<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>The Discovery of Extinction</b> <p> Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; or her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken. -Thomas Jefferson, 1784 <p> <p> <b>Jefferson's Dilemma</b> <p> At the height of the American Revolution, while the outcome of the rebellion against Great Britain remained uncertain, Thomas Jefferson grappled with the problem of fossils. The specific context of his engagement with this thorny issue was a manuscript that he began sometime in the summer or early autumn of 1780. At the time the thirty-seven-year-old governor of Virginia and author of the Declaration of Independence already enjoyed a considerable reputation for accomplishment in the political sphere. Less well known to his contemporaries was his keen interest in science. Jefferson was an inveterate reader of scientific treatises, a zealous recorder of natural phenomena, and an eager correspondent with others who shared his enthusiasm. He would later reflect on his longstanding curiosity about the natural world by declaring that "Science is my passion, politics my duty." <p> In 1780, when the secretary to the French minister in Philadelphia, Frangois Marbois, circulated a detailed questionnaire regarding the political and natural history of Virginia, Jefferson seized the opportunity to organize his abundant notes. Faced with a long series of personal and political crises-including the death of his daughter, the prolonged illness of his wife, a nasty injury sustained in a fall from his horse, forced retreat first from the state capital in Richmond and then from his estate in Monticello, and accusations that he had engaged in dishonorable conduct during the period of British occupation-Jefferson endured some of the darkest days of his entire life. Yet, at Popular Forest, his beloved rural retreat nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, he found solace in the hours devoted to fulfilling Marbois's request. By the time he returned to Monticello in August 1781, he was nearly finished drafting the manuscript. The resulting publication, issued three years lateras <i>Notes on the State of Virginia</i>, proved the only book Jefferson would publish during his lifetime. It is now widely considered a classic, "one of America's first permanent literary and intellectual landmarks." <p> Although he had long been fascinated with science, <i>Notes on the State of Virginia</i> signaled the beginning of Jefferson's active interest in fossil vertebrates. Interspersed among his discussion of political philosophy, his ideas about religious freedom, and his famous condemnation of slavery, Jefferson meticulously cataloged the natural resources of his home state and the surrounding region. The first animal he described was also the one to which he devoted the most attention: "the Mammoth, or big buffalo," a creature he judged to be "six times the size of an elephant," which it seemed to resemble. What little was known about this "incognitum" (as it was often referred to at the time) came from tales about the beast that Indians had passed down through the generations and from fossilized remains that had been uncovered in America beginning in the early eighteenth century. Since that initial discovery, the creature's teeth and bones had become highly sought after additions to institutional museums and private cabinets of curiosity on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, for example, not only Jefferson, but also George Washington and Benjamin Franklin owned prized specimens of the grinders from these mysterious beasts. <p> For Jefferson, the incognitum proved not only an intrinsically fascinating creature, it also provided ammunition in an ongoing campaign to refute the theory of one of Europe's most renowned naturalist during the second half of the eighteenth century, Georges Louise Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who was Intendant of the Jardin des Plantes and Keeper of the Royal Cabinet of Natural History in Paris. In his best-selling, thirty-six-volume <i>Histoire naturelle, ginirale et particulihre</i> (1749-89), Buffon argued that the New World's generally cool and moist environment had forced its native inhabitants to degenerate over time, rendering them punier, less vigorous, and less fertile than their Old World counterparts. Stung by the assault on his homeland and its people, Jefferson felt compelled to respond. In a discussion with explicitly nationalistic overtones, he asserted the morality, fecundity, and intelligence of America's aboriginal inhabitants. He also produced two tables showing that the mammals native to the land of his birth fared quite well when their weight or overall numbers were compared with those in Europe. The bones of the mysterious "incognitum," the "largest of all terrestrial beings," however, offered Jefferson with the strongest potential evidence in his bid to refute Buffon's troubling theory. The problem was Jefferson could not prove that the prodigious beast still roamed the earth. <p> For the remainder of his life, Jefferson vigorously pursued the American incognitum and other quadrupeds whose fossilized remains were periodically uncovered across North America. He not only personally financed numerous expeditions to retrieve fossil remains but also encouraged others to follow his lead. For example, on December 19, 1781, the day before he sent his completed Virginia manuscript to the French consul in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote to General George Rogers Clark, an old friend, Abermarle County native, and the commanding officer of the Army of the West. Jefferson's note, delivered by none other than Daniel Boone, asked Clark to venture to Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, on the banks of the Ohio River, to retrieve bones of the American incognitum. The threat of Indian attack kept Clark away from the area, so a year later Jefferson repeated his request, declaring: "A specimen of each of the several species of bones now to be found is to be the most desirable object in Natural History, and there is no expense of package or safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely." Despite his strict constructionist principles, as president of the United States Jefferson provided federal support so the Philadelphia artist, naturalist, and museum owner Charles Willson Peale could unearth a complete skeleton of the incognitum from a soggy marl pit along the Hudson River. With the bones he found, Peale mounted and displayed one of the earliest virtually intact fossil skeletons ever to be reconstructed, an outcome that thrilled Jefferson. <p> Jefferson enjoyed collecting fossil vertebrates-and proudly displayed them at Monticello-but he was also quite interested in furthering scientific understanding of these mysterious creatures. In keeping with that goal, he freely placed prized specimens in the hands of museums at home and abroad. The bones of the American incognitum that he sent to the prestigious National Museum of Natural History in Paris, for example, proved useful to French naturalists working in the nascent fields of paleontology and comparative anatomy. He even published a paper of his own describing a new species of large fossil mammal, which he dubbed the megalonyx, based on bones recovered by workers digging saltpeter from a cave in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia). Although he thought the megalonyx was a fearsome gigantic clawed beast that dwarfed the African lion, thereby providing additional evidence against Buffon's theory of degeneracy, it later turned out to be a massive sloth that still bears his name, <i>Megalonyx jeffersoni</i>. <p> Although it strikes the modern reader as rather odd, Jefferson also firmly believed these creatures still survived somewhere in the unexplored regions of the continent. In his table of American and European mammals found in <i>Notes on the State of Virginia</i>, Jefferson listed the mammoth first. In defense of this decision he wrote: "It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth as if it still existed? It may be asked in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist? Such is the conomy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken." Beyond this basic philosophical objection to extinction was the "traditionary testimony of the Indians, that this animal still existed in the northern and western parts of America," regions that remained "in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed." <p> To Jefferson and many of his contemporaries, the very idea of species extinction seemed anathema. Intellectuals of his day recognized that settlement often resulted in the local extermination of wildlife. But the complete disappearance of a species was another matter altogether. The loss of any organism across its entire range implied an unacceptable imperfection in God's creation, while violating deep-seated assumptions about the balance of nature and the great chain of being that proved central to Western understandings of how that creation was ordered. In the hope that living examples of these beasts might still be found wandering somewhere in the unexplored regions of North America, Jefferson urged the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to keep a sharp lookout out for species animals "deemed to be rare or extinct," like the American incognitum, during their famous western exploring expedition. The Corps of Discovery found a host of new plant and animal species during their arduous two-year journey, but they encountered no lumbering elephants. <p> While Jefferson's doubts about the possibility of extinction remained commonplace at the time he penned <i>Notes on the State of Virginia</i>, by the time of his death in 1826, most naturalists on both sides of the Atlantic had experienced a sea change in their ideas on the subject. Central to this transformation was the work of the brash young French naturalist, Georges Cuvier. With access to specimens provided by a transatlantic fossil network and training from prominent German anatomists, Cuvier deployed the principles of comparative anatomy to offer convincing evidence that extinction had been a regular part of the earth's history. Cuvier was the first naturalist to clearly distinguished between the two living species of elephant and two kinds of extinct fossil elephant, the mammoth and the mastodon, the latter of which he clearly differentiated and named in 1806. During the first several decades of the nineteenth century, he went on to describe a virtual zoo of lost creatures, thereby laying the foundations for modern paleontology. Within a surprisingly short period of time, the reality of extinction became central to most educated Westerners' understanding of the earth's history. Later in life, even Jefferson himself privately admitted that some species might have been lost. Yet, as we shall see later, some of the ideas that had led him and most other naturalists to deny the reality of extinction-for example, the notion of plentitude that proved central to the great chain of being and the idea that nature was finely balanced-remained important to thinking about the natural world long after the possibility of extinction became widely accepted. <p> <p> <b>Providential Natural History and the Order of Nature</b> <p> Jefferson and most of his contemporaries were certain that the natural world was orderly, static, and new. Most importantly, and one of the beliefs undergirding these convictions, they also firmly believed that it was the product of a divine mind. One way to understand that mind, and at the same time to ensure that science and religion, reason and faith remained firmly reconciled, was a set of practices and beliefs known as natural theology. As with so many foundational concepts in the Western world, the basic idea of natural theology-that careful scrutiny of the natural world revealed attributes of its creator-dates back to the ancient Greeks. During the Middle Ages, Aquinas and the scholastics labored to show how reason melded harmoniously with faith to demonstrate the existence and attributes of a Christian god. At end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, these ideas found full expression when the famed British naturalist John Ray published <i>Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation</i> (1691). Ray's influential, widely reprinted book combined observations and specific arguments made by previous authors with his own considerable knowledge of flora, fauna, and systematics. <p> Ray leaned heavily on a line of reasoning central to the natural theology of his day: the argument from design. This argument held that since the obvious order and complexity of the world could not have possibly emerged from nature itself, an intelligent designer must have imposed it. Just as human-made buildings and machines "do necessarily infer the being and operation of some intelligent Architect or Engineer," Ray argued, "why shall not also the Works of Nature, that Grandeur and Magnificence, that excellent contrivance for Beauty, Order, Use, &c., which is observable in them, wherein they do as much transcend the Effects of human Art as infinite Power and Wisdom exceeds finite, infer the existence of an Omnipotent and All-wise Creator?" Proponents of the argument from design applied it on multiple scales, ranging from individual organs (like the eye or the human hand) to particular species (like the honey bee or the beaver) to the larger patterns of relationship between species (e.g., the adaptations of prey to escape predation). In all cases, though, structure seemed to be perfectly adapted to function, while the order and complexity of nature was thought to reveal the wisdom, power, and beneficence of God. <p> When it came to conceptualizing the specific patterns of relationship between species, however, many possibilities presented themselves. One deeply entrenched way of thinking about that order was the chain of being or <i>scala naturae</i>, the idea that the diversity of the natural world could best be understood as a long chain containing every possible kind of organism in a linear, continuous series. In its most expansive form, the great chain of being was thought to encompass not just living organisms, but all kinds of being from "nothing to the Deity." The idea has its roots in the Platonic view that the world is full and all possible kinds of things exist (the notion of plentitude) and the Aristotelian belief that all creatures could be lined up in a hierarchical series, with no gaps between them (the notions of continuity and gradation). <p> Well into the eighteenth century, naturalists struggled to reconcile the expanding, increasingly detailed observations of known organisms into a single, hierarchical, continuous series. The idea of the chain of being proved central, for example, to the renowned Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who not only introduced the binomial system of scientific nomenclature but also developed widely adopted systems of botanical and zoological classification. Linnaeus once wrote that "the closer we get to know the creatures around us, the clearer is the understanding we obtain of the chain of nature, and its harmony and system, according to which all things appear to have been created." Similarly, in the preliminary discourse to his <i>Histoire naturelle</i>, Buffon argued that if man placed himself at the "head of all created beings, he would see with astonishment that one could descend by almost imperceptible degrees from the most perfect creature to the most shapeless matter, from the most organized animal to the crudest mineral; he would recognize that these imperceptible nuances were the greatest work of Nature." Nor was the idea of the great chain of being confined to biological circles; rather, it remained the common cultural heritage of most educated Europeans and Americans until the end of the eighteenth century. <p> The pervasive idea of the great chain of being had strong implications for how the notion of extinction was received. For if God had created every conceivable form and no discernable gaps existed between them, then the loss of any creature threatened to bring down the entire edifice. The British poet Alexander Pope simultaneously celebrated the chain of being while expressing concern about the implication of extinction in his <i>Essay on Man</i> (1733-34): <p> Vast Chain of Being! which from God began, Natures aetherial, human, angel, man, Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see, No glass can reach; from Infinite to thee, From thee to nothing.-On superior pow'rs Were we to press, inferior might on ours: Or in the full creation leave a void, Where, one step broken, the great scale's destroyed: From Nature's chain whatever link you strike, Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Nature's Ghosts</b> by <b>Mark V. Barrow, Jr.</b> Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. 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