Of Guinea Worms and Thylacines

“Cheer up, sad world,” he said, and winked—
“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”

                                      —Ogden Nash, “Fossils”

worm footConsidering 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.
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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.


17 thoughts on “Of Guinea Worms and Thylacines

  • Rob Ellison says:

    I usually find it advisable to ignore both the structuralist and post-structuralist waves of French thought. Frogs however are equally noisy creatures and it is relatively easy to note the fall of a Krombit tinker frog.

    All over God’s world – there are hundreds of thousands of naturalists in the great tradition. For the most part nameless workers in the vineyards of science. Building on knowledge generation after generation in the finest quest of humanity. And I mean God’s world with profound sincerity. If the numinous qualities of forests or coral reefs, or the sacred beauty of birds and fishes, is not recognised then there is no glory in the heart. I have seen God speak to babies in forests and by streams and fill them with astonishing joy. We are reminded again and again to become as children filled with wonder. To sing the body electric.

    We note the fall of 10,000 species. God notes them all. The Passenger Pigeon didn’t go extinct because the last birds were hunted. The population declined to a point and the bird crashed out of existence. The populations of 10,000 species have halved in 50 years and we know almost nothing about millions of others.

    There are two cities – as Augustine said a thousand years ago – the Earthly city of humanity and the city of God. The one is transformed in the image of the other by beings of light. There is light within a being of light, and they light the whole world. If they do not shine, there is darkness. Now the apocalypse is upon us – the end of times – the great disaster. Even that passes. Then – as all the old stories tell us – there is a revelation given to those with eyes to see. In the nexus between night and day – in the dawn of a new era for the world – a new song cycle is ignited in the moment expanding to embrace eternity and infinity. A shining city takes shape in the our imaginations.

    The world is ours to shape in God’s image. Great and shining cities rising in a song of renewal. A great, global spanning civilisation forged this century and nested in a profusion of nature. Populations replanting and replenishing in a triumph of human ecology in the Earthly garden – a sound foundation for our next steps to the stars. Great art and great music flourishing – song and poetry inspiring and amusing. Technologies proliferate and will be directed to the tasks of bringing our lives into balance with the world. The great task of renewing the world and empowering its peoples will bring a resolution that releases immense energies. What seem like dire and insoluble problems of the moment will fade like midnight forebodings in the morning light. Take heart and celebrate the advent of this new world with laughter, songs and dance.

    The tools wielded by the architects and engineers of the Earthly city are really just the old ones we have built with for centuries. Democracy, the rule of law, markets. But what is central to renewal is an affirmation of the age old knowledge from the dawn of humanity. The collective, the tribe, the clan, the cooperative is where the power for global renewal is found. It is the space between governments and individuals where landscapes flourish or decline. It is a profound reality that balancing the human ecology on a global scale can only be realised by working together on the ground we walk on. It succeeds with vibrant, prosperous and diverse cultures in landscapes. The technology is simple – it needs only our passion for the great task of building the shining city in an Earthly garden.

    Perhaps a satirical take on an endangered parasite doesn’t quite get it.

    • Rob Ellison says:

      seem to have buggered the html code…

    • ianl says:

      None of that makes the slightest bit of sense, or makes any common point with the actual article.

      However, I bow to superior rhetoric … I suppose I must 🙂

      • Rob Ellison says:

        I sing the body electric was the clue that I pipped into the well of Walt Whitman. That great, exuberant poet of democracy. Pragmatism makes it possible but a song of the future makes it visceral for those who get it.

        We note the fall of 10,000 species. God notes them all. The Passenger Pigeon didn’t go extinct because the last birds were hunted. The population declined to a point and the bird crashed out of existence. The populations of 10,000 species have halved in 50 years and we know almost nothing about millions of others.

        It is not a frog here or there – but the 6th great extinction and we may yet redeem it with practical action.

        Check out the links at my facebook page. –

  • Warty says:

    My extraordinarily eccentric grandmother picked up an expression, I think from her office at Iscor Steel Sales: she would talk about ‘blowing a foofy valve’, which, in translation, means to blow a brain fuse. I get the feeling that our Quadrant editor, Keith Windshuttle has blown a foofy valve, with the wall to wall political commentary (from both writers and readers alike) he felt a change of pace was needed.
    The first article caught everyone by surprise, and clearly we’re pondering the hidden electoral implications implicit in Tony Thomas’s article. I wondered, just for a moment, whether Napoleon, in his nerdiness, might have been an obscure representation of Bill Shorten, but the setting and his inability to put two sentences together seemed to shatter that illusion. Perhaps the herding of the deer over an eighty degree cliff might have represented a Laborite landslide defeat (they received the second worse primary vote in their history) but the metaphor seems a little strained there. So, in short, I’m left scratching my head.
    The second article about Saving the Guinea Worm, Tasmanian Tigers, Foucault, Karl Marx and Augustine, so wonderfully and inextricably associated to anyone, other than the corroboree frog, had me scrambling for hidden meanings. The answer lay not in the article, but in both of Rob Ellison’s responses, particularly his mention of the fall of 10, 000 species, great disasters and Great Carrier Pigeons, and I had suddenly ‘got it’, particularly with his mention ‘a shining city takes shape in our imaginations’. Anthony Daniels is talking about the end of the world as we know it; a catastrophic deluge, post election that brings about the City of God, a shining city of light presaged by Great Carrier Pigeons, sorry, Passenger Pigeons, carrying olive leaves of reconciliation. A post apocalyptic metaphor for the total destruction of Australian political life after three years of parliamentary stagnation, senate revolt and the rise of the delcons.
    Keith Windshuttle has been very tricky indeed.

    • Rob Ellison says:

      Warty makes much of his Judeo-Christian heritage but has little regard for God’s world it seems.

      “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.”

      • ian.macdougall says:

        Perhaps that should be:
        “The God who reportedly made the world and everything in it and beyond it, is logically the Lord of Heaven and Earth and thus does not live solely in temples built by human hands.”

        • Rob Ellison says:

          Jonh Paul Sarte demonstrated that being and nothingness cannot coexist. Therefore the universe is infinite. Douglas Adams showed that in an infinite universe the probability of anything approaches unity. Therefore God exists.

          • ian.macdougall says:

            Jonh (sic) Paul Sarte demonstrated that being and nothingness cannot coexist. Therefore the universe is infinite…. (etc)

            Word games, IMHO. Amongst his other achievements, Plato pioneered the art of them about 2,400 years ago.

            Douglas Adams showed that in an infinite universe the probability of anything approaches unity. Therefore God exists.

            Likewise the Tooth Fairy, the Bunyip of Bluebottle Bay, and any other animal, vegetable, mineral or being physical or spiritual one might care to think up.

          • Rob Ellison says:

            Of course it’s word games. You’d have to be an idiot to imagine anything else. The existentialist with iron in the soul and the clown of time and space? You should bring your literary references up to date.

            I ran this argument in the Courier Mail and got a letter of 23 pages – ripped from a notebook – of double sided spider writing in green biro. It was sent c/o Yeppoon Post Office. Being a small town – they helpfully delivered it. Perhaps I should learn a lesson.

            And yes anything is possible with the infinite improbability drive.


      • Warty says:

        Ah, but there you’d be wrong, O Rob, I feel more affinity with the world of the writer of The Gospel of Thomas, who perceives The Infinite to be within and without, without beginning or end, ineffable, indescribable and beyond words. “If those who lead you say to you: ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky!’ then the birds of the sky will precede you.
        If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fishes will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you and outside of you.”
        So, yes, Judaic, but Christian no, because there was no Christian Church in 1st and 2nd CE, but rather numerous followers of Christ, made up of numerous sects.

        • Rob Ellison says:

          ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand…’ is the first realisation.

          The second is profoundly Christian.

        • ian.macdougall says:

          “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
          An inclusion in the gospel of Luke (17:21) that intrudes like Stendhal’s now proverbial pistol shot in a concert. It is quintessential Buddhism, and as there was trade between the Mediterranean and Indian civilisations in classical times, the idea quite possibly made its way overland along the trade routes between the two.
          I may be wrong, but I do not think that it is a native Jewish idea.

          • Rob Ellison says:

            Since there exists in this four dimensional structure [space-time] no longer any sections which represent “now” objectively, the concepts of happening and becoming are indeed not completely suspended, but yet complicated. It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence. Albert Einstein

            The zeitgeist evolves and it is if little import where and how an idea takes hold of the popular imagination. Indeed in the space time continuum – the idea always existed and always will. Creation occurs once and for all time. Within us a small, still voice guarantees a perfectable universe – a Manichean battle of light and dark across all space and time. “There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world. If it does not shine, it is dark.”

            So – a Jedi disturbance in the force in 4 dimensions in which light has always triumphed. It’s just the film franchise that drags out – along with the dour and turgid arguments of militant atheists.

          • Rob Ellison says:

            And really – God in nature is neither ‘sub-pagan’ or less spiritual for all that.

            “One of the most famous miracles attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi is an ability to preach to birds and other wild animals. On one occasion, he approached a large flock of birds that did not fly away when he came near, but rather waited patiently for him. Saint Francis of Assisi preached a sermon to the birds, which all began to sing when he was finished speaking. On another occasion, Francis pacified a wolf that had been killing livestock so that it never bothered people again.”

            What wonders can God not perform?

  • Matt Brazier says:

    Here’s an idea: Like Save the Guinea Worm, how about a similar tongue-in-cheek website and movement to expose the hypocritical liberal racism that thinks it’s a great idea that some people should be given preferential treatment, special privileges and even special recognition on the basis of their race. Yes, a movement to give constitutional recognition to the special contribution of white anglo-saxons in the history of this country. Special seats in parliament that can only be occupied by white anglo-saxons and not by anyone of any other race. How about a referendum on that one? Some people might find it racist. Funny that.

    Some racists are more articulate, diplomatic, persuasive and respectable than others. But they are all racist.

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