Plumage and Empire

Adam Phillips

  • Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird by Tony Juniper
    Fourth Estate, 296 pp, £16.99, September 2002, ISBN 1 84115 650 7

‘Any form represented by few individuals,’ Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, ‘will, during fluctuations in the seasons or in the number of its enemies, run a good chance of utter extinction.’ That both these words need qualifying should give us pause. Darwin could see the appeal of extinction; or rather, something about extinction appealed to him. When he describes the all-consuming struggle of species to survive and reproduce there is occasionally, lurking in his sentences, something about the all too human option of giving up. We are, after all, the animals that are making the seasons fluctuate and the animals with a genius for creating enemies. All our self-destructive behaviour, whatever else we think it is, may be an attempt to put a stop to the struggle. And if we begin to hate our own struggle for survival, we may want to suppress it in others. Clearly, our capacity to destroy other species – not to mention others that belong to our own species – was the most staggering fact of the last century. It is not surprising that it occurred to some people that there might be a secret struggle not to survive, that utter extinction might be our best chance.

We have certainly had to come up with some very good stories to make the struggle for survival – and, indeed, struggle itself – seem worth it. The most compelling have tried to persuade us either that in some way or other the struggle is rewarded or that ‘struggle’ is not quite the right word for what we are doing. So we prefer to think of ourselves as pleasure-seeking, or exploring, or competing, or achieving (over or under) rather than merely struggling for a future that can never belong to us. As the only animals that have (articulated) reservations about the struggle we are, by the same token, the keenest and most ingenious at ending, once and for all, the struggle of other species to survive and reproduce. Our reckless, overreaching predatoriness – ourselves as the enemies of our own and only possible environment – is now something we take for granted about (modern) human nature. Putting the planet out of its misery has become the contemporary project, with money and religious beliefs the only things left worth conserving. So Spix’s Macaw, which is many things – a detective story, a love story and a jeremiad – should be read as a sign of the times. What is so disturbing about it – and this is not news, but the way the story is told might make it news that stays news – is how hard people are prepared to struggle, in the name of profit and prestige, to kill what they claim to value, especially when it is rare. As Juniper so starkly shows, it is a mixed blessing to prize rarity: it makes people create rarity in order to prize it.

Darwin helped us to take the extinction of species for granted. But his account of how and why it happens – without ‘plan’ or intelligence behind it – made it easier for us to wonder whether extinction mattered. We obviously don’t want a world without lions or elephants or (some of) ourselves, but we could probably do without the odd wader. In this situation the species we choose to protect, to care about, must reveal something to us about the kind of animal we have ourselves become. If it isn’t the case that everything that lives is holy or that all of the species we share the planet with – more than a hundred million of them – are enemies, then choosing to become the animals that conserve other species is itself an interesting piece of evolution.

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