Dust to Dust

Americans and Extinction

Published: April 1, 2014
Charles Peales' mastadon, skeleton 1816

Charles Peales’ mastodon, skeleton 1816

Scientists project that nearly 20,000 species across the globe are at a high risk of extinction, and that within the next 300 years, some 75 percent of all mammals could completely disappear from Earth. Experts say that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of life on earth. And what distinguishes it from the previous five extinctions is that it is being caused by humans.

This Earth Day episode of our show will look at how Americans have grappled with the idea of extinction. When did we first realize that species could go extinct? How did Darwin’s theory of natural selection impact our understanding of what creatures survived or died? To what extent did earlier extinctions shape the emergence of today’s environmentalism? And, how have ideas about biological extinction factored into American thinking about human cultures — and about humanity-as-a-whole?

Help us shape this show! Do you worry about human impact on extinction? Were you obsessed with dinosaurs or other extinct animals as a kid? How should we decide what to save and what not to save from the brink of extinction? Share your stories, ideas, and questions below.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Charles Egerton

    I heard that the idea of extinction was controversial as the theory of evolution was in Darwin’s day. “Why would God create and then destroy so many animals?”

    Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky promotes itself as the “birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology” It was one of the first stops on Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery. President Jefferson heard of the fossils and requested specimens be sent back to Washington. Unfortunately there very few fossils left for the park to display. Jefferson thought the animals were still roaming the Great Plains. http://parks.ky.gov/parks/historicsites/big-bone-lick/history.aspx

    • Emily@BackStory

      Thanks Charles – that’s a really interesting thought. We’ll aim to look into it!

  2. Heather Thorwald

    Great topic! I work at a natural history museum, so extinction is always on my mind — whether past or impending.

    I hope you’ll look into an important episode in American conservation history: the involvement of women in saving bird species being decimated by the millinery trade in the late 1800s. Women’s groups formed the core of what became the founding of the modern Audubon Society and the passage of the first major pieces of American wildlife protection laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. There’s a good article about this on the Audubon Society website at http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/features0412/hats.html.

  3. R. Harding

    Interesting topic and one that pits people versus Nature instead of people vs. people. The strong genetic and cultural desire to “create” the next generation is far stronger than concern for Nature in general. It is plain we put ourselves first, period. Coping with changes we may bring is what makes us the adaptable life form and we count on that to get us through. I don’t agree with it. It is just a fact of Life.

  4. Hannah

    There is a fantastic discussion about walruses as a commodity (oil for industry) and as a part of human ecology (for the Inuit) in the book “Oil and Ice”. I think you might be able to read some of the passages on google books:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=z5-YFCYBmR0C&pg=PT58&lpg=PT58&dq=%22oil+and+ice%22+walrus&source=bl&ots=NWvT8-0CD3&sig=bXN9ehdAVKIrCtXp_IlvYADFO6A&hl=en&sa=X&ei=USxEU5WcLsOY2QXWrIHQCQ&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22oil%20and%20ice%22%20walrus&f=false