“Extinct Species”

Found this article on extinct species in an issue of The Catholic World from 1865, reprinted from The St. James’s Magazine. It’s very fun to read if you initially dreamed of being a paleontologist as a child, as I did. One bit caught my eye:

It is no part of our intention to discuss the causes of mammoth extinction. This result has assuredly not been caused by any onslaught of the destroyer man. The Siberian wilds are scantily populated now, and it has never been suggested that at any anterior period their human denizens were more plentiful. Nature often establishes the balance of her organic life through a series of agencies so abstrusely refined, and acting, beside, over so long a period that they altogether escape man’s cognizance. The believer in the God of nature’s adaptation of means to ends will see no reason to make an exception in animal species to what is demonstrated by examples in so many other cases to be a general law. The dogma, that no general law is without exception, though one to which implicit credence has been given, may nevertheless be devoid of the universality commonly imputed. (p. 527)

Other scholars undoubtedly know more than I do about how people in the 19th century thought about ideas of evolution, but I thought it was neat to see them grappling with ideas of natural selection in the moment. Even then, however, they saw the writing on the wall:

Without the forest for shade and sustenance the race of wild elephants cannot exist; and, inasmuch as elephants never breed in captivity, each tame elephant having been once reclaimed from the forests, it follows, from the consideration of inevitable results, that sooner or later, but some day, nevertheless, one of two possible issues must be consummated – either that man shall cease to go one subduing the earth, cutting down forests and bringing land into cultivation, or else elephants must become extinct. Who can entertain a doubt as to the alternative issue? Man has gone on conquering and to conquer from the time he came upon the scene. Animals, save those he can domesticate, have gone on fleeing and fleeting away. (p. 529)

They were convinced that it was all part of some great balance that Nature would maintain. That was their explanation for the mammoth’s extinction, and for the inevitable extinction of the elephants. The author doth protest too much, methinks.


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