Extinction and the Richness of Human Life


Golden Toad—Wikimedia

Sometime ago (actually quite awhile ago), I wrote a post on the meaning of extinction and how the irrevocable loss of those creatures that no longer exist diminishes the richness of life in creation. But their loss also impoverishes us as human creatures.

Aldo Leopold recognized the tragedy of this loss to us as he looked back and lamented the passing of the passenger pigeon in the early twentieth century.

“We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies…. Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure…that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add to the glory of the spring?” (Leopold, Sand County Almanac, 131.)

Not only do we lose the glory of spring, but might it also be that we lose gradually the capacity to wonder at its glory when it no longer exists to evoke such wonder. In the end, we adjust and settle for a diminished world. Now, I’m not willing to go back to an era before toilets and refrigeration, but Leopold’s words do give me pause about the price we pay (realizing it or not) for those conveniences and whether or not they had to come at such cost.

Leopold was not alone in expressing the impact upon us at the loss of an entire species. An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, “On Cranes and Culture,” reflected on how the whooping cranes teetered on the precipice of extinction in 1954.

“There are twenty-six whooping cranes left in the world, says the National Audubon Society, two of them in captivity. And the Society appeals to sportsmen to save these great man-high birds from extinction by sparing them as they migrate from northern Canada to their winter refuge. Well, so what? The dodo bird and the passenger pigeon are already extinct. So, almost, are the trumpeter swan and the heath hen. And civilization seems to survive.

But does it, wholly? Can a society, whether through sheer wantonness or callous neglect permit the extinction of something beautiful or grand in nature without risking the extinction of something beautiful or grand in its own character? And the American society does have a consciences about such things.

Some millions of Americans will hope, we are sure, that the whooping cranes are spared for their own sake. And we have an idea that most of them will at least sense, also, that each of these beautiful birds, as it flies southward, carries a Yellowstone or Quetico-Superior Wilderness [a Canadian park] between its great wings.” “On Cranes and Culture,” Christian Science Monitor (September 17, 1954): 22.

Fortunately, Whooping cranes are still with us today with nearly 400 remain in the wild. But their situation remains precarious. But the comment that we lose something in our moral character when we push an entire species to extinction is made even more pointed by Holmes Rolston III who stated, “each species made extinct is forever slain.”1

The observations above caught my attention because they raise questions about what constitutes the good life, the life lived fully, the life lived richly. A diminished sense of wonder and a dulled moral conscience might reflect another more fundamental loss for us. Might we be impoverished by the extinction of species because we were created not only to inhabit a world teeming with other living creatures of every kind, but to rejoice in the gift of life that they share with us? That affinity for life—all life—is part of what it means for us to be human creatures. As such, it reflects God’s own love for life. Thus might it not be that the richness of human life consists—at least in part—in the joy of being members of a creation that teems with life, flourishing life, extravagant life, noisy life, beautiful life, all kinds of life?

1. Holmes Rolston III, Environmental Ethics: Duties and Values to the Natural World (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 158.

Check out this interactive map of species that have either gone extinct or are endangered.

This post is a revision of material found in Charles P. Arand and Erik Herrmann, “Attending to the Beauty of the Creation and the New Creation,” Concordia Journal 38(Fall 2012):313-331

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