The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death

Reviewed by Killian Quigley


Published by Indiana University Press, 2011   |   256 pages

Cats, we say, are smart. They’re tidy. They’re self-sufficient. They would, we imagine, fare reasonably well without us. For many, they are four-footed versions of our best possible selves: independent, discreet, discerning, breathtakingly graceful. That they choose to keep company with us seems to speak singularly well of ourselves.

And yet, a recent study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, published earlier this year in Nature Communications, subjects these impressions to an unsettling gestalt shift. Cats, it darkly declares, are responsible for the deaths of between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds, and between 6.9 and 20.7 billion mammals, per year in the United States. That makes cats more deadly than any other human-related cause: more than automobiles; more, even, than pesticides. While some 30 to 80 million “un-owned” (read: feral or stray) cats are responsible for the majority of the carnage, pet cats – 40 to 70 percent of which spend at least some of their time outside – contribute mightily. Whether Fluffy and friends have dedicated owners or not, they are products of a system of cat-keeping that appears catastrophically inimical to the lives of diverse American birds and mammals. From The New York Times to The Huffington Post, the paper’s findings have resonated forcefully among writers and readers passionate about biodiversity, and hardly less enthusiastic about kitties.

What constitutes diversity? When it appears to come into conflict with an incommensurable cultural practice, how do we weigh the balance, and why? What “threatened” forms, organic, linguistic, or otherwise, merit recognition and protection? What knowledge or aesthetic value must a threatened form “contain” in order to galvanize international action to preserve it? These and other sublimely complicated questions come in for close – and often illuminating – scrutiny in The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death. Edited by Genese Marie Sodikoff, the chapters present case studies that explore the potentialities and pitfalls of attempts to articulate and protect biotic, linguistic, and cultural ecologies under threat of extinction. As Sodikoff explains, “[e]xtinction is a process and moment of loss that compels thought about the moral relationships among humans, nonhuman species, and inhabitants, as well as among social groups with varying degrees of power and autonomy”; contact among these domains is always deeply complicated, often uncomfortable, and sometimes outright hostile. Juxtaposing endangered animals, languages, indigenous communities, knowledge systems, and cultural practices, Sodikoff’s collection investigates how extinction, as concept and as event, resonates across these disparate spheres, seeking understanding, if not resolution, of divergent notions of “extinction,” ethical practice, and the “common good.”

What does a life form, language, or culture have to do or be to justify the often considerable costs of preservation? One approach involves asserting a form’s “indigeneity”: the concept conjures long history, authenticity, and a sense of rootedness-in-place, and the perceived uniqueness of “indigenous” knowledge may recommend it for preservation. In a remarkable chapter, “Global Environmentalism and the Emergence of Indigeneity: The Politics of Cultural and Biological Diversity in China,” Michael Hathaway describes recent efforts by Chinese activists to protect and honor diverse communities by defining them in terms of “indigenous space…from which one can articulate claims, gain recognition, and form alliances.” Long derided in China as connoting backwardness, indigeneity has been recently promoted as “a politicized social category,” in order that it might grant persons and groups outside the mainstream “access to moral, political, and financial assistance”. Hathaway’s analysis is subtle. He suggests that, for a group or tradition to make meaningful use of the category “indigenous,” it must be seen to have some special epistemological status. To satisfy this expectation, “scholar-activists” like Xu Jianchu “search…for examples of indigenous knowledge that are compelling to domestic and international scholars and funders.”

This emphasis on the exemplary resonates elsewhere in the collection, in essays by Sodikoff, Tracey Heatherington, and others, which refer to the elevated status of the “cultural keystone species,” the “flagship species,” and “charismatic megafauna,” which animals (usually large mammals) come in for stunningly disproportionate attention. For example, Heatherington argues that the “Frozen Ark” gene banking and cloning project has reinforced a trend toward preserving certain animals – those seen as “key symbols of national histories and identities” – while excluding others. In Jill Constantino’s study of the Galápagos, efforts to protect “famous” tortoises collide with human residents’ attempts to assert “historical and geographical claims to legitimate social belonging.” As Paul B. Garrett’s “Dying Young: Pidgins, Creoles, and other Contact Languages as Endangered Languages” indicates, when these kinds of claims to special status are insufficiently made by cultural or linguistic forms, they, too, are often profoundly marginalized. Any responsible attempt to understand these contexts must first acknowledge “Western” conservationism’s notorious entanglement with colonial history, and preponderant tendency to subordinate “non-Western” ideals.

For instance, Garrett claims that contact languages’ perceived “lack of historicity” often reflects fraught legacies of imperialism and slavery; this may result in their failing to satisfy an problematic expectation within “extinction discourse” that for something to end, it must have had a tidy beginning. If those beginnings are not sufficiently clear, or are considered insufficiently venerable, then an imminent extinction event may be disregarded. Put another way, if a form’s origin is a source of anxiety or confusion, its extinction may not provoke much mourning from institutional channels. If a language’s relationships to history, national identity, and geography are ambiguous, messy or discomfiting, preservation movements may be blind to its predicament.

As the authors of The Anthropology of Extinction explain, endangered cultural, linguistic, and biotic forms struggle under related pressures, but sometimes work at cross-purposes, and occasionally engage in direct conflict. In a standout chapter, “From Ecocide to Genetic Rescue: Can Technoscience save the Wild?”, Heatherington describes a recurring predicament: Western conservation organizations, like the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), bring a “particular cultural way of seeing” to zones of ecological crisis. If this way of seeing is not shared by local communities, those communities may assert their own points of view in direct opposition to the efforts of external players. As Laurie R. Godfrey and Emilienne Rasoazanabary explain, when the IUCN looks at Madagascar’s endangered lemurs, it sees threatened species in need of protection; when Malagasy villagers look at the same population, they might recognize them as emblems of native human communities’ “disempowerment” at the hands of conservationist bureaucrats. In this context, Sodikoff argues, killing lemurs can “become an act of resistance to foreign authority, an expression of cultural self-determination, and therefore an instance of moral practice”. Constantino’s “Tortoise Soup for the Soul” describes vexed – and occasionally violent – relationships among residents, conservationists, and nonhuman life, powerfully illuminating the complexity that often attends attempts to enforce culturally and politically specific ways of understanding extinction in biodiversity “hotspots.” Elsewhere, Sodikoff, and Bernard C. Perley detail the complicated and often contradictory efforts of local peoples to challenge foreign conservationist projects; these efforts put divergent – and often incommensurable – hierarchies of knowledge, use-value, and cultural practice in conflict.

Garrett’s important essay convincingly demonstrates the fantasies of legitimacy and “historicity” at bottom of much extinction discourse. It bears noting that, at times, the essays assembled in The Anthropology of Extinction reflect such fantasies: many of them share an ameliorative vision characterized by concepts like integration, holism, localism, and dynamism. Considering the decline of Maliseet, an “Eastern Algonquin language primarily spoken in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, and also in the state of Maine,” Perley laments “the dis-integrated analysis of the language by scholars,” which “compounds the problem of language extinction rather than solving it”. Heatherington voices a concern “that the objectification of endangered species as genetic resources tends to decontextualize them, removing them from locally embedded and culturally meaningful patterns of human-animal relations”. If efforts to protect Madagascar’s threatened lemur populations have any hope of success, claim Laurie R. Godfrey and Emilienne Rasoazanabary, it lies in ensuring “that sound conservation policies be developed and championed by the local people.” The Anthropology of Extinction and its various authors work to engage with specific contexts respectfully and carefully, without romanticizing permanence, localism or traditionalism; “[j]ust as the death of biotic species clears space for emergent creatures,” explains Sodikoff, “extinction events propel the evolution of cultural productions, including science and technology, politics, history, and art”.

These essays pose no neat solutions to their various crises, but their diversity presents a salutary challenge to readers who may be used to thinking of extinction strictly in terms of (insert exotic, charismatic animal here) disappearing from “the wild”. The Anthropology of Extinction is set against an ominous backdrop, an imminent “sixth mass extinction” (the fifth obliterated the dinosaurs), which Sodikoff describes as “neither abrupt nor spectacular. […] Only the slow, cumulative effects of greenhouse gases, rain forest depletion, and a brand of imperialism that extols the virtues of high mass consumption.” Despite its staggering extent, this developing catastrophe often fails to strike us as personally pressing. Widening discussions of the impact of domestic cats on American biodiversity are especially crucial because they bring extinction home in radical, uncomfortable, and salutary ways. Articles in Nature Communications and elsewhere force us to think deeply about how our private choices and behaviors affect the public world out there. If extinctions are seen as unfamiliar, faraway events, we often fail to think about them, let alone take conscious action to prevent them. Future studies in extinction discourse will do well to further interrogate the relationship between extinctions in “local” and “foreign” contexts, while interrogating the assumptions that undergird these very designations. A valuable step in this direction, The Anthropology of Extinction gives us the tools we need to bring us closer to the discomfiting, disorienting, destabilizing real.

Killian Quigley is an outsized Irish person and hummus cuisinier living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University, where he reads 18th century British aesthetic theory, travel, and natural history.

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