming together and doing things together. So pigeons, because of this dramatic quality that they had, have always been really meaningful to people. And that is still true.

You know, why are we talking about pigeons in 2014? You know, they’re still really, really good animals for telling us stories. And now we use pigeons to tell, sort of, cautionary stories about our relationships with nature.

ED: That’s beautiful. And I thought one the beautiful things in your chapter was the way you talk about when we go to the grocery store today and buy meat. You know, we get it beneath the shrink wrap and precisely weighed.

So is that the basic thing that happened is that the pigeons had been meaningful to people who actually saw them and killed them and cooked them in pies. But the urban consumers– and you talk about the rise of the restaurant. And the pigeon– by the time to get that, it’s rapped not only in other kinds of foods and, sort of, draped with a kind of garnish. But it’s also dressed in French language. Is that what happens is that we lose the sense of meaning and of consequence? Or am I imposing a false simplicity on this?

JENNIFER PRICE: No, no– I think this is definitely an important part of the story is that the meanings of pigeons– it’s not that people aren’t still attaching meanings to the pigeons on their plates. But it’s, rather, that those meanings become very abstracted, very disconnected, from the actual pigeon.

You know, like you said, the pigeon– you can’t even tell it’s a pigeon by the time Del Monaco’s gets done with it. I mean, there are pigeon dishes that take them two days to prepare. They’re like 12 different– it’s almost like a seafood tower. Like now– 12 pigeons arranged on a– on many different layers, with about a billion sauces on them and all kinds of truffles and veggies.

So the pigeon– it’s not that people aren’t making the bird meaningful, but they’re making them meaningful in ways that are disconnected from the flocks and the meanings of the flocks. So when the pigeon, actually, disappears– who cares? I mean, it’s the market hunters that get blamed. And it’s the locals in Wisconsin and Michigan that get blamed. But they’re really no more to blame then the consumers who are demanding the pigeons for the market’s.

ED: Right. Which seems to be the theme of your story, right, and I think, it’s meaning for us today is that it’s easy to point at the people with the guns and coming on the railroads and so forth doing this. But the fact is that it takes a nation to destroy millions a pigeons. I mean it takes the most urbane, sophisticated consumers, as well as, people who are making a living off wildlife, sort of, flying through their neighborhood.

JENNIFER PRICE: I think it is a story about using local, finite resources for much, much broader markets. And, like you said, it takes a nation to destroy the pigeon. But I think the lesson is, partly, also that it takes a nation to save the pigeons.

That regulation can’t just be local. And that we need– and this, in fact, is what eventually saved game species from being wiped out entirely, is that by the 1900s when we would say, oh my god, the continent has just been emptied of its wildlife– they pass national laws for the first times. And those have been enormously effective, actually, in saving a lot of species.

ED: Jennifer Price is a visiting professor at the Princeton Environmental Institute. We’ll link to excerpt from her book Flight Maps at back

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory, we’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re marking the Earth Day, ironically, with a look back at the various ways Americans have thought about extinction. While we were putting the show together, we received this voice mail on the subject, from one of our listeners.

CHARLES: Hi, guys, I love the show. This is Charles from Newport, Kentucky. And I heard a few years ago that the idea of extension was as controversial as the theory of evolution was in Darwin’s day. Of the thought being, why would God create and then destroy so many animals. I wonder what you guys thought of that.

BRIAN: What I think of it is I love you, Charles, because that’s the very question I wanted to ask our 18th and 19th century guys. I mean, it seems to me, that if evolution with such a bomb shell, then it is a necessity that extinction would be, equally, disruptive to ideas in the 19th century. I’m looking at you Ed.

ED: You might think, what you just said, Brian, but it’s not really the case, ironically. I mean, Charles’ question, and your question, are very well placed, but it turns out that Darwin was very much a man of the 19th century. And, which– he was talking about progress and evolution, and he doesn’t even use the word evolution. That’s how polite he is. He talks about descent with modification. He does that until the sixth edition of his book.

BRIAN: I’ll have another cup of tea, Ed.

ED: Yeah, exactly, decent with modification– so Darwin, instead, talks about the way that very gradually– so gradually that you can’t actually see it, except in retrospect, organisms of all kinds are subtly adapting to their changing environment. The controversy grows out of the concept of evolution– that what are we descended with modification from.

PETER: Right.

ED: And the fact that we are not a stable biological entity is where the real controversy lies, Brian, not with the idea of extinction

PETER: Ed, I think you’re right to situate Darwin in the Victorian 19th century. And there’s, kind of, a sentimental view, and it’s good. There is individual loss, but for the human race as a whole, and for creation as a whole, we’re moving forward in a gentle, gradual way.

Now that’s a counterpoint to a cataclysmic, catastrophic notion of the history of the world. And according to Charles [? Cuvier, ?] a French natural philosopher of the late 18th century, of the Napoleonic period, there have been a series of cataclysms– five of them, which have led to massive extinctions.

But the before [? Cuvier, ?] the idea of the Enlightenment Natural philosophers was that a clockmaker God had created a perfect creation in which there was a, kind of, completeness. It was static. All species would exist forever.

The great chain of being was the dominant idea. There’s order in God’s creation, and no link can be taken from the chain of being, without the whole thing collapsing. And it’s that idea that comes apart.

And, you know, what I think is really significant about [? Cuvier, ?] and this notion of extinction as an existential threat to the planet and to all species, is that prediction– that notion, or that gloss on world history– takes place within the context of the Napoleonic Wars, which reek awful destruction on the European continent. The significant thing in the US is their revolution didn’t have the implications of the French Revolution.

The American Revolution was gradualist.

BRIAN: Darwinian.

PETER: It was possible for Americans to be conservative progressives. To believe that things would get better. And, yes, there would be loss, but it would be a gentle loss.

BRIAN: Peter, I am so sold on your theory. But I’m just going to jump in here and say, certainly, by the 1970s in the United States, we’ve got it all. We’ve got this notion that everything is connected, that comes out of ecology, and it sounds very much like that great chain of being you’re referring to that

ED: Earth Day in 1907 or–

BRIAN: Exactly, everything is connected. The Earth is this delicate marble that we can look at it from the sky.

On the other hand, we have plenty of controversy. And you know what that controversy comes from? It comes from the notion that humans are destroying, and making extinct, pieces of that great inter-connectedness. And the controversy is over exactly what we’re talking about. Does it really matter that the spotted owl might disappear?

PETER: So what strikes me is that that modern notion, as you’ve suggested, is very similar to an 18th century idea that there is an order to nature. It’s organized along a different axis. Now we see everything in horizontal terms. Everything is equal, on our planet. And we, of all creatures in creation, are uniquely responsible for its fate.

ED: And so, Charles, to bring things full circle, ironically, Darwin’s the least of our problems. The extinction’s controversial, in lots of different ways, but not for the reasons we might expect.



ED: So Peter was just talking about the ways that Americans wrapped their heads around the idea of extinction in the early days of the nation. Now, we’re going to take a closer look at how another scientific theory, from across the pond, landed in the United States. And that theory was known, somewhat ominously, is the theory of American Degeneracy.

PETER: In 1766 the world’s most well known natural scientists, Comte de Buffon, published his theory that life forms on the American continent were naturally weaker and smaller than their Old World counterparts. The French Naturalist’s idea was, basically, that the cold and damp climate stunted the growth of America’s flora, fauna, and even the people. As you can imagine, this idea was not very well received in America.

My man, Thomas Jefferson, devoted a significant chunk of his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, to disapproving Buffon’s idea. Notes on Virginia compares the relative sizes of species on both sides of the Atlantic– making the point that accurate data would show there was no such thing as degeneration. If anything, Jefferson suggested, American animals were bigger.

ED: If you read Jefferson’s book today, some of his data might seem a little off. And here’s where 18th century ideas about extinction and degeneracy intersect. You see, one of the main animals that Jefferson used to prove this point was the mammoth. The same mammoth that, we now know, went extinct thousands of years earlier.

PETER: Lee Dugatkin is a biologist at the University of Louisville who has written about Jefferson’s efforts to undo the degeneracy theory. He told me that Jefferson insisted on the relevance of the mammoth to his argument– even though it was pretty evident, by Jefferson’s time, that this animal was long gone.

LEE DUGATKIN: What he’s basing his empirical sense that this creature still exists is on stories that Indian folklore had of such creatures that were roaming around much further West than we had been at that time. Because this is Pre-Lewis and Clark. And Jefferson, who we think of as, sort of, the quintessential a logical person, really has to twist and turn to make is arguments about the mammoth being still hear.

What he says is, people ask me, well, where is the evidence that it’s out West. And his answer is, show me the evidence that it isn’t. Which is– for Jefferson, that’s a bit of a weak argument. One senses that he knew that. But that’s all he was left with, and so that’s what he used.

PETER: Why is it so important? Why is Jefferson so deeply invested in this? Why does he want to refute the notion of degeneracy under the conditions that Buffon thinks exist in the New World– it’ cold, it’s wet, and he’s got the climate wrong, for starters.


PETER: But what’s at stake for Jefferson?

LEE DUGATKIN: Jefferson was very worried that, what would happen would be, Buffon would be seen as the world’s leading expert on this subject. Everybody in Europe, therefore, would accept this argument. Which means that people, particularly people with money, would not begin trading with the United States– would not come over here. So from a practical perspective, Jefferson was worried that this was going to hurt our chances of survival as a country.

PETER: And there is the parallel argument that the United States is an experiment. And they used that word advisedly in Republican government. And the American people are going to demonstrate what they’re capable of doing. These slurs on American nature are really slurs on the American people, as well. And a prediction that the United States will fail.

LEE DUGATKIN: Without question– and what’s really remarkable is Jefferson realized this. And so did the early natural historians in the country. So if you look at the early school of American natural history, you find these wonderful letters where they write each other– that what should drive them is not only their love for nature, and their passion for the subject, but national pride.

We need to demonstrate to the world that this place– America– is just as beautiful, just as strong, in possession of just the incredible animals that the rest of the world is in possession of. Because it paints a picture of us as not only an emerging republic, but an emerging place where people are strong. And where nature is powerful.

PETER: Now, Lee, if Jefferson could have done it, wouldn’t he have sent the mastodon, or a skeleton of the mastodon, to Buffon and said, listen, this is the game changer here. We got the big one.


PETER: Why couldn’t he do that?

LEE DUGATKIN: Jefferson understood that even though he thought, and was convinced, that the mammoth was roaming around out West, that without hard evidence that this was the case, the mammoth, in some ways, was not the perfect piece of evidence to send Buffon. Because what Jefferson thought was, what we need is something that’s roaming around in the forest today, that everybody knows about, here.

PETER: OK, so we’ll hold the mammoth in reserve, [? OK, ?] because one day we will find the mammoth, or at least a mammoth skeleton.

LEE DUGATKIN: Yeah, what Jefferson decides is– what we’re going to do is we’re going to get our hands on a giant moose. One that’s preferably 7 to 10 feet tall–

PETER: Whoa–

LEE DUGATKIN: And we are going to ship it over to the Count, and he is going to look and say, you know, I guess I was wrong. Unfortunately, the Count is very ill at this time. So by this time, which is 1786-1787, Buffon is in his mid 70’s, and he’s quite, quite ill. The Count’s assistant writes back to Jefferson’s that the Count has seen the moose, and he is going to, essentially, pull back his theory of New World–

PETER: Man, this is a victory, almost, right?

LEE DUGATKIN: Almost a victory, except Buffon dies very shortly thereafter. And he doesn’t pull back the theory of New World degeneracy. So Jefferson knew that Buffon knew that Jefferson was right. And that gave him a bit of solace. But he was quite concerned at this theory of New World degeneracy was going to last for a long time.

And, of course, one can’t help but think that part of the reason that Lewis and Clark went out West was to document all the things we’re talking about here. Jefferson wanted hard evidence of the amazing nature of this country. And so he sent Lewis and Clark out to get it. Because that was where the future was, and we knew nothing about what was out there. And Jefferson, and others, thought once we do, we can finally put this whole argument about us being degenerate to rest.

PETER: Lee Dugatkin is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville. He’s the author of Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose– Natural History in Early America.


BRIAN: More than a century after Jefferson tried to get his hands on an entire skeleton from a mastodon, Americans were much more interested in a different creature from the past– the dinosaur. People flocked to the halls of the Field Museum in Chicago, the Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. They were there to see the breathtaking remains of the T. rex and the brontosaurus. And museums jockeyed to get their hands on the biggest skeletons they could find.

BRIAN SWITEK: In one case, you, had Andrew Carnegie, the famous philanthropist, who saw a news article about a giant sauropod dinosaur– it’s one of these long necked, heavy bodied dinosaurs– being found out west.

BRIAN: This is Brian Switek, a science journalist who’s written about this period of dino-mania.

BRIAN SWITEK: And there’s an illustration in the newspaper of this dinosaur standing up on his hind legs and looking into, I think, the 10th story window of an early skyscraper. And he said, I want one of these for my museum. You will go and find this for me.

And they did. They found out diplodocus, actually, and named it after him–the specific species– Diplodocus carnegii.

BRIAN: Americans, at this time, we’re also getting much more interested in the reasons dinosaurs went extinct. As we mentioned earlier in today’s show, extinction up until this point, had been seen as a gradual process of nature. But right around the time of World War I, people started coming up with more cataclysmic theories. Theories that, Switek says, map very nicely onto the social and political realities of the day.

BRIAN SWITEK: You start getting ideas about– that, maybe, mammals are eating all the dinosaur eggs. So rather than dinosaurs, sort of, evolving themselves to be extinct, you have this outside pressure– mammals eating all the eggs that are driving them extinct. So you know that hasn’t been taken seriously.

That didn’t actually work, but you’re starting to get those sorts of ideas. So you have that within science, but then you also have, sort of, dinosaurs becoming symbols of extinction. So there was a pacifist group during World War I called the Anti-Preparedness League and as a mascot–

BRIAN: They must have had very poorly– they must have had very poorly organized meetings.

BRIAN SWITEK: Yeah, who’s going to organize the next meeting ? Uh, I don’t want to do it.

BRIAN: So these folks were against preparing for World War I?

BRIAN SWITEK: Right they’re a pacifist group. They didn’t want America to get involved in World War I. And as their mascot, they picked stegosaurus– this armor plated dinosaur with a spiky tail. They called it Jingo, because of the jingoism that they were pushing back against.

And the slogan that they put it underneath their paper mache stegosaurus, that they took out on parades, was “all armor-plate and no brains.” And this was going into this idea that, you know, this dinosaur invested so much energy in it’s own militarization, that it wasn’t smart enough to think of any other solution.

So, basically, this huge dumb brute that was destined to go extinct. And if the US got involved in World War I, we’d be, basically, the giant stegosaurus. You know, the brain the size of a walnut and lots of armaments.

BRIAN: I’ve actually owned some old cars like that in the 1970s, but– any other examples you can share with us?

BRIAN SWITEK: So another example for the dinosaurs– in the middle of the 20th century you had Rachel Carson’s highly influential book Silent Spring. And part of that book was identifying that DDT was a major environmental problem. It was thinning eggshells of many raptors and other predatory birds, and causing these birds to go extinct.

Well after, this is a little bit delayed, but about 20 years after Silent Spring came out, there was a set of papers about dinosaur eggs found in Europe. And they seem to have thin eggs for dinosaurs. And they had egg deformities where you had a couple different egg shell layers, and the scientists said that there’s this out-gassing of, sort of, these toxins that came from volcanoes and were having a very similar effect. In the past– and I don’t know if the hypothesis ever would have been presented, I guess, without an awareness of ecological problems that people were facing at the time.

BRIAN: Larger concern about the food chain during the time of Rachel Carson.

BRIAN SWITEK: Food chain, chemicals in the environment, and that sort of thing– this awareness coming from another branch of science and another branch of cultural awareness and feeding back into theories about what happened to the dinosaurs.

BRIAN: So how else have human fears crept into theories about dinosaur extinction?

BRIAN SWITEK: Well certainly the greatest one has to be the asteroid impact hypothesis– now the asteroid impact fact. Basically 1980– it was this very controversial idea, based upon this layer of a rare element called iridium found all around the world right at that spot between the end of the age of the non-avian dinosaurs, 66 million years ago, and the beginning of what was often called the Age of Mammals.

And people in other sciences actually picked up on this– people like Carl Sagan. You know, this was during the Cold-War era where people were worried about mutually assured nuclear destruction. And as paleontologists and geologists looked at asteroid impact and said, OK, the asteroid struck the earth. There would have been months, if not years, of darkness. It would have thrown all these chemicals into the air. The world would have chilled.

Basically, the idea of nuclear winter was drawn at least, partly, from the asteroid impact. That this was, basically, a proxy for what we might do to ourselves. So the asteroid impact was brought into these political debates about getting rid of our nuclear arsenal.

BRIAN: So do present concerns like climate change– have they made their way into the scientific theories of dinosaur extinction?

BRIAN SWITEK: I think it certainly does in terms of how science is reported, and the sort of media hooks that are used. There’s a paper that came out, I think, about two years ago about dinosaur farts, of all things. And how much, basically, one of these long-necked sauropod dinosaurs would have produced. And could they have altered the global climate through this.

And it had nothing to do with extinction, because these dinosaurs had survived for millions and millions and millions of years. They showed no sign of petering out. But the news media, especially outlets like Fox News and stuff, immediately latched on to this and started saying that dinosaurs must have farted themselves into extinction. And anything where you can tie dinosaurs to climate change and extinction– that’s an immediate news hook for anyone looking for an easy story.

BRIAN: So some of this has less to do with changes in the scientific theory itself, and a lot to do with what the media translates for larger public’s. And, of course, I want underscore you are a science writer. So do you contribute to this phenomenon?

BRIAN SWITEK: I think I certainly do. At least, I’d like to think that I do. That means people are reading what I have to say and, therefore, taking it in. But I remember those documentaries I saw about the asteroid impact, and other paleontologists of my generation– I’m 31, if it helps put a time stamp on it– are now starting to be curators and starting to have an influence in the field and writing scientific papers.

And there seems to be this generational difference between the people who are active as academics in these debates who are still, sort of, not skeptical, but still, very actively debating what role did asteroid impact versus volcanic activity have in this extinction. And people of my generation who grew up with all these dinosaur shows and media saying, the asteroid is the answer. And then I think there’s a greater acceptance with us about that. So it can take a little bit more work, I think, especially for me as a science communicator–

BRIAN: Right, that’s interesting

BRIAN SWITEK: To remember these other ideas, and say, OK, this is what we know, and this what’s still being discussed. And that’s a responsibility that I have to remind myself of is am I accurately reflecting the state of the science, and what we don’t know yet?

BRIAN: So as a science communicator, tweet to me the reason that the dinosaurs went extinct– your understanding.

BRIAN SWITEK: Murder weapons, asteroid, volcano– motive unknown.

BRIAN: Thanks so much for joining us.

BRIAN SWITEK: Thank you very much.

BRIAN: Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus– On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs.



ED: It’s time for another short break. When we return, the story of the little fish that threatened a really big dam.



PETER: This is BackStory– the show where we look at the past to understand the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. On today’s show we’re talking about the history of American thinking about extinction. And we’re going to turn, now Ed, to a story from your backyard, down in Tennessee. It’s the snail darter controversy.

ED: Yeah, I know this story. Everybody does down in Tennessee. It’s the story of the little fish that got in the way of the Tennessee Valley Authority trying to build a big hydroelectric dam that would benefit so many people, right?

BRIAN: That’s kind of right. You are right about the way the story played out in the media, and frankly, still does play out in the media. But that dam was never intended for hydro-power. It was actually dreamed up as the first step in creating a lake and freeing up land for an office park and planned community for the Boeing Corporation.

ED: I have to admit, that’s not the way I’d heard it, Brian.

BRIAN: The story began in the mid ’60s when the TVA secured federal funds to dam up the last free flowing section of the Little Tennessee River. But before long, Boeing pulled out of the project. The farmers in the 40 square miles that we’re going to be condemned managed to delay the dam for a few years. But in the early ’70s, the TVA started building that dam. By 1973 it was 95% complete. But at that point, those farmers stumbled upon a last ditch strategy for shutting down the whole thing. They would take advantage of the brand new Endangered Species Act that had just been passed by Congress.

WALTER CRONKITE: For an energy hungry country, the news from a federal appeals court today could be described as bad for environmentalists.

BRIAN: This is Walter Cronkite, in January of 1977, reporting on the first case to test the new Endangered Species Act.

WALTER CRONKITE: The reason the hydroelectric dam threatens an endangered species– a three inch fish called the snail darter. A member of the perch family, it’s found only in a 17 mile stretch of the river that’s to be part of the Tellico Reservoir.

BRIAN: The following year the case, Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hiram Hill, made its way to the Supreme Court. Hiram Hill was a law student who had heard about the fish. And his professor was the one who got the snail darter listed as an endangered species. And eventually, that professor argued the case in court. His name Zygmunt Plater.

ZYGMUNT PLATER: At one point, Justice Palo leaned and said, Mr. Plater, what purpose is served? Are they good for bait? Can you eat them? And I was able to say, no, your Honor, you can’t eat it, you can’t use it for bait. But at trial Exhibit 12 is a lithograph which shows the little fish highly adapted to clean, cool, clear, flowing river water, which has been destroyed everywhere else in the region by the pork barrel development. And the interesting thing is when I said, Exhibit 12 at trial, the clerk of the United States Supreme Court jumped up, and he went out and handed each member of the court a picture of this beautiful little fish looking out with little brown eyes. I said, wow–

BRIAN: Suitable for framing, no doubt.

ZYGMUNT PLATER: Exactly– and I figured that was good for at least one vote. And we won six to three.

BRIAN: And was the key issue whether the snail darter faced extinction? Was that word thrown around a lot?

ZYGMUNT PLATER: Well often when you look at endangered species cases, you’re looking at a case of a canary in the coal mine. That that little species is, typically, in a habitat that has been rendered rarer and rarer. This little fish, for instance, probably in the millions used to live throughout the eastern half of Tennessee. But one by one by one by one its populations have been destroyed by some of those 67 dams that had already been built.

BRIAN: Right.

ZYGMUNT PLATER: Only 25,000 of these little things were left in the little Tennessee River– that was their prime habitat. They were vivid indicators that every other place where this fish lived had been destroyed for humans. I guess the point is the extinction of this little fish would mark the extinction of a remarkable public resource. And it was only through the accident of the Endangered Species Act being passed, and my student Hiram Hill hearing about this little fish, that we were be able to take it up to the Supreme Court and, ultimately, to the God Committee, which–

BRIAN: Time out, time out– what is a God Committee

ZYGMUNT PLATER: I’d argued, in the Supreme Court, that Congress should, finally, sit down and look at the merits on both sides. TVA’s saying that there was going to be this city, which never would happen. And the farmers saying, the true value is to have us on our farms, this prime soil, and have tourism and recreational fishing up through this 33 miles into the park.

All right– the Congress set up a high level committee– really quite extraordinary. Seven members of the President’s cabinet listened for two or three hours, and then unanimously said, this project was never worth building. The farmers were right.

The trouble was, that didn’t make it into the media. Little fish stops dam– that’s in front of– front page, above the fold. Economic analysis shows that the media story has been wrong from the beginning. It either wasn’t covered in the AP wire, or it was page 24 in the Times, and page 12 in the Post. And it was extraordinarily frustrating.

Stupid little fish– extreme environmentalists blocking human project– hydroelectricity– in fact, you get the idea today, still in Congress, in the last several months the snail darter is used as an example. Not only of the foolishness of the Endangered Species Act, but it’s used to undercut environmental regulation, generally. And even is being used as an example of government over-regulation in general.

BRIAN: I see your point, but I want to ask you whether your side didn’t have its own uses of the threat of extinction? If that didn’t help mobilize support? Didn’t extinction do some work for your side, as well?

ZYGMUNT PLATER: Oh, absolutely– the threat of extinction to this little fish was, essentially, a shadow representation of the economic merits and the community merits of the farming and the fishing community, on that little stretch of remaining river. But it turned out that in the legal system then, and today, citizens had no way to raise the direct merits of these the challengeable projects.

BRIAN: So Zyg– symbolism aside, and the conservative reaction aside, you were popping champagne corks, right?

ZYGMUNT PLATER: Well we always had an eye on the politics. Because we had won in the Supreme Court. We’d won now, unanimously, in the God Committee.

But America did not know that we had been making common sense. And that allowed the pork barrel to do what they did. Late one evening, with an empty House chamber, they sneaked a rider on to a multi-billion dollar appropriations bill which overrode all federal law and ordered that the dam be completed right away– irrespective of the economics.

BRIAN: And did they build the dam?

ZYGMUNT PLATER: So for two years, nothing happened. And then TVA started giving away the farmer’s lands to development companies, so that now McMansions line the lake. The land was condemned from the farmers for an average of $330 an acre. I was told that the land was being sold for a half-acre for more than $100,000.

BRIAN: What about the snail darter?

ZYGMUNT PLATER: The snail darter was transplanted to two lesser rivers. I’m pleased to say that it is back up to 25,000. It’s extinct in it’s only natural habitat. But the problem is its on life support.

TVA has to put bumbling machines into the rivers where the snail darter’s been transplanted, to allow it to survive through the summer months.

BRIAN: So it’s quite literally on life support. It’s on oxygen.

ZYGMUNT PLATER: It’s literally on life support. But if I had named it case Tellico Farmers versus TVA, reporters would have wanted to talk to who– to the farmers. And they would have found out what? Your lands are not being condemned for a hydroelectric lake.

They’re being condemned– I mean 40 square miles of family farms were being condemned for resale by Boeing. That was the whole point. And America never got that message, because I couldn’t name the case Tellico Farmers versus TVA.

BRIAN: Zyg, do you dream about the snail darter?

ZYGMUNT PLATER: For 30 years– I’d sometimes would wake up in the middle of night and turn over to Anne–(GROANING). And she would say, snail darter? And I would say, yes. And she’d go, oh, write the damn book.

BRIAN: Zygmunt Plater is a law professor at Boston College. And in case you’re wondering, he finally got around to writing that book. It was published last year under the title The Snail Darter and the Dam.

You can listen to Zyg’s story of his very tense phone call about the snail darter with President Carter at



BRIAN: Throughout today’s show, we’ve been reflecting on the ways Americans have thought about the extinction non-humans. We’re going to end our show on a bit of a different note with a story about a theory of human extinction.

ED: This story begins in the Nation’s early days when some white American’s started articulating scientific sounding theories to justify the institution of slavery. The idea, and you can see this taking shape in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, in the 1780s was that there was a natural, physical hierarchy of the races. And the people at the lower end of this hierarchy were, by their very nature, unable to survive in a system that was not slavery. If they were freed, they were actually at risk of going extinct.

BRIAN: In the Civil War years people who believed this found confirmation of the theory when smallpox and other diseases started ravaging the camps of newly freed people. And in the decades following, some prominent social scientists pointed to the high infant mortality rates, urban disease epidemics, and what turned out to be erroneous census results as evidence that black people were, indeed, dying out.

MALE VOICE: It is not in the conditions of life but in the race traits and tendencies that we find the causes of the excessive mortality. So long as immorality and vice are a habit of life of the vast majority of the colored population, the effect will be to increase the mortality by hereditary transmission of weak constitutions– until the births fall below deaths, and gradual extinction results.

ED: This is an excerpt from the 1896 study Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro. It’s author was Frederick Hoffman– a number cruncher for Prudential Life Insurance. And one of the most influential proponents the black extinction hypothesis.

Now Hoffman argued that we shouldn’t look to socioeconomic or environmental factors to explain the public health of black people. But, rather, to their immoral behavior. I sat down with NYU historian Michele Mitchell to discuss the way that African Americans responded to Hoffman’s diagnosis.

MICHELE MITCHELL: African Americans respond in a couple of ways. You have somebody such as W.E.B. Du Bois saying that any time that you have people who can use statistics, or make claims, about black extermination, they can barely contain their glee. You have these sort of reactions on that front.

Among African Americans themselves, the answer becomes really pretty complicated. Because you have some reformers claiming that, OK, we are not as healthy as we should be. We have behaviors or habits that are detrimental. We live in conditions that are not the most healthful.

And so you have this really complicated internal discourse that happens about what African Americans needed to do. And it really– it gets a little– it’s a little messy.

ED: So you have the African American community, itself, debating whether or not there’s any reality to this at all. And, as you said, Du Bois just says white people can barely hide their glee when they think that African Americans might be going the way of American Indians. It’ll be, sort of, a problem that will just solve itself.


ED: But there are these other reformers who say, you know, OK, yeah, but there does seem to be a real problem. That our health is not really what it should be. And our children are not what they should be. And we’re simply going to have to take care of ourselves, because, obviously, white America is not going to.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Uh-huh– I’m going to go to a very, sort of, a controversial text. And it was controversial at the time, and it remains controversial. And it comes right on the heels of Frederick Hoffman.

ED: Uh-huh.

MICHELE MITCHELL: It’s William Hannibal Thomas’ The American Negro. And this was a man who positioned himself as a descendant of free people of color. But he also took pains to distinguish himself from what he viewed as the, sort of, the mass black population.

And he argued– and this is a quote “An imperious sexual impulse of the Negro character constitutes the main degeneracy of the race and is the chief hindrance to the race’s social uplifting.” And insinuates that extinction was a real possibility facing African Americans, because of moral failings.

ED: So how do these concerns about premarital sex and promiscuity lead to concerns about extinction? That would seem to be pointing in, exactly, the opposite direction.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Well, precisely– and this is where the discourse of Eugenics and the notion of the well-born come into play. Because Eugenic discourse is also coming together during the late 19th, early 20th, century.

And so the argument would be that people might be having sex. They might be having sex young. But they’re not, necessarily, producing healthy children that are going to survive. And so that– it’s about, also, the quality of children being born. There are those arguments.

ED: So this is, actually, something that the white critics and the African American, sort of, internal critics seem to agree upon. Right? Is that this is a very hard time demographically, for the African American community.


ED: So what are they– suggest needs to be done?

MICHELE MITCHELL: Well, not surprisingly marriage, and keeping sexual intercourse within marriage. That being primary– one thing.

ED: Right.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Another thing is arguments about trying to reform the home life. And you have a number of people speaking out about the evils of the one room cabin– saying that this is something that we couldn’t help but live with during slavery, but we don’t need to continue to live in these conditions. So you have people making arguments about the need for privacy within homes.

Margaret Murray Washington– Booker T. Washington’s wife and a real activist and educator– she is a leading force in the late 19th century in the formation of Mother’s Clubs. Being, sort of, the mind that poorer African American women needed to learn how to properly care for their children. They needed to take care of themselves. They needed to keep a proper home.

So you have Club women who are taking hereditarian arguments about African American’s supposed predisposition to degeneracy or dissipation. And they’re saying, yes, there are these issues, but these are things that we can control. And we can do things to improve the environments in our homes and in ourselves. So you have that going on, too.

ED: So, Michele, in the largest picture, what are we to make of this very long conversation?

MICHELE MITCHELL: I think the thing that we are to make of this conversation and, even, when you look at African American’s own conversations about disease, about degeneracy, about possible extinction– there’s always a question mark in terms of whether or not this is actually happening. Whether or not these problems are actually severe. Whether or not there actually is a moral issue that’s at the root of this.

So there’s always a questioning. And there’s always a sense that these overheated claims are just that– they’re claims. They’re charges. That they’re not real. They are reflecting desires that, perhaps, we don’t persist. And that we’re not healthy.

And you look at the long legacy of this discourse but, all the while, people continue to be born. They continue to thrive. They continue to have children.

And the population, percentage-wise in the nation, remains, more or less, constant, at around 10 to 12 percent. So clearly, extinction’s not happening. Degeneracy is not taking hold of the race.

ED: That helps shape the conversation, doesn’t it.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Yes– so I think that this is really connected to this contentious issue that goes throughout the 20th century into the Civil Rights Movement– into the present day– questions of citizenship and fitness for citizenship. I think it’s connected to that.

ED: That’s Michele Mitchell. She’s a historian at NYU and author of Righteous Propagation– African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny After Reconstruction.

PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But we are not going extinct. We’ll be back next week– same time, same place– with a show about the history of US-Russia relations. You can see that show taking shape at Drop us a note and don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode the BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Jessie Dukes. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator. And Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.



BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, The University of Virginia, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties and History Channel– History Made Everyday.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emritus at UVA, and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond.

BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.