Why does extinction matter? From a purely scientific and ecological point of view, the answer to that is rather self-evident. But what about the cultural point of view? The human perspective on the death of a species? Throughout the course of civilization and even some time before that, we as a species have seen countless other species go extinct and will likely see many more go the way of the dodo. What were the cultural impacts of this in the past? What is lost to us in the present? And why does this matter? Through this article, I intend to answer these questions as well as make some of you come to appreciate the animals we have with us today as they may not be here tomorrow.
When the Dodo Mattered
Though the dodo bird has a rather unflattering reputation as a fat, dumb bird, its significance, even centuries after its extinction, is a testament to the cultural importance animals have as a society. From Alice in Wonderland to Ice Age, the dodo, since its extinction, has become a symbolic and cultural icon embodying a range of meanings..
Though the dodo was known to us only briefly before it went extinct, it left its mark on culture and is one of the most famous examples of extinct species. Despite its popularity, the dodo is ultimately one of the least important animals to have gone extinct during the course of human history. Though there are many other extinct species, the one I believe to have the most impact on culture is the auroch. An extinct cattle species that roamed Eurasia and could be as tall as 180 cm, or your average Dutch male.
The importance of this species is not to be underestimated. There is strong evidence that all modern domesticated cattle are descendants of the auroch. This means that we would not have as much beef, dairy, or leather without this humble species. Additionally, they can be found in some of the earliest human records, with their depiction being captured in Palaeolithic cave paintings such as those at Chauvet Cave, dating back to over 30,000 years ago. Their depictions are still seen in Egyptian and Roman art and artifacts, capturing the species’ power and prowess.
Although it is easy to assume this species as an antiquated one, belonging alongside our hunter-gatherer ancestors or still roaming the earth during the times of ancient and old empires, the auroch only went extinct in the early 1600s. Meaning that the Americas had already been discovered and colonised by Europeans for over 100 years before this species went extinct. Yet nothing remains of this essential species, despite its presence and impact on culture.
I believe that since their descendants still survive in the form of domestic cattle, we do not feel their loss as strongly as we do with the dodo. However, through the death of the auroch, we lost more than we truly realise. A connection between us and a species that stretches all the way back to the beginning and dawn of human culture. A connection that, try as we might, will never truly ever be restored in its entirety. A connection that is truly lost forever. And one we risk severing with countless other species.
Let’s Not Make More Dodos
In popular culture, the dodo is often attributed as being too stupid to prevent its own extinction, implying that if it were a truly smart species, it would have known not to get killed by people. Well, if this is the case, then there are quite a few more species whose attributes should be changed to reflect their own foolishness at having their habitats destroyed and being killed by people. Why, if tigers were not so dumb then maybe they would not be a threatened species.
After around a century of decline the wild tiger population had only just begun to recover, but their continued survival as a species is far from guaranteed. They are a staple of culture, having influences that stretch back thousands of years and into the modern day within various media such as Calvin And Hobbes or Tony the Tiger. Despite being a species we should be afraid of, it is one we respect. After all, associations to a tiger often refer to a group’s or individual’s strength and ferocity.
Are we justified in arguing that species go extinct all the time and that tigers were no different? I think not. Not without sacrificing something important as a species to make the choice go down easier.
Tigers and their associations have meaning and matter to us in the present because they are still with us. But should they go extinct, can we really say that our culture will benefit from their absence? Should a day come when tigers are relegated to a place of story and myth? Are we justified in arguing that species go extinct all the time and that tigers were no different? I think not. Not without sacrificing something important as a species to make the choice go down easier.
Though the consequences of the loss of a species is difficult to quantify, under no circumstances would it be a benefit. And tigers are not the only species at risk. Looking to our oceans is perhaps one of the most infamous predators of all. The shark. Despite their unfounded reputation as blood thirsty killers, sharks’ portrayal in our folklore is still important. Reminding us to be vigilant and respectful of our oceans. Yet, as Medium’s Lea Teigelkötter discussed recently, we continue to threaten them with horrific practices such as fishing rodeos.
It would be easy to brush aside these concerns and assume that because the tigers, sharks and other species have not gone extinct yet, they will simply not because we are aware that they are threatened. The same was likely said of the passenger pigeon, the thylacine, and maybe even the dodo itself. The continued existence of many animal species is a delicate thing, and we would be fools to take it for granted.
Let’s Not Be Dodos Ourselves
The animals and species we have with us at this point in time are special. All the sharks and tigers, and even toads, if you must, are lives that should be treasured for all they have given us and all that they will continue to give if we will let them. It is easy to romanticise and dream about those creatures that are no longer with us. I find myself all too easily falling into that specific rabbit hole. But it should never prevent us from appreciating the amazing creatures that are with us today.
Extinction is a natural process that happens all the time, yes that is true. But it is still something that should be feared when it comes. We are still afraid of death after all.
To me, one of the greatest tragedies that future generations may face is to look upon something like a shark or a tiger with the same eyes as we look at the dodo with. Something belonging to the past that we will never see with our own eyes. Extinction is a natural process that happens all the time, yes that is true. But it is still something that should be feared when it comes. We are still afraid of death after all.
And there is nothing natural about the rate of extinction that is occurring now. Referring to this phenomenon as the 6th Mass Extinction in the history of life on earth, the scale of death that stares us in the face should not be disregarded. There will be choices we, as a society, will need to make soon if we truly care about the species we still have with us along with the short-term sacrifices that will need to be made today in order to ensure the health of the culture of tomorrow. Think of your own favourite animal and ask yourself if a world in which it no longer exists is a world that is a brighter and better one. How much worse could it really be?
Cover Image: Weston Westmoreland
Editor: Pritha Ray