Human behavior is ever fascinating, even if not entirely unpredictable. Among its most basic, bedrock features are a marked propensity toward shortsightedness and an equally strong penchant for egocentricity. What I mean is that we have a great tendency both not to think through what the consequences of our actions may be, and as powerful a motivation not to care, but instead to concern ourselves only with what appears to work for our own good in the immediate moment.
It could also be argued that these are traits that have served us well in the past, that they are in the main responsible for our success as a species, and also that no other species on earth has demonstrated any greater foresight than we, or any less selfishness, for that matter. It’s just that one of the things we humans like to do is to think well of ourselves, sometimes to our own ultimate disappointment.
I was recently reading an article in The New Yorker that in part deals with a review of a book about the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s an amazing story. There were not mere millions of these beautiful creatures (and by all accounts they were gorgeous birds), but billions of them. Yes, that really is billion, with a “b.” It was reported that one observer saw a flock that obliterated the noonday sun, and that this flock then took three days to pass by! Such a recounting at first may sound like myth and stretches credulity for us today, until we learn that it came from no less a reliable a source than John James Audubon. Another observer reckoned he saw a flock containing in excess of two billion birds. They were so numerous that, when roosting, their combined weight would regularly crack the limbs off of trees upon which they landed.
And yet, within the space of a mere fifty years, this country went from a place where there were billions of passenger pigeons to one where there was zero. How, we may well ask, could this have happened? How could our ancestors have allowed such a tragedy to occur? The answer, I’m afraid, harkens back to human shortsightedness and egotism. Just as we do today, people back then did what was in front of them to do. They ate and slept and raised their children; they worked, they made war, they made peace, they made love, and occasionally they played. In other words, they did their best to survive, and they tried to have as good a life as possible while doing so.
And who, I suppose, could blame them? After all, the very basis of the country is founded on the pursuit of happiness, is it not? And of course no one set out consciously to destroy an entire species. No one ever sat down one fine day and said: “Let’s devise a plan whereby we cause the mass extinction of this entire population of passenger pigeons.” And yet, there can be no denying that this is exactly what we wound up doing. We even know when and where the last wild bird was killed, by a boy in Ohio, who shot it out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun in the year 1900. A few other birds languished on for a while in zoos, but these were creatures whose entire evolutionary history had prepared them to flock together in enormous groupings. Ought it to be a surprise, then, that a few isolated pairs here and there, in a sense, lost heart and no longer reproduced? Finally, on the 1st of September, 1914, ironically the year that also witnessed the beginning of mass massacres of hundreds of thousands of human beings in the World War I, the last passenger pigeon on earth expired.
There’s irony aplenty involved in all this. And tragedy, as well, of course. I can well imagine that the humans who had originally witnessed billions of these birds flocking together thought that there could never be an end to them. And yet that end came, sooner than anyone ever could have guessed. Just as, perhaps, we today think that there can never be an end to the human civilizations we have created, bound up as they are with and dependent on fossil fuels and ever expanding populations. But there is no guarantee of that, either.
Another irony ought to be noted when it comes to the passenger pigeon, this time a more modern one. There appears to be a movement on to “de-extinct” the bird. De-extinction has actually become a useful word in today’s biological lexicon, a neologism that accompanies human over-reliance on and adulation of technology. I suppose it’s obvious what it means: it is an effort to use DNA from long-dead pigeons which, when injected into chickens, would produce as close a replica as possible to their extinct forebears. Whether or not these manufactured passenger pigeons could themselves reproduce is not clear, although it is highly unlikely. And even if they could, once again, would they wish to do so? This seems all the less likely, given the disinclination their zoo-confined ancestors demonstrated in the past in this regard. And even if they did reproduce, would we actually want enormous flocks of hungry pigeons alighting in our fields of wheat and corn, now that so few of their original primary foods (acorns and beechnuts) are themselves available? Would we, in fact, be creating a monster that we would have to “render extinct” all over again?
All this brings up questions regarding how we human beings relate to our environment. The extinction of passenger pigeons is not so far removed from the continued extinction of numerous other species the world over that still continues to this day. The passenger pigeon went extinct for two very good reasons. One had to do with the fact that they apparently tasted good, so people hunted them and ate them, and two because humans have largely removed the favorite choice of food for the pigeons from the environment. As noted above, they lived mainly on the nuts of hardwood trees such as beech and oak that abounded in the pre-contact (i.e., with Europeans) forests of North America. There are far fewer of these trees today.
One of the things that we humans like to do is to fiddle with our environment. We have never been satisfied with it the way it was, but wanted (and needed) to create housing to protect ourselves from the elements, to clear fields of pesky trees in order to plant grain, damn rivers, build roads and bridges and towns, and eventually make cities and now mega-cities. To the point where most people today have lost touch entirely with untrammeled nature. Is there even such a thing left in the world as a true wilderness? Most of what we like to call wilderness consists of mere isolated parcels of what was once the endless forests and plains that stretched from coast to coast on any given continent. We are left to “manage” our forests, a thing that hardly seems compatible with the notion of real wilderness.
In the meantime, countless other species continue to go extinct. The passenger pigeon is but one of many, if a mega example of the process. And we are not just talking about the dodo and (very nearly anyway) the North American bison, but also – just in the last ten years – the golden toad, China’s Baiji dolphin, the Hawaiian crow, the Pyrenean Ibex, the West African black rhino, and many other “lesser creatures” that do not even make it onto our lists. What, we have to wonder, will make humans less shortsighted? What will make us more concerned with “the other,” and less focused solely on our own immediate good?
I am not sure I have a very satisfactory answer to these questions, but I do think that we must ponder them. We must in the end find a way to somehow coexist on this planet with other life forms, giving them the space they need to live, while we, too, live our lives. Otherwise, while we concern ourselves blindly with our own day-to-day existence, we may suddenly realize that we have somehow wiped out whole legions of other creatures we thought would always be there. And who, in the end, will one day protect us from ourselves? Who will be there to stop us from creating our own demise? We have, unfortunately, seen that it does not take long for billions of once successful creatures to entirely vanish. Even if we see it only from the human point of view (and how else can we see it?), let us if nothing else remember that no law says that extinction cannot happen to human beings, too – those most powerful and most successful of creatures upon the face of the earth.