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by William H. Benson

April 11, 2013

     Spring has sprung, temperatures have warmed, and plants and animals have revived again after another winter. This all happens without human direction. No one tells the grass that now is the time to green up, or that trees should sprout leaves, or that pheasants should produce chicks. We call it Mother Nature’s invisible hand. The ancient Greeks had their own myth, that Hades forced Persephone, Zeus’s daughter, to live in the Underworld for six months every year, and then he released her in the spring.

     Earth is unique in the solar system. It is alive. Life exists here, but no one life form is permanent. Species arise, and then they disappear. Humans bear responsibility for numerous species’ extinction because men have hunted them or wrecked their habitat. In National Geographic‘s April issue, the author Carl Zimmer lists some extinct animals, all because of men: the Pyrenean ibex, the dodo, the auk, the thylacine, the imperial woodpecker, the Chinese river dolphin, and the passenger pigeon.

     The early settlers to North America were amazed at the extraordinary numbers of passenger pigeons. In the nineteenth century, the ornithologist John James Audubon once encountered a tremendous flock.

     “The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, and the continual buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose. Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensbugh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.”

     Hunters shot them, gassed them from trees, and carted them by wagon and railroad car to the east where the poor and the slaves ate them. The last passenger pigeon named Martha died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1902. The same fate befell the Carolina parakeet. According to the writer Bill Bryson, “it existed in vast numbers,” but due to relentless hunting, its numbers diminished until the final one died in that same Cincinnati zoo in 1918.

     More fortunate was the American bison. A South Dakota rancher named James Scotty Phillip rescued five buffalo calves, almost the last survivors of the proud herds that once covered the plains. 

     Ancient hunters may have contributed to the Ice Age animals’ extinction, but the evidence is not certain. Gone are the saber-toothed cat, the giant sloth, and the woolly mammoth. That same issue of  National Geographic tells of men who roam across Siberia every summer searching for the tusks that dot the landscape, the only remains of those long-haired elephant-like animals that ranged for eons across northern Siberia, until about eight thousand years ago.

     Bill Bryson wrote in his book A Short History of Everything that “as many as ten million mammoth carcasses are thought to lie frozen in the tundra of northern Siberia alone.” Why did they all die out? Hunters may have contributed to their demise, but so may have climate change or an epidemic.

     Some life forms thrive despite humans’ best efforts, an astonishing fact. Consider the coyote or the prairie dog. Poisoned, trapped, shot, or torched, and yet they still live to produce more progeny.

     Scientists are now poised to reverse extinction by the process called de-extinction, bringing back to life a clone from a perished species. That National Geographic article mentioned the birth of a Pyrenean ibex that lived for only minutes in 2003, handicapped from breathing because of a third lung.

     James Graff, a writer for The Week magazine, suggested that scientists should resurrect the Neanderthals, another species that Homo Sapiens may have hunted to extinction, but then Graff warned his readers: “I can’t imagine a sadder fate than being a specimen of a lost species. Sure, a woolly mammoth would be a zoological sensation. But is that reason enough to make one? And what moral quandaries are posed by a mix-and-pour Neanderthal?”

     Read Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park to see how scientists’ experiments can backfire. Carl Zimmer wrote, “In Jurassic Park dinosaurs are resurrected for their entertainment value,” and the consequences terrify.

     Mary Shelley wrote a haunting story in 1818 that she entitled Frankenstein. A college student, Victor Frankenstein spent time “in vaults and charnel-houses” assembling dead human body parts into an eight-foot giant that came to life through galvanic action. One day the creature stared into the eyes of his creator. “How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge,” said Victor Frankenstein.

     Mary Shelley delved deeper into these issues of life and death and extinction, and so in 1826 she wrote a science fiction book, The Last Man. Her hero, Lionel Verney, lives alone in the year 2100 A.D., after a plague kills off all all other human beings.

     She may be right. A bacteria named Yersinia pestis causes the plague. If human beings go the way of the dinosaurs, bacteria will survive. Earth belongs to them. It is their planet. Bill Bryson writes, “Every human body consists of about 10 quadrillion cells, but about 100 quadrillion bacterial cells. It is part of us.” Bacteria live to produce more progeny.

     Spring represents a revival of life, when Hades releases Persephone. We live and we enjoy life.