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The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death

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We live in an era marked by an accelerating rate of species death, but since the early days of the discipline, anthropology has contemplated the death of languages, cultural groups, and ways of life. The essays in this collection examine processes of—and our understanding of—extinction across various domains. The contributors argue that extinction events can be catalysts for new cultural, social, environmental, and technological developments—that extinction processes can, paradoxically, be productive as well as destructive. The essays consider a number of widely publicized cases: island species in the Galápagos and Madagascar; the death of Native American languages; ethnic minorities under pressure to assimilate in China; cloning as a form of species regeneration; and the tiny hominid Homo floresiensis fossils ("hobbits") recently identified in Indonesia. The Anthropology of Extinction offers compelling explorations of issues of widespread concern.

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Introduction. Accumulating Absence: Cultural Productions of the Sixth Extinction \ Genese Marie Sodikoff

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Genese Marie Sodikoff

In a book published at the cusp of the new millennium entitled Conversations about the End of Time, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière observes that the future anterior—the tense used to describe an action that will be finished in the future—is fading from everyday speech. He does not comment on the irony that this grammatical form should fall into disuse at this particular time, when projections about earthly life call for such temporal specificity. Scientists have dubbed the current epoch the “sixth mass extinction” because the current rate of species death is more than a hundred times greater than “nature’s chronic winnowing” (Angier 2009:3). At some point in the near future, scholars say, 16,928 still extant species will have vanished (Zabarenko 2009). At the same time, indigenous languages, vehicles of entire cosmologies, are succumbing at a rate of two per month as their last speakers perish. Of the 6,700 extant languages—already reduced by two-thirds since precolonial times—experts estimate that three thousand will have gone silent within thirty years (Miller 2002). Better than any other verb tense, the future anterior captures the jarring imminence of categorical loss. “What are grammatical tenses,” asks Carrière, “if not the painstaking attempt of our precise, meticulous minds to envisage all the possible shapes that time can take, all the ways in which we relate to time within the domain of our thoughts and actions?” (Carrière 2001:97).

 

Part 1. The Social Construction of Biotic Extinction

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Janet Chernela

In recent decades science has reached a critical juncture that calls our attention to its fundamental character and the contradictions within it. The crisis was brought about by the observation, by some scientists, that the Earth is facing a massive sixth extinction, one that may have been provoked by human activity. Reaction to this revelation has been complex; it points to some of the ways in which science is influenced by and inextricably integrated into the social fabric.

The degree to which science, as a pursuit of knowledge, is emancipated from the ideological underpinnings of society is an ongoing debate within the social and philosophical disciplines (Althusser 1971; Eagleton 1991; Giddens 1979). Theoretically, science and ideology represent two kinds of knowing, of which the first is open and the second closed. This profound difference has far-reaching implications, suggesting, among other things, that science reaches toward the unknown, whereas ideology continually reproduces itself. From the viewpoint of its proponents, science is an enterprise that not only is open to questions, but is built upon them.

 

Part 2. Endangered Species and Emergent Identities

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Jill Constantino

When we swat flies, eat dolphin-safe tuna, use bug spray, or give money to protect pandas we are deciding which nonhuman beings belong in particular places and which do not. When we fill our universities, issue travel visas, consider the land rights of indigenous people, or prohibit the passage of immigration laws, we are making decisions about human belonging. What are the factors that influence “belonging”? How long must a being exist in one place in order to belong? Do creatures belong after a quantifiable period of time, or is their belonging more dependent on qualitative factors like being the first to a place, being among the last in a place, being unique to a place, or claiming an origin myth involving that place? What characteristics must a being exhibit in order to be protected or eradicated? Clearly, belonging is subject to various cultural factors and scientific findings.

The variables and characteristics that form categories of value differ from species to species and emerge from different time frames. For nonhuman beings, evolutionary time provides a context through which to determine endemism or native status. For humans, historical time provides a ground for the construction of indigenous identities, often connoting special value and special rights. But what happens when the contexts of human and nonhuman creatures merge? In nature reserves, national parks, coastlands, farms, logging sites, and even in our cities, how might we decide which beings have the right to the resources and the privileges of the places they inhabit? When people craft their own identities of value in the arbitrary constructions of belonging, how do they negotiate between and among the frames of evolutionary time and historical time?

 

Part 3. Red-Listed Languages

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Bernard C. Perley

In the summer of 1994 a meeting was organized to gather support for a Maliseet language immersion program for the Tobique First Nation community in New Brunswick, Canada. The meeting took place in the native language classroom at the reservation elementary school. In attendance were the native language teacher, the organizer of the meeting, the Head Start teachers, several mothers of children attending the school, and me. We were all trying to look comfortable in the child-sized desks. Once we had settled in, the organizer began the meeting by arguing that the reservation needed a Maliseet language immersion program. The participants were discussing the merits of the proposal while the organizer distributed photocopies of articles on language endangerment in Canada. As everyone scanned the photocopies, the organizer called our attention to the appendix of one article. She pointed out a chart that listed three categories. First listed were the aboriginal languages spoken in Canada. Second was the number of speakers speaking each language in comparison to the population of that community. The last column indicated the state of the language on a scale of “viable,” “endangered,” “on the verge of extinction,” and “extinct.” As a group we all flipped the pages until we found the listing for Maliseet. There, in cold black-and-white text, Maliseet was listed as “on the verge of extinction.” Everyone in the room was silent as we all contemplated what “extinction” meant to each of us. The organizer allowed that moment of silence to continue until it turned into group discomfort. When she broke the silence, she reiterated her belief that the only way to avoid Maliseet language extinction was to support a Maliseet language immersion program for the school and for the community. One additional article predicted that, within two decades, only three aboriginal languages would be spoken in Canada. Maliseet was not one of them. That morning, we all had to come to grips with the prospect of Maliseet language extinction within the next two decades. The realization that the Maliseet language could become extinct within our lifetimes was not only discouraging but also suggested collateral extinctions that would undermine Maliseet cultural survival. In light of such dire predictions, it is difficult to find any positive or encouraging news.

 

Part 4. Prehistories of an Apex Predator

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Laurie R. Godfrey and Emilienne Rasoazanabary

This chapter results from the collaborative efforts of Laurie Godfrey, a primate paleontologist, and Emilienne Rasoazanabary, a specialist on the behavior of living nonhuman primates. Both of us study the primates that live or once lived on the island of Madagascar—lemurs. In this chapter, we examine extinction, taking as our example recent extinctions on Madagascar (including the extinction of giant lemurs) and threats to the smaller-bodied lemur species that remain there today. Extinctions can be viewed in deep time, in near time, or in today’s world; each view generates insights that cannot be gained from any of the others. A “deep time” perspective is usually reserved for extinctions that occurred before humans evolved, so humans cannot have been responsible. There have periodically been major mass extinctions in the past (called extinction “events” because of the unusually high number of species extinctions concentrated in relatively short periods of time), each with different but profound effects on the evolutionary history of life on Earth. Quaternary extinctions, “extinctions in near time,” demand a consideration of humans as at least possible agents of extermination (MacPhee 1999). It was during the very last part (the most recent 100,000 years) of the geological period called the Quaternary (or Pleistocene and Holocene) that people began to populate many regions that had never before experienced their presence, and these regions, one after the other, suffered dramatic species loss. In many ways, such “near-time” extinctions rivaled or surpassed some of the worst mass extinctions of the distant past, and tools that have been applied to the analysis of species rarefaction in the deep past have been applied as well to late Quaternary extinctions.

 

Epilogue: Prolegomenon for a New Totemism \ Peter M. Whiteley

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Peter M. Whiteley

By endowing nature with social properties, humans are doing more than granting her anthropomorphic attributes, they are mentally socializing the relationship they establish with her … In order to exploit nature, humans weave a network of social relationships between themselves, and it is most often the form of these relationships that provides the conceptual model for their relationship with nature.

—PHILIPPE DESCOLA, IN THE SOCIETY OF NATURE

Nature, natural species, as Lévi-Strauss taught, are bonnes à penser, good to think. It is through conceptualizations of nature and their usage as metaphors that we have imagined ourselves as humans, in our groupings, in our actions, and in terms of our social reproduction. Among the Hopi, a Native people of northern Arizona, for example, the imagination of social difference is predicated upon observation of and participation in the differentiated and classified natural environment. Like many small-scale, non-Western societies, Hopis divide their social order into totemically named entities—matrilineal clans—like Bear, Sun, Parrot, Spider, Rattlesnake, and Sparrowhawk (e.g., Bradfield 1973). Unlike some other Amerindian societies (as on the Northwest Coast), Hopi clans do not consider themselves to be descended from natural species and entities, but there is a sense of mystical co-participation: the clan’s naatoyla, emblem, is also its wu’ya, “ancient.” Moreover, in ceremonies like the Snake Dance, in which ritual initiates dance with live snakes, they enact that coparticipation not for symbolic purposes only, but because they actively believe this will summon the clouds and their rainfall.

 

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