strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

  • Categories

  • Wall of the Dead

Posts Tagged ‘Cuvier’

Giants in the Earth: How Mammoths Changed Our World

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 29, 2017

(Illustration: National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

Discovering the Mammoth is one of those books that make you wonder about the author as much as about his topic. John J. McKay writes that he got started with a single blog post aiming to establish “a chronology of what was known about mammoths and when.” Or rather, he got started because he noticed, while indulging his “great love of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas,” that “lost history theories”—think Atlantis, flood geology and rogue planets—“all used frozen mammoths as proof positive of their ideas.”

Mr. McKay, who describes himself on his blog as “an underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest”—that is, Alaska—soon began obsessively collecting facts about these great, hairy pachyderms. He became the “mammoth guy” to his neighbors and apparently also to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife.

The resulting book is unfortunately more the chronology that Mr. McKay set out to write in the first place and less the thrilling “Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science” touted in the subtitle. Mr. McKay’s background as a technical writer shows in his clear sentences, with one carefully authenticated fact logically following another from beginning to end. It also shows, however, in the absence of color, scene setting or a driving narrative arc. And yet I found the book oddly compelling.

Mr. McKay makes the case that, beginning about 1600, mammoths and their mastodon cousins, appearing in bits and pieces from beneath the ice and earth, became “a focusing problem for a scientific revolution.” They were the starting point for sweeping changes in geology and comparative anatomy and in the ways we think about life on Earth.

Scholars could reason their way around Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Posted in Book News | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Lost and Gone Forever

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2011

Here’s my latest Specimens column for the New York Times, based on my new book The Species Seekers.

Species die. It has become a catastrophic fact of modern life. On our present course, by E.O. Wilson’s estimate, half of all plant and animal species could be extinct by 2100 — that is, within the lifetime of a child born today. Kenya stands to lose its lions within 20 years. India is finishing off its tigers. Deforestation everywhere means that thousands of species too small or obscure to be kept on life support in a zoo simply vanish each year.

So it’s startling to discover that the very idea of extinction was unthinkable, even heresy, only a few lifetimes ago. The terrible notion that a piece of God’s creation could be swept off the face of the Earth only became a reality on January 21, 1796, and it was a body blow to Western orthodoxy. It required “not only the rejection of some of the fondest beliefs of mankind,” paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson once wrote, “but also the development of fundamentally new ways of thinking.” The science of extinction was one of the great achievements of the 18th century, he thought, a necessary preamble to Darwinian evolution, and almost as disturbing.

The Great Auk, last seen in the mid-1800s.

Specimens from the American colonies played a key part in this revolution. A tooth weighing almost five pounds, with a distinctive knobby biting surface, had turned up along the Hudson River in 1705, and quickly found its way to Lord Cornbury, the eccentric governor of New York. (Cornbury was either a pioneer in gubernatorial bad behavior or an early victim of dirty politics. He subsequently lost his job for alleged graft, amid rumors that he liked to dress up as his cousin Queen Anne.) Cornbury sent the tooth to London, where “natural philosophers” began a long debate over whether this “Incognitum,” or unknown creature, was a Biblical giant drowned in Noah’s flood or some kind of carnivorous monster. Decades later, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington puzzled over similar teeth when they turned up again in the Hudson and Ohio River valleys.

A few of the tens of thousands of species that scientists say have gone extinct or become critically endangered over the past 30 years.

Whatever creature had once gnashed its food with such grinders was evidently now gone, perhaps thankfully. But this disappearance challenged widely held faith in the Great Chain of Being, the idea that the natural world was a perfect progression from the lowliest matter on up, species-by-species, jellyfish to worms, worms to insects, culminating in the Earth’s most glorious specimen, Homo sapiens. A corollary of the Great Chain held that God had created all forms that could be created. What might seem like gaps in the Chain were merely missing links that had yet to be discovered. Proposing that some forms had gone extinct, an American writer complained, was “an idea injurious to the Deity.”

Jefferson also held out against extinction, though mainly because he liked the idea of Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »