Monday, September 20, 2010

Geographica: The Toll of Man!

Another classic issue of National Geographic slaps on the doorstep this week, 'classic' both in the sense of 'great' and in the sense of 'typical.' The 'great' part has been sung here at Stevereads before: great writing, great breadth of coverage, most of all great artwork. The 'typical' part is also a frequent component of my regular conversation: that when reporting on mankind's interaction with the rest of the planet, the news is mostly bad.

Bless them, the folks at National Geographic never let an entire issue go by without some good news, and the good news in this issue is pretty damn good: Jane Goodall. Just the two words of that name ought to be enough to bring a smile to the face of every right-thinking human on the planet. The mighty David Quammen gives us a spirited overview of her groundbreaking career and some great Quammen prose along the way (“everyone calls her Jane; there is no sensible way not to call her Jane”). Those of you who know me already know how thoroughly I tend to despise the human race, but for somebody like Goodall – sorry, Jane – I'll gladly make an exception. This Quammen piece was an obituary if ever I read one, and on the day the good lady of Gombe actually does die, I shall mourn.

But elsewhere in the issue, the despising is in full bloom. The cover story explains in mind-numbing, hope-extinguishing detail just how bad the Gulf oil spill really is, how extensive the toll there will be in terms of dead wildlife and wrecked ecosystems. And as bad as all that is, it's nothing compared to the issue's most memorable story.

It's by Joel Achenbach, and it's called “Lost Giants,” and it's about the vast array of prehistoric megafauna that inhabited Australia until about 50,000 years ago. In gorgeous drawing after drawing by Adrie and Alfons Kennis, we see these great creatures as they might have looked in life: a 350-pound marsupial lion, a seven-foot-tall kangaroo, a fifteen-foot-long variation on the komodo dragon, a ten-foot-tall 1000-pound flightless 'thunderbird,' a wombat the size of a rhino, marsupial tapirs the size of cows, etc.

In the accompanying article, Achenbach faithfully reports on the usual conflict between the two warring camps of scientists who have position on why, exactly, none of these fabulous creatures is with us today – on why, in fact, virtually non of the Pleistocene's true giants survived into historical times. The saber-toothed tiger, the wooly mammoth, the giant ground sloth, the flat-faced cave bear, giant rocs and emus – all these creatures and hundreds of others once flourished in the forests and marshlands of Australia, North and South America, and New Zealand and now exist no longer.

Which would hardly be grounds for despising anybody, you might reasonably point out. After all, species die out all the time – as one famous natural history writer put it, 99.9 % of all species that have ever lived on Earth went extinct.

And yet, the despite is there, in bucketloads, because in the case of all those Pleistocene extinctions, the megafauna had a little help. Achenbach is very scrupulous – he quotes from both sides of the issue and gives everybody equal time at the podium. But the fact remains that the megafauna of the Americas died out precipitously (in evolutionary terms, virtually overnight) around 13,000 years ago – right around the time humans arrived over the Bering Strait. The subject of this article, the megafauna of Australia, died out around 50,000 years ago – right around the time humans arrived there. The megafauna of New Zealand died out around 700 years ago – right around the time humans first settled there. And so on. And so on.

Some scientists say this is purely circumstantial evidence – they site the fact that there are no archeological signs of butchering and rendering on a large scale, no chipped bison bones, no caches of ground sloth femurs. Other scientists point out (some more gently than others) that absence of evidence can hardly be construed in this case as evidence of innocence. To which I might add: take a look at the rest of this issue. Everywhere mankind goes, wide-scale destruction and despoilation occurs. Scientists who want to make a case that mankind is not to blame – that climate change and shifts in rainfall patterns account for all these extinctions – don't need to convince me. They should talk to the American bison. They should talk to the dodo. They should talk to the passenger pigeon. Hell, they should talk to the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists are reputed to be intelligent people, but it's not very intelligent to quibble causations in the middle of a cancer ward – especially if you're the cancer.

The article had only one little respite from despair: those drawings by Adrie and Alfons Kennis make it clear that at least one Australian megafauna survived, as I can personally testify:

Then again, maybe despair is called for after all. Sigh.


JC said...

Steve: Is there a really good book you could recommend on North American Pleistocene mammals, besides the companion book to Walking with Prehistoric Beasts?

steve donoghue said...

Why yes there is. And as luck would have it, I have an extra copy not one foot from where I'm sitting! Shall I messenger it over, or would you like to examine it in situ first?

And, totally incidentally, did you - did any of you - ENJOY the post?

Chuck Darwin said...


I absolutely enjoyed the post. It's true that the arrival of humans tends to result in wide-scale destruction of all kinds of animal species. At the same time, the viral and bacterial worlds ecstatically applaud when we crash through the gates of some ecologically fragile niche. I guess it all depends on one's perspective (and genome size).

JC said...

Why that would be LOVELY! Saturday, perhaps?

faron jackson said...

mr. steve is it true you or some one ever found one like this?

quit smoking cigarettes said... Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time :-)