Research Paper: Lonesome George, Martha, and the Black Rhinoceros

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Black Rhinoceros / Extinction

Imagining Extinction:

The Black Rhinoceros and the Last of the Race

This paper intends to discuss the idea of extinction. Such discussion necessarily entails a certain amount of scientific discourse, but in particular I would like to ramify the scientific discussion with some literary and cultural insights as well. The reason for this should be obvious. Extinction as a scientific concept is the end of a species: as species are scientifically defined by the ability to breed and create fertile offspring, the very concept of a species depends upon the notion of reproduction, perpetuation, posterity. Extinction, therefore, entails the cessation of this reproduction, followed by the death of all representatives of the given species. In discussing the idea of extinction, however, we face a standard philosophical problem. To the extent that we are discussing death, there is nothing to discuss. Disregarding the perpetual publishing frenzy purporting to describe "near death experience" (like the recent book and film Heaven is for Real, based on the account given by a five-year-old child) and various well-known religious myths and testimonies, no one has a firsthand idea or conception of the state of being dead. From the scientific perspective, it is a state about which no subjective evidence can be offered. However, as regards extinction, this is also quite clearly a process: a period of time exists between the moment when a species ceases to reproduce, and the moment when the last living representative of that species is actually dead. It is this time period that I wish to focus on, in part because it is the only space for a human imaginative response (or any other kind of response) to the very idea of extinction. In this paper, therefore, I will pursue three basic lines of inquiry: how science deals with this period of time, with particular attention paid to the question of whether or not we are all living in such an imaginative space at the present moment (in what might be called the Anthropocene Extinction Event), how culture deals with the same period of time (in a consideration of what might be termed the mythology of the "last of the race"), and offering a specific examination of one case study (the critically endangered black rhinoceros, or Diceros bicornis).

To begin, let us consider some noteworthy examples -- noteworthy, perhaps, because of the accretion of cultural meaning onto what might otherwise be considered unremarkable -- and contemplate the cases of George and Martha. When I say that I am keen to examine the cultural meaning of these cases, I will begin with an obvious disclaimer: I am not referring to George and Martha Washington, the first President and First Lady of the United States of America. However, that historical duo is not entirely irrelevant to what we are discussing because -- in a country whose political system was founded in opposition to hereditary monarchy -- it is worth mentioning that George and Martha Washington died without having children together. (Martha Washington had four children by her first marriage, but her marriage to George produced no offspring.) In some sense, then, the failure to reproduce could be understood as a larger statement about human social organization, and the resistance to biological inheritance of culturally-constructed status and meaning (like being the "father of one's country" without literally being the father to any offspring). In any case, the historical George and Martha Washington have this status in common with the actual George and Martha that should be discussed: that would be Lonesome George, the last surviving representative of the Pinta Island subspecies of Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii), and Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Lonesome George is, of course, a recent phenomenon: he died in 2012, in captivity, at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. Martha, who was indeed named in honor of Martha Washington, died in 1914, in captivity, at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio (Greenberg 186).

Both of these animals have received a significant amount of media and cultural attention, perhaps because of the innate spectacle involved in considering each as the "last of their race." It is worth noting that species become critically endangered or exceptionally rare on a daily basis, yet human beings have not seen fit to come up with a cute nickname for the most recently-discovered coelocanth. There is cultural meaning in the very fact that humans feel the need to refer to this deceased tortoise as "George" and the last passenger pigeon as "Martha" -- it is, to a certain extent, anthropomorphism that perhaps betrays a significant sense of guilt. However, in each case, there was significant cultural meaning accorded to what was entailed in the extinction event. Lonesome George received a significant amount of attention because of attempts on the part of conservationists to get him to breed before he perished -- as a member of a subspecies, it was possible that George could have fertilized the egg of another subspecies of Galapagos tortoise, but the attempts were unsuccessful. But more to the point, George was from the Galapagos, famous for being the locus in which Charles Darwin observed and worked through his theory of natural selection. What was not discussed was the way in which Darwinian science might indeed complicate the notion of Lonesome George's death. After all, the theory of natural selection posits reproduction and extinction, considered as vastly long historical processes, as being the origin of species in the first place. This is emphasized by Barnosky et al. In a 2011 paper for Nature: they write "Of the four billion species estimated to have evolved on the Earth over the last 3.5 billion years, some 99% are gone. That shows how very common extinction is, but normally it is balanced by speciation" (51). Rockstrom et al. In their 2009 paper for Nature wish to emphasize that the current conditions definitely qualify as an extraordinary circumstance: "Species extinction is a natural process, and would occur without human actions. However, biodiversity loss in the Anthropocene has accelerated massively. Species are becoming extinct at a rate that has not been seen since the last global mass-extinction event." (472).

In the case of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, we face a very different cultural meaning. In his 2014 study of the extinction of this bird, published for the centennial of Martha's death at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, Greenberg notes some extraordinary facts about the species:

Nothing in the human record suggests that there was ever another bird like the passenger pigeon. At the time that Europeans first arrived in North America, passenger pigeons likely numbered anywhere from three to five billion. It was the most abundant bird on the continent, if not the planet, and may well have comprised 25 to 40% of North America's bird life. When the flocks moved for migration or foraging, the earth below would be darkened by shadows for hours: famed naturalist John James Audobon recorded a pigeon flight along the Ohio River that eclipsed the sun for three days (1).

Unlike the Galapagos tortoise -- which is a rare and unusual animal confined to an extremely small geographic region (tiny volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador) -- the passenger pigeon was about as common a species as could be imagined; their numbers, as Greenberg notes, were vast. It was purely human activity that managed to wipe out these vast numbers in what was a relatively short space of time. Moreoever, as Primack and Cafaro note in their 2014 editorial for Biological Conservation, the passenger pigeon's extinction has been wrongly used to indicate that such a vast change in the speciation of an entire continent is by no means catastrophic, although they are keen to dispute this facile reasoning:

Presumably these extinction events were indeed catastrophic for the species in question, and perhaps too for other species that preyed on or parasitized them, or depended on them in other ways. But such catastrophes do not appear to count morally for the authors -- they are not real catastrophes -- as long as the "ecosystem functions" that benefit people remain intact. Regarding the near-extinction of the American chestnut and the demise of the passenger pigeon, among the most abundant tree and bird species in temperate eastern North American forests five hundred years ago, if they had no "measurable effects," we may assume that was because no one bothered to measure them at the time. (1)

However this provides us with an indication of the current disconnect between scientific discourse concerning extinction, on the one hand, and the moral or cultural discourse on the other hand (as Primack and Cafaro's editorial is entitled "Species extinction is a great moral wrong"). Science has no way of quantifying ethics. When it comes to species extinction, the approach of science is bound to seem remote from anyone trying to translate it into cultural terms. While the meaning may be fairly clear, it is not easily packaged… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Lonesome George, Martha, and the Black Rhinoceros.  (2014, May 6).  Retrieved May 24, 2019, from

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"Lonesome George, Martha, and the Black Rhinoceros."  6 May 2014.  Web.  24 May 2019. <>.

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"Lonesome George, Martha, and the Black Rhinoceros."  May 6, 2014.  Accessed May 24, 2019.