Biology, History and Philosophy of Science, Reviews

A history of preservation

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While we might take for granted the notion that animal species can become extinct—and that, occasionally, humans are the direct cause—among the early pioneers of natural science, the idea that any link in the great chain of being could be broken took a while to sink in. As the Washington Times‘ Claire Hopley notes in a recent review of Mark V. Barrow Jr.’s Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction From the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology:

18th- and early-19th-century scientists and thinkers believed that the world was created with a complete inventory of humans, animals, birds and vegetation, forming a chain of being.
The idea that a link in this chain could disappear undermined this fundamental concept. As Jefferson wrote, “Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.” He put the mammoth first in his list of American mammals because he expected that a living example would be discovered as explorers moved westward and encountered wildlife unknown in the east.
The existence of uncharted territories, not only in America but also in Africa and the South Pacific, fostered resistance to the idea of extinction. But as distant countries were explored it became clear that species were being wiped out.…

But as Barrow’s new book demonstrates, as the idea of extinction gained credence so too did the idea of conservation, at first, among natural scientists who wished to preserve specimens for study, and later, among members of the public interested in preserving the beauty of the North American wildlife.
Delivering a sweeping, beautifully illustrated historical narrative of these efforts to preserve the natural world, Barrow’s Nature’s Ghosts takes readers on a journey from the early scientific discoveries that revealed the threat of extinction, to the pioneering conservation efforts of early naturalists like John James Audubon and John Muir.
With Nature’s Ghosts Barrow offers an unprecedented view of what we’ve lost—and a stark reminder of the hard work of preservation still ahead.
Read an excerpt.