“Cheer up, sad world,” he said, and winked—
“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”
—Ogden Nash, “Fossils”
Considering how little I know of natural history, I am well-informed about the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger. I suspect that this is the case with many a person normally uninterested in or ill-informed on the subject of wildlife. I have a small collection of books about the strange and fascinating creature, hunted to extinction, and recently while in Australia added to that collection by buying Paper Tiger: How Pictures Shaped the Thylacine, by Carol Freeman.
I suppose I should have known what I was in for from the choice of epigraph: Mao Tse-Tung’s famous lucubration on nuclear weapons as a paper tiger. By page 4, Louis Althusser, the impenetrable French Marxist philosopher—whose most lucid and indubitably true statement was J’ai étranglé Hélène, “I have strangled Hélène” (his wife)—has been quoted:
… the image can be seen as an inscription of those values and beliefs … which hierarchise, differentiate and exclude.
Which image? All images? Some images? A particular image? Surely the image of something must, by definition, exclude being the image of something else? This is the kind of guff that passes for profundity, I suppose, in university departments of cultural studies.
I knew that after Althusser, Foucault had to make an appearance, and so he did (on page 69):
Once Gould’s reputation is put aside [John Gould, the great Victorian naturalist and illustrator], we can ask the questions historian and literary theorist Michel Foucault suggests in his essay, “What is an author?”—“What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself?”
Once Ms Freeman’s reputation is put aside, we can ask the questions … well, you see what I mean. Actually, I think those questions are probably more pertinent in her case than in John Gould’s, but I don’t want to descend into an infinite regress of ad hominem speculation and abuse.
The book’s argument, in so far as it has one, is that the way the thylacine was depicted by early artists and illustrators conduced to its extinction in the way that caricatures in Der Stürmer conduced to the Holocaust. Personally I find this a little far-fetched, even hysterical. The early artists and illustrators seem to me to have tried to depict the thylacine as accurately as they were able, without any particular axe to grind and with a fair degree of success. Ms Freeman makes little allowance for the sheer unfamiliarity of Europeans with the fauna of Australia, whose difference from that of the rest of the world still astounds visitors today. If the Tasmanian government put a bounty on the head of the thylacine on the grounds that it was allegedly a sheep-killer (sheep being vital to the Tasmanian economy), its decision had little to do with previous iconography. A far better description of early European efforts to understand the fauna of Australia is to be found in Platypus by Ann Moyal, who understands the difficulties of going from puzzlement to understanding and from ignorance to knowledge.
This column first appeared in Quadrant‘s June edition.
Subscribers didn’t need to wait six weeks to read it.
The question does arise, however, as to why we care about the extinction of a creature such as the Tasmanian tiger. Our lives, after all, go on perfectly well without it; most of us can hardly claim our concern to be more than a vague sadness that it no longer exists on the few occasions that we think about it. And yet we do feel the world is diminished by its absence; when we learn that the Tasmanian devil is now also threatened with extinction, this time by an infectious type of facial cancer, we hope that efforts will work to save it by its removal from the environment in which the infection spreads. We may never have seen a devil in the wild, we may expect never to see one, but we want it to survive.
In Sydney Zoo I learned that the southern corroboree frog, a small black and yellow amphibian with a poisonous skin, an unusual life cycle and a very restricted habitat, was in critical danger of extinction, with fewer than 200 individuals still in the wild (I assume there are reliable methods of estimating such figures). I had never heard of this creature before, and had I not gone to the zoo would have remained innocent of is existence, yet I was pleased to know that there was a team of biologists at work to preserve it, breeding it for later release into the wild. I admired and even envied this team of biologists for what I assumed was their sense of mission: a mission which, if limited in scope, is both achievable and laudable, preserving a tiny part of the beauty and (dare I say it?) the diversity of the natural world. And yet, what is the corroboree frog to me that I should weep for it?
Is this mere nature mysticism, a kind of sub-pagan belief in the goodness, wisdom and benevolence of nature? There is such a mystical belief, very common among those who claim to be spiritual but not religious (they want the benefits of transcendence without the discipline). They believe that all species ought to be preserved merely because they exist, have existed and would not exist if nature had not thought it right that they should exist. This is a kind of providentialism with Divine agency removed.
Such nature worship is very successfully mocked on a website called Save the Guinea Worm. The Guinea worm, Dracunculus medinensis, is a parasite of human beings, of revolting appearance, habits, life cycle and consequences. Its larvae enter the human body by means of drinking water contaminated by a water flea, and then the female worm travels through the body where, up to a yard long, it causes pain and inflammation, exuding itself at the foot or ankle and releasing larvae into the water, the whole cycle starting again. Cure is by winding the mature worm for many days round a stick, taking care not to break it. Though infection is not fatal, it is painful and debilitating.
There has been a campaign over many years to eradicate the Guinea worm that has largely been successful: it is now present in only four countries instead of twenty. The plan is to extirpate it entirely from the face of the earth, a goal that is now well on the way to achievement. The Save the Guinea Worm Foundation, responsible for the website, asks—à la Foucault—the following questions: Who speaks for the Guinea worm, who is responsible for the crisis, why is the environmental movement silent, and what can I do to help this critically endangered species?
As any textbook of tropical medicine will quickly reveal, there are myriad species of human parasites (or rather, parasites of humans) that would not be missed by those who are susceptible to them for geographic or climatic reasons, and without which the world would be a better place. I have suffered from at least five of them myself in my lifetime, though in no very severe way (details on application). It would take pretty firm faith in the benevolence of nature not to desire the eradication of these parasites.
Indeed, the corroboree frog itself is endangered mainly by a parasitic fungus. The fungus could survive without the frog, but not the frog with the fungus; but the fact is in any case that we care more for the frog than for the fungus. Our concern for the survival of species depends largely on the aesthetic or other qualities of the species concerned. Like pacifists, nature mystics tend not to be consistent: or if consistent, mad.
The thylacine did not have the equivalent of the Save the Guinea Worm Foundation until it was far too late to save it. The last specimen to be shot in the wild was killed only six years before the last thylacine died, and the man who shot it looks very pleased with himself for having eliminated the threat to his chickens. Little did he know he was later to be reviled. That is the problem with life in a nutshell: it is lived forwards, not backwards.
There has been a return of wolves to the Ardeche in France, where I live some of the year. They are, of course, a protected species, and everyone who is not a sheep-farmer is delighted at the return: perhaps the world really has begun to heal, as President Obama promised that it would. But across the road two miles from our house, sheep-farmers have painted the following words in large letters in white paint: Mort aux loups, “Death to wolves”. The sheep-farmers will find a way.
Anthony Daniels visited Australia in April as the Centre for Independent Studies 2016 Scholar-in-Residence. His latest book is the essay collection Out into the Beautiful World, published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.