[This toad photo is crappy. Sorry. It's crappy cuz it's by a photographer calling themselves Ruby 1x2, and its her own work, and it's from Wikipedia, and it's licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons, which means Ruby won't make any money from it. If you have a better photo of a Kihansi spray toad -- living now at the Toledo zoo -- send it to my man Hugh ,a href="firstname.lastname@example.org">here, and he'll upload it to SWP Media's online marketplace, and you can sell it and make money. If it's good, I'll buy one -- for this post.]
Here's me reading this book review:
THE BOOK REPORT
By Reilly Capps
by M. R. O’Connor
4.7 stars out of 5
With "Resurrection Science," M.R. O'Connor has taken a swing at producing the Origin of Species mixed with a John LeCarre novel -- and nailed it.
It is an extremely valuable addition to the discussion about the Sixth Extinction, which is the fact that some large percentage of species are likely to go extinct in the next century -- anywhere between 10% and 50%, depending on the estimator. In the last few decades, as people heard the story of this disaster, they tended to react in one of two ways: either ignore it and minimize it, or freak the fuck out.
This book follows neither of those paths. It addresses a number of questions that I'd rarely thought about. First: what, exactly, constitutes a species? There is no accepted universal definition, and so estimates range from 5 million to 100 million. So, if a thousand or two go extinct because of humans, is that a big deal? Second: exactly how many species have already gone extinct? (Perhaps 900 in the last 500 years is the answer.) Third: how much are humans, by changing the climate in the world's geography so quickly, unknowingly causing a partial solution to the problem, by allowing evolution to speed up?
Like a great work of fiction, the book builds to a fascinating climax, asking the existential question: given scant evidence of a providential, Abrahamic God -- an almighty sound mixer who turns the dials of the biosphere and keeps life dancing -- should we step in as understudies?
O'Connor travels the globe, and holds up into the light of science the dying bodies and decaying corpses of -- among other species -- toads, panthers, whales, crows, rhinos, passenger pigeons, and Neanderthals. Here's a brief look at some of these species, and the issues they raise.
The Kihansi spray toad. Before 1996, it dwelt among untrodden ways -- the entire population exists below one waterfall in Tanzania -- wholly hidden from the eye. It was only discovered when a hydropower project began to be built there. Millions were spent to preserve the toad's habitat -- in a country in which millions lack electricity and water. And still they live unknown, barely visited in the Toledo zoo, and few would know if this species ceased to be. If they were in their graves, then what's the difference to me? Or, to quote the world's greatest modern philosopher of science, HBO's Karl Pilkington...
White Sands pupfish. The extinction crisis has created, as the flip side of the extinction coin, a widening opportunity for accelerated evolution, especially for enterprising young species who really want it. For example, there are some little fish in the Southwest called pupfish. Their habitats are little ponds separated from one another. For example, the devil's hole pupfish, of the Mohave Desert, lives in a single cavern. As global warming dries them up, these lakes and ponds are the terrestrial version of the Galapagos islands. The devil's hole pupfish, for example, has evolved to be able to breathe in waters with oxygen levels so low they would be lethal to any other fish. As these ponds dry up and separate due to human-influenced drought, evolution will only accelerate. Stories like this raise in me a sort of metaphysical question: are some species, through evolution, doing more than others to save themselves? Like, if one single individual fish puts a little extra effort into leaping from a drying pond into a full one -- the Fosberry of fish -- could he be the forefather of a whole new species? Wouldn't that be awesome? It would mean that evolution rewards individual effort, and your eighth grade basketball couch was correct on an existential level.
Crows. The American Museum of Natural History is freezing threatened species. Remember Ted Williams? It's like that, only less creepy.
Passenger pigeons. There were once so many pigeons in North America that they supposedly literally blotted out the sun. Then hunting season opened for white people ...
... and now there aren't any passenger pigeons left.
Enterprising scientists are trying to revive them, by extracting DNA from stuffed birds, implanting it into an embryo, and implanting that embryo into a living pigeon. This is the Jurassic Park scenario.
There is no real life Dr. Hammond, not yet, but if the good doctor appears, we might see wooly mammoths in zoos. If we're zealous, they might proliferate again through North America, and Fish and Wildlife might one day issue hunting permits for mammoths and saber toothed tigers.
Neanderthal. I recently found out that I am 2.7% Neanderthal, according to the testing service 23AndMe. This was somewhat distressing, as the average is 2.1 percent. It was even more distressing when I found out that my girlfriend is something like 2.4 percent, which means that, if we ever have children, they will have sloped foreheads and hairy knuckles and be unable to figure out how to open cans of tuna except by smashing them into the floor. ( Here's what your kids might look like, you troglodyte.) This book eased some of those fears. Neanderthals might not have been dumb. They concocted glues that required several stages of production, crafted arrowheads that very few modern craftsmen can match, and interbred with humans, making them the same species as us, by most definitions. This calmed my reproductive fears. I now know that, while my theoretical children might not have any chance at acing the SATs -- at least they won't fail shop class.
Finally and ironically, it’s possible that Neanderthals might help save the Homo species. The original Neanderthals might have thought of themselves, as many primitive people still do, as being part of nature, as being one with plants and animals, rivers and forests, as part of a larger, encompassing whole. If we bring them back, might they retain – in some subterranean genetic memory -- some hints of that worldview? And might they teach it to us modern people? And might that help us pay attention to a warming planet, and fix it? Wouldn’t it be ironic? If a species we extincted could save us from extinction? And then, probably, take revenge for their extinction by enslaving us. (This last paragraph is mostly speculation on my part, chiefly caused by reading this chapter while high.)
The book reaches a climax almost as good as a John LeCarre novel, as it draws the reader up into a heady stratosphere of big ideas. It introduced a new word to my vocabulary, hyperobject. We evolved a brain adapted to contemplating things ranging in size from a grain of sand to a mountain. A hyperobject is an idea or thing so big that the human mind can’t really grasp it. The idea of species extinction is a hyperobject. So is global warming. (Although we here often try to come up with analogies, even ridiculous ones.)
We can’t wrap our heads around these things. Nevertheless, these things exist independent of our ability to understand them. This way of thinking is often called “OOO,” for object-oriented ontology. “Whether you believe in global warming … or not,” O’Connor writes,” sea levels really are rising.”
This seems self-evident, but nonscientists rarely think like this. In fact, “OOO! OOO" seems like an awesome motivating protest chant for the environmental movement. Parisian protesters might scream, “OOO OOO, OOO OOO! CO2 and other gasses are invisible to us, but they might kill us, since global warming is a hyperobject we can’t grok! OOO OOO, OOO OOO!” (This slogan is long and complex because science is complex and irreducible, and because I get paid by the word. Somebody should probably pare it down before they repeat it on “Democracy Now!”)
O’Connor is a tireless reporter and never slips into the role of pundit, but one lesson I took from her book was that humility is called for. Humans, being kind, and feeling guilty when we break things, want to save every species. And we are developing the tools to do so. But it’s possible that we might save some species only to kill other ones. And by saving species that would have gone extinct without us, are we actually making the world less natural? If we’re part of nature – and we are – then any time we extinct a species, wasn’t that natural? But isn’t it natural for species to help species that help it, like wolves and humans and whales and sucker fish? Is selfishness natural? Is kindness? What’s nature anyway? (This question is written down in my book in big block letters, next to a stain from a Hershey’s bar.)
O’Connor concludes with a story of our longing to return to the wilderness, which is known to restore in people a deep humility. Being absorbed by nature might be the best thing an environmentalist can do. “The seeping of our consciousness into infinite space is our ultimate salvation,” O’Connor writes, “putting our human reasoning into perspective.”