The hosts discuss a listener question, on the connections and controversies surrounding extinction and evolution.
**This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight differences in content with the audio version above**
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.
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.
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.