The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death

The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death

The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death

The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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).

Thought experiments about what Earth might look like when we too are gone influence decisions in the present (e.g., Weisman 2007). in the midst of a heated politics of global climate change, terrorism, oil spills, war, and the corporate drive to expand into new frontiers of nature, the possibility (and denial) of self-extinction, or at least some dramatic alteration in life as we know it, grips the . . .

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