The Sixth Extinction

CHAPTER III

Read The Sixth Extinction, pages 81-161

THE ORIGINAL PENGUIN

Pinguinus impennis

The word “catastrophist” was coined in 1832 by William Whewell, one of the first presidents of the Geological Society of London, who also bequeathed to English “anode,” “cathode,” “ion,” and “scientist.” Although the term would later pick up pejorative associations, which stuck to it like burrs, this was not Whewell’s intention. When he proposed it, Whewell made it clear that he considered himself a “catastrophist,” and that most of the other scientists he knew were catastrophists too. Indeed, there was really only one person he was acquainted with ” “whom the label did not fit, and that was an up-and-coming young geologist named Charles Lyell. For Lyell, Whewell came up with yet another neologism. He called him a “uniformitarian.”

 

“Lyell had grown up in the south of England, in the sort of world familiar to fans of Jane Austen. He’d then attended Oxford and trained to become a barrister. Failing eyesight made it difficult for him to practice law, so he turned to the natural sciences instead. As a young man, Lyell made several trips to the Continent and became friendly with Cuvier, at whose house he dined often. He found the older man to be personally “very obliging”—Cuvier allowed him to make casts of several famous fossils to take back with him to England—but Cuvier’s vision of earth history Lyell regarded as thoroughly unpersuasive.”

 

“When Lyell looked (admittedly myopically) at the rock outcroppings of the British countryside or at the strata of the Paris basin or at the volcanic islands near Naples, he saw no evidence of cataclysm. In fact, quite the reverse: he thought it unscientific (or, as he put it, “unphilosophical”) to imagine that change in the world had ever occurred for different reasons or at different rates than it did in the present day. According to Lyell, every feature of the landscape was the result of very gradual processes operating over countless millennia—processes like sedimentation, erosion, and vulcanism, which were all still readily observable. For generations of geology students, Lyell’s thesis would be summed up as “The present is the key to the past.”

 

“As far as extinction was concerned, this, too, according to Lyell, occurred at a very slow pace—so slow that, at any given time, in any given place, it would not be surprising were it to go unnoticed. The fossil evidence, which seemed to suggest that species had at various points died out en masse, was a sign that the record was unreliable. Even the idea that the history of life had a direction to it—first reptiles, then mammals—was mistaken, another faulty inference drawn from inadequate data. All manner of organisms had existed in all eras, and those that had apparently vanished for good could, under the right circumstances, pop up again. Thus “the huge iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyle might flit again through umbrageous groves of tree-ferns.” It is clear, Lyell wrote, “that there is no foundation in geological facts for the popular theory of the successive development of the animal and vegetable world.”

 

“Lyell published his ideas in three thick volumes, Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation. The work was aimed at a general audience, which embraced it enthusiastically. A first print run of forty-five hundred copies quickly sold out, and a second run of nine thousand was ordered up. (In a letter to his fiancée, Lyell boasted that this represented “at least 10 times” as many books as any other English geologist had ever sold.) Lyell became something of a celebrity—the Steven Pinker of his generation—and when he spoke in Boston more than four thousand people tried to get tickets.”

 

“for the sake of clarity (and a good read), Lyell had caricatured his opponents, making them sound a great deal more “unphilosophical” than they actually were. They returned the favor. A British geologist named Henry De la Beche, who had a knack for drawing, poked fun at Lyell’s ideas about eternal return. He produced a cartoon showing Lyell in the form of a nearsighted ichthyosaur, pointing to a human skull and lecturing to a group of giant reptiles.”

 

“You will at once perceive,” Professor Ichthyosaurus tells his pupils in the caption, “that the skull before us belonged to some of the lower order of animals; the teeth are very insignificant, the power of the jaws trifling, and altogether it seems wonderful how the creature could have procured food.” De la Beche called the sketch “Awful Changes.”

 

AMONG the readers who snapped up the Principles was Charles Darwin. Twenty-two years old and fresh out of Cambridge, Darwin had been invited to serve as a sort of gentleman’s companion to the captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy. The ship was headed to South America to survey the coast and resolve various mapping discrepancies that hindered navigation. (The Admiralty was particularly interested in finding the best approach to the Falkland Islands, which the British had recently assumed control of.) The voyage, which would last until Darwin was twenty-seven, would take him from Plymouth to Montevideo, through the Strait of Magellan, up to the Galápagos Islands, across the South Pacific to Tahiti, on to New Zealand, Australia, and Tasmania, across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back again to South America. In the popular imagination, the journey is usually seen as the time when Darwin, encountering a wild assortment of giant tortoises, seafaring lizards, and finches with beaks of every imaginable shape and size, discovered natural selection. In fact, Darwin developed his theory only after his return to England, when other naturalists sorted out the jumble of specimens he had shipped back.

 

“It would be more accurate to describe the voyage of the Beagle as the period when Darwin discovered Lyell. Shortly before the ship’s departure, FitzRoy presented Darwin with a copy of volume one of the Principles. Although he was horribly seasick on the first leg of the journey (as he was on many subsequent legs), Darwin reported that he read Lyell “attentively” as the ship headed south. The Beagle made its first stop at St. Jago—now Santiago—in the Cape Verde Islands, and Darwin, eager to put his new knowledge to work, spent several days collecting specimens from its rocky cliffs. One of Lyell’s central claims was that some areas of the earth were gradually rising, just as others were gradually subsiding. (Lyell further contended that these phenomena were always in balance, so as to “preserve the uniformity of the general relations of the land and sea.”) St. Jago seemed to prove his point. “ The island was clearly volcanic in origin, but it had several curious features, including a ribbon of white limestone halfway up the dark cliffs. The only way to explain these features, Darwin concluded, was as evidence of uplift. The very first place “which I geologised convinced me of the infinite superiority of Lyell’s views,” he would later write. So taken was Darwin with volume one of the Principles that he had volume two shipped to him for pickup at Montevideo. Volume three, it seems, caught up with him in the Falklands.”

 

“While the Beagle was sailing along the west coast of South America, Darwin spent several months exploring Chile. He was resting after a hike one afternoon near the town of Valdivia when the ground beneath him began to wobble, as if made of jelly. “One second of time conveys to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection could never create,” he wrote.” “Several days after the earthquake, arriving in Concepción, Darwin found the entire city had been reduced to rubble. “It is absolutely true, there is not one house left habitable,” he reported. The scene was the “most awful yet interesting spectacle” he’d ever witnessed. A series of surveying measurements that FitzRoy took around Concepción’s harbor showed that the quake had elevated the beach by nearly eight feet. Once again, Lyell’s Principles appeared to be rather spectacularly confirmed. Given enough time, Lyell argued, repeated quakes could raise an entire mountain chain many thousands of feet high.”

 

“he more Darwin explored the world, the more Lyellian it seemed to him to be. Outside the port of Valparaiso, he found deposits of marine shells far above sea level. These he took to be the result of many episodes of elevation like the one he’d just witnessed. “I have always thought that the great merit of the Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind,” he would later write. (While in Chile, Darwin also discovered a new and rather remarkable species of frog, which became known as the Chile Darwin’s frog. Males of the species incubated their tadpoles in their vocal sacs. Recent searches have failed to turn up any Chile Darwin’s frogs, and the species is now believed to be extinct.)”

 

“Toward the end of the Beagle’s voyage, Darwin encountered coral reefs. These provided him with his first major breakthrough, a startling idea that would ease his entrée into London’s scientific circles. Darwin saw that the key to understanding coral reefs was the interplay between biology and geology. If a reef formed around an island or along a continental margin that was slowly sinking, the corals, by growing slowly upward, could maintain their position relative to the water. Gradually, as the land subsided, the corals would form a barrier reef. If, eventually, the land sank away entirely, the reef would form an atoll.”

 

“Darwin’s account went beyond and to a certain extent contradicted Lyell’s; the older man had hypothesized that reefs grew from the rims of submerged volcanoes. But Darwin’s ideas were so fundamentally Lyellian in nature that when, upon his return to England, Darwin presented them to Lyell, the latter was delighted. As the historian of science Martin Rudwick has put it, Lyell “recognized that Darwin had out-Lyelled him.”

 

“One biographer summed up Lyell’s influence on Darwin as follows: “Without Lyell there would have been no Darwin.” Darwin himself, after publishing his account of the voyage of the Beagle and also a volume on coral reefs, wrote, “I always feel as if my books came half out of Lyell’s brains.”

 

“LYELL, who saw change occurring always and everywhere in the world around him, drew the line at life. That a species of plant or animal might, over time, give rise to a new one he found unthinkable, and he devoted much of the second volume of the Principles to attacking the idea, at one point citing Cuvier’s mummified cat experiment in support of his objections.”

 

“Lyell’s adamant opposition to transmutation, as it was known in London, is almost as puzzling as Cuvier’s. New species, Lyell realized, regularly appeared in the fossil record. But how they originated was an issue he never really addressed, except to say that probably each one had begun with “a single pair, or individual, where an individual was sufficient” and multiplied and spread out from there. This process, which seemed to depend on divine or at least occult intervention, was clearly at odds with the precepts he had laid out for geology. Indeed, as one commentator observed, it seemed to require “exactly the kind of miracle” that Lyell had rejected.”

 

“With his theory of natural selection, Darwin once again “out-Lyelled” Lyell. Darwin recognized that just as the features of the inorganic world—deltas, river valleys, mountain chains—were brought into being by gradual change, the organic world similarly was subject to constant flux. Ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, birds and fish and—most discomfiting of all—humans had come into being through a process of transformation that took place over countless generations. This process, though imperceptibly slow, was, according to Darwin, still very much going on; in biology, as in geology, the present was the key to the past. In one of the most often-quoted passages of On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote:

 

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers.”

 

“Natural selection eliminated the need for any sort of creative miracles. Given enough time for “every variation, even the slightest” to accumulate, new species would emerge from the old. Lyell this time was not so quick to applaud his protégé’s work. He only grudgingly accepted Darwin’s theory of “descent with modification,” so grudgingly that his stance seems to have eventually ruined their friendship.”

 

“Darwin’s theory about how species originated doubled as a theory of how they vanished. Extinction and evolution were to each other the warp and weft of life’s fabric, or, if you prefer, two sides of the same coin. “The appearance of new forms and the disappearance of old forms” were, Darwin wrote, “bound together.” Driving both was the “struggle for existence,” which rewarded the fit and eliminated the less so.”

 

“The theory of natural selection is grounded on the belief that each new variety, and ultimately each new species, is produced and maintained by having some advantage over those with which it comes into competition; and the consequent extinction of less favoured forms almost inevitably follows.

 

“Darwin used the analogy of domestic cattle. When a more vigorous or productive variety was introduced, it quickly supplanted other breeds. In Yorkshire, for example, he pointed out, “it is historically known that the ancient black cattle were displaced by the long-horns,” and that these were subsequently “swept away” by the short-horns, “as if by some murderous pestilence.”

Darwin stressed the simplicity of his account. Natural selection was such a powerful force that none other was needed. Along with miraculous origins, world-altering catastrophes could be dispensed with. “The whole subject of the extinction of species has been involved in the most gratuitous mystery,” he wrote, implicitly mocking Cuvier.”

 

“From Darwin’s premises, an important prediction followed. If extinction was driven by natural selection and only by natural selection, the two processes had to proceed at roughly the same rate. If anything, extinction had to occur more gradually.

“The complete extinction of the species of a group is generally a slower process than their production,” he observed at one point.”

 

“No one had ever seen a new species produced, nor, according to Darwin, should they expect to. Speciation was so drawn out as to be, for all intents and purposes, unobservable. “We see nothing of these slow changes in progress,” he wrote. It stood to reason that extinction should have been that much more difficult to witness. And yet it wasn’t. In fact, during the years Darwin spent holed up at Down House, developing his ideas about evolution, the very last individuals of one of Europe’s most celebrated species, the great auk, disappeared. What’s more, the event was painstakingly chronicled by British ornithologists. Here Darwin’s theory was directly contradicted by the facts, with potentially profound implications.”

 

“THE Icelandic Institute of Natural History occupies a new building on a lonely hillside outside Reykjavik. The building has a tilted roof and tilted glass walls and looks a bit like the prow of a ship. It was designed as a research facility, with no public access, which means that a special appointment is needed to see any of the specimens in the institute’s collection. These specimens, as I learned on the day of my own appointment, include: a stuffed tiger, a stuffed kangaroo, and a cabinet full of stuffed birds of paradise.”

 

“The reason I’d arranged to visit the institute was to see its great auk. Iceland enjoys the dubious distinction of being the bird’s last known home, and the specimen I’d come to look at was killed somewhere in the country—no one is sure of the exact spot—in the summer of 1821. The bird’s carcass was purchased by a Danish count, Frederik Christian Raben, who had come to Iceland expressly to acquire an auk for his collection (and had nearly drowned in the attempt). “Raben took the specimen home to his castle, and it remained in private hands until 1971, when it came up for auction in London. The Institute of Natural History solicited donations, and within three days Icelanders contributed the equivalent of ten thousand British pounds to buy the auk back. (One woman I spoke to, who was ten years old at the time, recalled emptying her piggy bank for the effort.) Icelandair provided two free seats for the homecoming, one for the institute’s director and the other for the boxed bird.”

 

“Guðmundur Guðmundsson, who’s now the institute’s deputy director, had been assigned the task of showing me the auk. Guðmundsson is an expert on foraminifera, tiny marine creatures that form intricately shaped shells, known as “tests.” On our way to see the bird, we stopped at his office, which was filled with boxes of little glass tubes, each containing a sampling of tests that rattled like sprinkles when I picked it up. Guðmundsson told me that in his spare time he did translating. A few years ago he had completed the first Icelandic rendering of On the Origin of Species. He’d found Darwin’s prose quite difficult—“sentences inside sentences inside sentences”—and the book, Uppruni Tegundanna, had not sold well, perhaps because so many Icelanders are fluent in English.

We made our way to the storeroom for the institute’s collection. The stuffed tiger, wrapped in plastic, looked ready to lunge at the stuffed kangaroo. The great auk—Pinguinus impennis—was standing off by itself, in a specially made Plexiglas case. It was perched on a fake rock, next to a fake egg.”

 

“As the name suggests, the great auk was a large bird; adults grew to be more than two and a half feet tall. The auk could not fly—it was one of the few flightless birds of the Northern Hemisphere—and its stubby wings were almost comically undersized for its body. The auk in the case had brown feathers on its back; probably these were black when the bird was alive but had since faded. “UV light,” Guðmundsson said gloomily. “It destroys the plumage.” The auk’s chest feathers were white, and there was a white spot just beneath each eye. The bird had been stuffed with its most distinctive feature—its large, intricately grooved beak—tipped slightly into the air. This lent it a look of mournful hauteur.

 

“Guðmundsson explained that the great auk had been on display in Reykjavik until 2008, when the institute was restructured by the Icelandic government. At that point, another agency was supposed to create a new home for the bird, but various mishaps, including Iceland’s financial crisis, had prevented this from happening, which is why Count Raben’s auk was sitting on its fake rock in the corner of the storeroom. On the rock, there was a painted inscription, which Guðmundsson translated for me: THE BIRD WHO IS HERE FOR SHOW WAS KILLED IN 1821. IT IS ONE OF THE FEW GREAT AUKS THAT STILL EXIST.”

 

“N its heyday, which is to say, before humans figured out how to reach its nesting grounds, the great auk ranged from Norway over to Newfoundland and from Italy to Florida, and its population probably numbered in the millions. When the first settlers arrived in Iceland from Scandinavia, great auks were so common that they were regularly eaten for dinner, and their remains have been found in the tenth-century equivalent of household trash. While I was in Reykjavik, I visited a museum built over the ruins of what’s believed to be one of the most ancient structures in Iceland—a longhouse constructed out of strips of turf. “According to one of the museum’s displays, the great auk was “easy prey” for Iceland’s medieval inhabitants. In addition to a pair of auk bones, the display featured a video re-creation of an early encounter between man and bird. In the video, a shadowy figure crept along a rocky shore toward a shadowy auk. When he drew close enough, the figure pulled out a stick and clubbed the animal over the head. The auk responded with a cry somewhere between a honk and a grunt. I found the video grimly fascinating “cinating and watched it play through a half a dozen times. Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat.”

 

“As best as can be determined, great auks lived much as penguins do. In fact, great auks were the original “penguins.” They were called this—the etymology of “penguin” is obscure and may or may not be traced to the Latin pinguis, meaning “fat”—by European sailors who encountered them in the North Atlantic. Later, when subsequent generations of sailors met similar-colored flightless birds in the Southern Hemisphere, they used the same name, which led to much confusion, since auks and penguins belong to entirely different families. (Penguins constitute their own family, while auks are members of the family that includes puffins and guillemots; genetic analysis has shown that razorbills are the great auk’s closest living relatives.)”

 

“Like penguins, great auks were fantastic swimmers—eyewitness accounts attest to the birds’ “astonishing velocity” in the water—and they spent most of their lives at sea. But during breeding season, in May and June, they waddled ashore in huge numbers, and here lay their vulnerability. Native Americans clearly hunted the great auk—one ancient grave in Canada was found to contain more than a hundred great auk beaks—as did paleolithic Europeans: great auk bones have been found at archaeological sites in, among other places, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Italy, and Gibraltar. By the time the first settlers got to Iceland, many of its breeding sites had already been plundered and its range was probably much reduced. Then came the wholesale slaughter.”

 

“Lured by the rich cod fishery, Europeans began making regular voyages to Newfoundland in the early sixteenth century. Along the way, they encountered a slab of pinkish granite about fifty acres in area, which rose just above the waves. In the spring, the slab was covered with birds, standing, in a manner of speaking, shoulder to shoulder. Many of these were gannets and guillemots; the rest were great auks. The slab, about forty miles off Newfoundland’s northeast coast, became known as the Isle of Birds or, in some accounts, Penguin Island; today it is known as Funk Island. Toward the end of a long transatlantic journey, when provisions were running low, fresh meat was prized, and the ease with which auks could be picked off the slab was soon noted. In an account from 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier wrote that some of the Isle of Birds’ inhabitants were “as large as geese.”

 

“They are always in the water, not being able to fly in the air, inasmuch as they have only small wings … with which … they move as quickly along the water as the other birds fly through the air. And these birds are so fat it is marvellous. In less than half an hour we filled two boats full of them, as if they had been stones, so that besides them which we did not eat fresh, every ship did powder and salt five or six barrels full of them.

 

“A British expedition that landed on the island a few years later found it “full of great foules.” The men drove a “great number of the foules” into their ships and pronounced the results to be quite tasty—“very good and nourishing meat.” A 1622 account by a captain named Richard Whitbourne describes great auks being driven onto boats “by hundreds at a time as if God had made the innocency of so poor a creature to become such an admirable instrument for the sustenation of Man.”

 

“Over the next several decades, other uses for the great auk were found besides “sustenation.” (As one chronicler observed, “the great auks of Funk Island were exploited in every way that human ingenuity could devise.”) Auks were used as fish bait, as a source of feathers for stuffing mattresses, and as fuel. Stone pens were erected on Funk Island—vestiges of these are still visible today—and the birds were herded into the enclosures until someone could find time to butcher them. Or not. According to an English seaman named Aaron Thomas, who sailed to Newfoundland on the HMS Boston:

 

“If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure.”

 

“There are no trees on Funk Island, and hence nothing to burn. This led to another practice chronicled by Thomas.”

 

“You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodys being oily soon produce a Flame.”

 

“It’s been estimated that when Europeans first landed at Funk Island, they found as many as a hundred thousand pairs of great auks tending to a hundred thousand eggs. (Probably great auks produced only one egg a year; these were about five inches long and speckled, Jackson Pollock–like, in brown and black.) Certainly the island’s breeding colony must have been a large one to persist through more than two centuries of depredation. By the late seventeen hundreds, though, the birds’ numbers were in sharp decline. The feather trade had become so lucrative that teams of men were spending the entire summer on Funk, scalding and plucking. In 1785, George Cartwright, an English trader and explorer, observed of these teams: “The destruction which they have made is incredible.” If a stop were not soon put to their efforts, he predicted, the great auk would soon “be diminished to almost nothing.”

 

“Whether the teams actually managed to kill off every last one of the island’s auks or whether the slaughter simply reduced the colony to the point that it became vulnerable to other for

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