Thursday, May 26, 2016

Flight Ways by Thom van Dooren


Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, by Thom van Dooren. New York, Columbia University Press. 2014. 208pp. ISBN 978-0-231-16618-8

The author brings to the fore the plight of several birds that exist either at the point of or nearly so, of extinction. He does it from several perspectives including the interrelationship of all species and the impact of one extinction upon another. This is an important point. It would seem that life will go on quite well for humans were there no longer a Hawaiian Crow. On the surface and in the short term, that is probably so. What he points out quite well is the interrelationship of all species and the impact of the demise of one to its cohorts in nature. As I like to say, “We are all in this together, all flora and all fauna”. Dooren agrees with that sentiment throughout his book.

The story he tells is about five bird species each of which will probably go extinct in the next fifty years or less. He describes the social, economic and environmental impact that eventuality will have, particularly on us. As a whole we humans have claimed an exceptionality and superiority to nature. We have come to claim it and own it. Centuries ago it was to clear farmland for immediate human needs. Today it is for immediate human wants. It will not always be so.

Some recent extinctions have become famous in  our lore. Many of us are familiar with the Passenger Pigeon of which we’ll never see outside of a stuffed version in a Natural History museum. Where once they darkened the skies by their numbers, they were hunted into extinction in fairly short order.

Humans depleted living environs for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker until it was no more. That bird regained status in our popular culture when either delusional or charlatan sightings occurred about 10 years ago. The author quoted others to inform us that the Dodo has the distinction of being considered as the first animal to become extinct as a direct result of human intervention.

There are many valuable and inspirational ideas that van Dooren posits in this book. He depicts the conditions of his bird subjects and their precarious situations as continuing species. More importantly he discusses how these problems impact not only the existence of the birds but how their demise impacts the rest of the natural world. Everything is connected at a trophic level.

He quotes many people who have uttered important things on this topic. He stresses the importance of understanding the ecological relationships that everything made of carbon has. When gainsayers of ecology want to describe the lack of connectivity some salamander has with you or I so that they can proceed with land development, the author reminds us that it is not a direct connection. Rather everything is connected to something else that is connected and affected by human exceptionalism.

He describes what he refers to as “double death” which means that as we drive one species to extinction we likewise drive some of that species cohabitants toward and end as well. For instance as the Hawaiian Crow is being eighty sixed, so too will the trees that they help pollinate and thrive, high tail it towards destruction.

The humans that are involved in this crisis also will be suffering and it will come from the bottom up. The poorest, such as the “bone collectors” in India who scavenge the bared bones of cattle, humans and other species after the India Vulture picks them clean will have no more product. They survive by providing fertilizer vendors with bones for meal but will soon have no more of that as there are fewer of these vultures every day.

He talks about having an understanding of what Alexander von Humboldt described about the interconnectivity of life. “…chain of connection, by which all natural forces are linked together, and made mutually dependent upon each other; and it is the perception of these relations that exalts our views and ennobles our enjoyments.” We truly are all in this together.

The conditions we find ourselves in are from our own doing. It is us who develop, create more light and noise and encroach on the philopatry of some species. We are creating the conditions that our species will inevitably begin to suffer from. It is a slow death however and people like myself will not incur some sort of natural wrath for activities that take place today. There is an old saying that can be referenced about now. It goes something like this, “My grandfather knew thousands of (place a species here), my father saw hundreds, I have seen tens, and for my children, a rarity”.

The author provides much to think about with verifiable information about the species that he has chosen but he does also make some rather dubious suggestions as well. His reliance on the “umwelt” proposed by Jakob von Uexküll is thought provoking. Less credible are those provided by Foucault. Personally I am an advocate of examining animal behavior at a very heuristic level. There are so many anecdotal representation in the literature that it is difficult to suggest that many behaviors are not a sign of higher cognition. Notions such as “theory of mind” in animals are suggested by much of the research in animal behavior. I think there is much fruit there to pursue. Where I diverge from the author is that I do not think we are there yet. I think as evidence gathers we may see science prove that what we want to believe about animal cognition is true. It just is not there yet.

The notion of umwelt is overstated but not wrong. Birds do have bird intelligence and the wits to live in the world of birds and the symbiotic things that make that world. I even think we have not tapped into all that they know. I am struck by the stories of animal intelligence and “emotions”. I am also imagining that to date there is too much anthropomorphism applied to these stories. Anyone like me, knows that Frans de Waal is publishing an article a week in the science literature trying to make this case. I want to believe it but I think the evidence is too thin to speak with such confidence.

I spend a lot of time reading current literature and also have a covert observation area to look at birds and take notes. What I read and observe amazes me but it does not convince me of what I want to be convinced by. Animals are incredible but I am yet to be convinced that they “know” what they are doing. There are too many selection processes involved to impact animal behavior.

While I liked reading the book and it provided much to think about it was not always an easy read. The author often referred back to something else previously read but he also utilized adverbs as if they were required to fulfill some sort of minimal word clause his publisher demanded. With my disparagements I am glad that I read the book. It has a lot to offer. 

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