Environmental science

Read The Sixth Extinction, pages 81-161

“CHAPTER III

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 forces is unclear. (Diminishing population density may have made survival less likely for the remaining individuals, a phenomenon that’s known as the Allee effect.) In any event, the date that’s usually given for the extirpation of the great auk from North America is 1800. Some thirty years later, while working on The Birds of America, John James Audubon traveled to Newfoundland in search of great auks to paint from life. He couldn’t find any, and for his illustration had to make do with a stuffed bird from Iceland that had been acquired by a dealer in London. In his description of the great auk, Audubon wrote that it was “rare and accidental on the banks of Newfoundland” and that it was “said to breed on a rock on that island,” a curious contradiction since no breeding bird can be said to be “accidental.”

“ONCE the Funk Island birds had been salted, plucked, and deep-fried into oblivion, there was only one sizable colony of great auks left in the world, on an island called the Geirfuglasker, or great auk skerry, which lay about thirty miles off southwestern Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula. Much to the auk’s misfortune, a volcanic eruption destroyed the Geirfuglasker in 1830. This left the birds one solitary refuge, a speck of an island known as Eldey. By this point, the great auk was facing a new threat: its own rarity. Skins and eggs were avidly sought by gentlemen, like Count Raben, who wanted to fill out their collections. It was in the service of such enthusiasts that the very last known pair of auks was killed on Eldey in 1844.”

“Before setting out for Iceland, I’d decided that I wanted to see the site of the auk’s last stand. Eldey is only about ten miles off the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is just south of Reykjavik. But getting out to the island proved to be way more difficult to arrange than I’d imagined. Everyone I contacted in Iceland told me that no one ever went there. Eventually, a friend of mine “who’s from Iceland got in touch with his father, who’s a minister in Reykjavik, who contacted a friend of his, who runs a nature center in a tiny town on the peninsula called Sandgerði. The head of the nature center, Reynir Sveinsson, in turn, found a fisherman, Halldór Ármannsson, who said he’d be willing to take me, but only if the weather was fair; if it was rainy or windy, the trip would be too dangerous and nausea-inducing, and he wouldn’t want to risk it.”

“Fortunately, the weather on the day we’d fixed turned out to be splendid. I met Sveinsson at the nature center, which features an exhibit on a French explorer, Jean-Baptiste Charcot, who died when his ship, the infelicitously named Pourquoi-Pas, sunk off Sandgerði in 1936. We walked over to the harbor and found Ármannsson loading a chest onto his boat, the Stella. He explained that inside the chest was an extra life raft. “Regulations,” he shrugged. Ármannsson had also brought along his fishing partner and a cooler filled with soda and cookies. He seemed pleased to be making a trip that didn’t involve cod.”

“We motored out of the harbor and headed south, around the Reykjanes Peninsula. It was clear enough that we could see the snow-covered peak of Snæfellsjökull, more than sixty miles away. (To English speakers, Snæfellsjökull is probably best known as the spot where in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth the hero finds a tunnel through the globe.) Eldey, being much shorter than Snæfellsjökull, was not yet visible. Sveinsson explained that Eldey’s name means “fire island.” He said that although he’d spent his entire life in the area, he’d never before been out to it. He’d brought along a fancy camera and was shooting pictures more or less continuously.”

“As Sveinnson snapped away, I chatted with Ármannsson inside the Stella’s small cabin. I was intrigued to see that he had dramatically different colored eyes, one blue and one hazel. Usually, he told me, he fished for cod using a long line that extended six miles and trailed twelve thousand hooks. The baiting of the hooks was his father’s job, and it took nearly two days. A good catch could weigh more than seven metric tons. Often Ármannsson slept on the Stella, which was equipped with a microwave and two skinny berths.”

“After a while, Eldey appeared on the horizon. The island looked like the base of an enormous column, or like a giant pedestal waiting for an even more gigantic statue. When we got within maybe a mile, I could see that the top of the island, which from a distance appeared flat, was actually tilted at about a ten-degree angle. We were approaching from the shorter end, so we could look across the entire surface. It was white and appeared to be rippling. As we got closer, I realized that the ripples were birds—so many that they seemed to blanket the island—and when we got even closer, I could see that the birds were gannets—elegant creatures with long necks, cream-colored heads, and tapered beaks. Sveinsson explained that Eldey was “home to one of the world’s largest colonies of northern gannets—some thirty thousand pairs. He pointed out a pyramid-like structure atop the island. This was a platform for a webcam that Iceland’s environmental agency had set up. It was supposed to stream a live feed of the gannets to bird-watchers, but it had not functioned as planned.”

“The birds do not like this camera,” Sveinsson said. “So they fly over it and shit on it.” The guano from thirty thousand gannet pairs has given the island what looks like a coating of vanilla frosting.”

“Because of the gannets, and perhaps also because of the island’s history, visitors are not allowed to step onto Eldey without special (and hard-to-obtain) permits. When I first learned this, I was disappointed, but when we got right up to the island and I saw the way the sea beat against the cliffs, I felt relieved.”

“THE last people to see great auks alive were around a dozen Icelanders who made the trip to Eldey by rowboat. They set out one evening in June 1844, rowed through the night, and reached the island the following morning. With some difficulty, three of the men managed to clamber ashore at the only possible landing spot: a shallow shelf of rock that extends from the island to the northeast. (A fourth man who was supposed to go with them refused to on the grounds that it was too dangerous.) By this point the island’s total auk population, probably never very numerous, appears to have consisted of a single pair of birds and one egg. On catching sight of the humans, the birds tried to run, but they were too slow. Within minutes, the Icelanders had captured the auks and strangled them. The egg, they saw, had been cracked, presumably in the course of the chase, so they left it behind. Two of the men were able to jump back into the boat; the third had to be hauled through the waves with a rope.”

“The details of the great auks’ last moments, including the names of the men who killed the birds—Sigurður Iselfsson, ”

“Ketil Ketilsson, and Jón Brandsson—are known because fourteen years later, in the summer of 1858, two British naturalists traveled to Iceland in search of auks. The older of these, John Wolley, was a doctor and an avid egg collector; the younger, Alfred Newton, was a fellow at Cambridge and soon to be the university’s first professor of zoology. The pair spent several weeks on the Reykjanes Peninsula, not far from the site of what is now Iceland’s international airport, and during that time, they seem to have talked to just about everyone who had ever seen an auk, or even just heard about one, including several of the men who’d made the 1844 expedition. “he pair spent several weeks on the Reykjanes Peninsula, not far from the site of what is now Iceland’s international airport, and during that time, they seem to have talked to just about everyone who had ever seen an auk, or even just heard about one, including several of the men who’d made the 1844 expedition. The pair of birds that had been killed in that outing, they discovered, had been sold to a dealer for the equivalent of about nine pounds. The birds’ innards had been sent to the Royal Museum in Copenhagen; no one could say what had happened to the skins. (Subsequent detective work has traced the skin of the female to an auk now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.)”

“Wolley and Newton hoped to get out to Eldey themselves. Wretched weather prevented them. “Boats and men were engaged, and stores laid in, but not a single opportunity occurred when a landing would have been practicable,” Newton would later write. “It was with heavy hearts that we witnessed the season wearing away.”

“Wolley died shortly after the pair returned to England. For Newton, the experience of the trip would prove to be life-altering. He concluded that the auk was gone—“for all practical purposes therefore we may speak of it as a thing of the past”—and he developed what one biographer referred to as a “peculiar attraction” to “extinct and disappearing faunas.” Newton realized that the birds that bred along Britain’s long coast were also in danger; he noted that they were being gunned down for sport in great numbers.”

“The bird that is shot is a parent,” he observed in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “We take advantage of its most sacred instincts to waylay it, and in depriving the parent of life, we doom the helpless offspring to “the most miserable of deaths, that by hunger. If this is not cruelty, what is?” Newton argued for a ban on hunting during breeding season, and his lobbying resulted in one of the first laws aimed at what today would be called wildlife protection: the Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds.”

“AS it happens, Darwin’s first paper on natural selection appeared in print just as Newton was returning home from Iceland. The paper, in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, had—with Lyell’s help—been published in a rush soon after Darwin had learned that a young naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace was onto a similar idea. (A paper by Wallace appeared in the same issue of the Journal.) Newton read Darwin’s essay very soon after it came out, staying up late into the night to finish it, and he immediately became a convert. “It came to me like the direct revelation of a higher power,” he later recalled, “and I awoke next morning with the consciousness that there was an end of all the mystery in the simple phrase, ‘Natural Selection.’” He had, he wrote to a friend, developed a case of “pure and unmitigated Darwinism. “A few years later, Newton and Darwin became correspondents—at one point Newton sent Darwin a diseased partridge’s foot that he thought might be of interest to him—and eventually the two men paid social calls on each other.”

“Whether the subject of the great auk ever came up in their conversations is unknown. It is not mentioned in Newton and Darwin’s surviving correspondence, nor does Darwin allude to the bird or its recent demise in any of his other writings. But Darwin had to be aware of human-caused extinction. In the Galápagos, he had personally witnessed, if not exactly a case of extinction in action, then something very close to it.”

“Darwin’s visit to the archipelago took place in the fall of 1835, nearly four years into the voyage of the Beagle. On Charles Island—now Floreana—he met an Englishman named Nicholas Lawson, who was the Galápagos’s acting governor as well as the warden of a small, rather miserable penal colony. Lawson was full of useful information. Among the facts he related to Darwin was that on each of the islands in the Galápagos the tortoises had different-shaped shells. On this basis, Lawson claimed that he could “pronounce from which island any tortoise may have been brought.” Lawson also told Darwin that the tortoises’ days were numbered. “ The islands were frequently visited by whaling ships, which carried the huge beasts off as portable provisions. Just a few years earlier, a frigate visiting Charles Island had left with two hundred tortoises stowed in its hold. As a result, Darwin noted in his diary, “the numbers have been much reduced.” By the time of the Beagle’s visit, tortoises had become so scarce on Charles Island that Darwin, it seems, did not see a single one. Lawson predicted that Charles’s tortoise, known today by “the scientific name Chelonoidis elephantopus, would be entirely gone within twenty years. In fact, it probably disappeared in fewer than ten. (Whether Chelonoidis elephantopus was a distinct species or a subspecies is still a matter of debate.)”

“Darwin’s familiarity with human-caused extinction is also clear from On the Origin of Species. In one of the many passages in which he heaps scorn on the catastrophists, he observes that animals inevitably become rare before they become extinct: “we know this has been the progress of events with those animals which have been exterminated, either locally or wholly, through man’s agency.” It’s a brief allusion and, in its brevity, suggestive. Darwin assumes that his readers are familiar with such “events” and already habituated to them. He himself seems to find nothing remarkable or troubling about this. But human-caused extinction is of course troubling for many reasons, some of which have to do with Darwin’s own theory, and it’s puzzling that a writer as shrewd and self-critical as Darwin shouldn’t have noticed this.”

“n the Origin, Darwin drew no distinction between man and other organisms. As he and many of his contemporaries recognized, this equivalence was the most radical aspect of his work. Humans, just like any other species, were descended, with modification, from more ancient forebears. Even those qualities that seemed to set people apart—language, wisdom, a sense of right and wrong—had evolved in the same manner as other adaptive traits, such as longer beaks or sharper incisors. At the heart of Darwin’s theory, as one of his biographers has put it, is “the denial of humanity’s special status.”

“And what was true of evolution should also hold for extinction, since according to Darwin, the latter was merely a side effect of the former. Species were annihilated, just as they were created, by “slow-acting and still existing causes,” which is to say, through competition and natural selection; to invoke any other mechanism was nothing more than mystification. But how, then, to make sense of cases like the great auk or the Charles Island tortoise or, to continue the list, the dodo or the Steller’s sea cow? These animals had obviously not been done in by a rival species gradually evolving some competitive advantage. They had all been killed off by the same species, and all quite suddenly—in the case of the great auk and the Charles Island tortoise over the course of Darwin’s own lifetime. Either there had to be a separate category for human-caused extinction, in which case people really did deserve their “special status” as a creature outside of nature, or space in the natural order had to be made for cataclysm, in which case, Cuvier—distressingly—was right.”

“CHAPTER IV

THE LUCK OF THE AMMONITES

Discoscaphites jerseyensis”

“The hill town of Gubbio, about a hundred miles north of Rome, might be described as a municipal fossil. Its streets are so narrow that on many of them not even the tiniest Fiat has room to maneuver, and its gray stone piazzas look much as they did in Dante’s era. (In fact, it was a powerful Gubbian, installed as lord mayor of Florence, who engineered Dante’s exile, in 1302.) If you visit in winter, as I did, when the tourists are gone, the hotels shuttered, and the town’s picture-book palace deserted, it almost seems as if Gubbio has fallen under a spell and is waiting to be awoken.”

“Just beyond the edge of town a narrow gorge leads off to the northeast. The walls of the gorge, which is known as the Gola del Bottaccione, consist of bands of limestone that run in diagonal stripes. Long before people settled the region—long before people existed—Gubbio lay at the bottom of a clear, blue sea. The remains of tiny marine creatures rained down on the floor of that sea, building up year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium. In the uplift that created the Apennine Mountains, the limestone was elevated and tilted at a forty-five-degree angle. To walk up the gorge today is thus to travel, layer by layer, through time. In the space of a few hundred yards, you can cover almost a hundred million years.”

“The Gola del Bottaccione is now a tourist destination in its own right, though for a more specialized crowd. It is here that in the late nineteen-seventies, a geologist named Walter Alvarez, who had come to study the origins of the Apennines, ended up, more or less by accident, rewriting the history of life. In the gorge, he discovered the first traces of the giant asteroid that ended the Cretaceous period and caused what may have been the worst day ever on planet earth. By the time the dust—in this case, literal as much as figurative—had settled, some three-quarters of all species had been wiped out.

“The evidence of the asteroid’s impact lies in a thin layer of clay about halfway up the gorge. Sightseers can park at a turnoff constructed nearby. There’s also a little kiosk explaining, in Italian, the site’s significance. The clay layer is easy to spot. It’s been gouged out by hundreds of fingers, a bit like the toes of the bronze St. Peter in Rome, worn down by the kisses of pilgrims. The day I visited was gray and blustery, and I had the place to myself. I wondered what had prompted all that fingering. Was it simple curiosity? A form of geologic rubbernecking? Or was it something more empathetic: the desire to make contact—however attenuated—with a lost world? I, too, of course, had to stick my finger in. I poked around in the groove and scraped out a pebble-sized piece of clay. It was the color of worn brick and the consistency of dried mud. I put it in an old candy wrapper and stuck it in my pocket—my own little chunk of planetary disaster.”

“WALTER Alvarez came from a long line of distinguished scientists. His great-grandfather and grandfather were both noted physicians, and his father, Luis, was a physicist at the University of California-Berkeley. But it was his mother who took him for long walks in the Berkeley hills and got him interested in geology. Walter attended graduate school at Princeton, then went to work for the oil industry. (He was living in Libya when Muammar Gaddafi took over the country in 1969.) A few years later he got a research post at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, across the Hudson from Manhattan. At the time, what’s sometimes called the “plate tectonics revolution” was sweeping through the profession, and just about everyone at Lamont got swept up in it.”

“Alvarez decided to try to figure out how, on the basis of plate tectonics, the Italian peninsula had come into being. Key to the project was a kind of reddish limestone, known as the scaglia “rosso, which can be found, among other places, in the Gola del Bottaccione. The project moved forward, got stuck, and shifted direction. “In science, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart,” he would later say of these events. Eventually, he found himself working in Gubbio with an Italian geologist named Isabella Premoli Silva, who was an expert on foraminifera.”

“Foraminifera, or “forams” for short, are the tiny marine creatures that create little calcite shells, or tests, which drift down to the ocean floor once the animal inside has died. The tests have a distinctive shape, which varies from species to species; some look (under magnification) like beehives, others like braids or bubbles or clusters of grapes. Forams tend to be widely distributed and abundantly preserved, and this makes them extremely useful as index fossils: on the basis of which species of forams are found in a given layer of rock, an expert like Silva can tell the rock’s age. As they worked their way up the Gola del Bottaccione, Silva pointed out to Alvarez a curious sequence. The limestone from the last stage of the Cretaceous period contained diverse, abundant, and relatively large forams, many as big as grains of sand. Directly above that, there was a layer of clay about half an inch thick with no forams in it. Above the clay there was limestone with more forams, but these belonged to only a handful of species, all of them very tiny and all totally different from the larger ones below.”

“Alvarez had been schooled in, to use his phrase, a “kind of hard-core uniformitarianism.” He’d been trained to believe, after Lyell and Darwin, that the disappearance of any group of organisms had to be a gradual process, with one species slowly dying out, then another, then a third, and so on. Looking at the sequence in the Gubbio limestone, though, he saw something different. The many species of forams in the lower layer seemed to disappear suddenly and all more or less at the same time; the whole process, Alvarez would later recall, certainly “looked very abrupt.” Then there was the odd matter of timing. The king-sized forams appeared to vanish right around the point the last of the dinosaurs were known to have died off. This struck Alvarez as more than just a coincidence. He thought it would be interesting to know exactly how much time that half-inch of clay represented.”

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