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  • Natural Science and Justice
  • Frieda E. Knobloch (bio)
Mark V. Barrow, Jr. Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 512 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $35.00 (cloth); $21.00 (e-book).
Laura Dassow Walls . The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 424 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00 (cloth); $20.00 (paper); $18.00 (e-book).

Laura Dassow Walls and Mark V. Barrow, Jr., each address environmental losses felt urgently in the present. Barrow's subject is the long naturalist tradition that "discovered "and then attempted to mitigate processes of animal extinction. Walls' subject is the great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt's understanding of "man and nature" together—mind and nature, intellect and the world as we find and attempt to understand it—has been deeply obscured by environmental sciences that failed to embrace (or willfully rejected) his most egalitarian vision. Humboldt's word for this vision was "Cosmos." One writes great-man histories only at great risk. Barrow seems wholly unaware of the significance that his naturalists are exclusively white, overwhelmingly male and self-consciously elite. Walls is at pains to show us it is precisely because of Humboldt's origins and influence that we should take his forgotten implications seriously; the tradition we've been given as "naturalist" intimated more than we know. Walls asks us to read Humboldt afresh, or for the first time, particularly in English. Had Barrow's naturalists been inspired by this lost Humboldt, their work might have been both more humane and more successful.

Nature's Ghosts begins with naturalists confronting the unthinkable: that extinction was possible. Starting with the discovery of the bones of the "American incognitum" (a mammoth) in the eighteenth century, the book ends with contemporary conservation biologists who grasp the profound implications of cascading extinction. Animals that exist only "as lifeless skins in the drawers of museums, as fading images on paper and film" (like the tagged Carolina parakeet corpses on the book's cover) are the "ghosts that haunt us with what [End Page 235] might have been" (p. 283). The "specter of anthropogenic species loss" haunts Barrow's naturalists with particular force (p. 54). The idea of extinction contributed directly to the development of evolutionary theory for Darwin and others; anthropogenic extinction might be slowed or stopped through conservation and preservation efforts, often nationalist in flavor. Species decline linked to habitat decline is a major tenet of ecological thought and an implicit critique of development, provoking widespread public response in the 1960s and 1970s; political boundaries are not habitat boundaries, encouraging international collaboration in institutions and agreements in a global era.

Naturalists buoyed by currents of thought are not just concerned with species. Barrow points out that they are ordinary people motivated by, among other things, "emotional attachment to and identification with many" of the species they study (p. 10). Reed Noss (quoted in Barrow's conclusion) values experience in "raw Nature," and "the wisdom that springs from knowing the world and its creatures in intimate and loving detail" (p. 358). We are all capable of the kind of connections with the natural world that inspired naturalists' love, and therefore their type of care for the living world. A miscellany of experts dead and living then become a "venerable naturalist tradition" that is very much alive, even if many of the animals with which naturalists "developed strong emotional bonds" (p. 359) are not. "We should not only be grateful for their ongoing commitment to protecting biodiversity but also join them in their noble and worthy struggle" (p. 359).

A closer look at our fellow travelers might give us pause lest we believe that the "venerable tradition" has been merely studying nature all this time. At the banal level of collecting specimens, a defensive myopia is evident in Barrow's account, as if they (or he) were on the verge of understanding how compromised their efforts might be. Specimen collection contributed to the decline of species that were known to be endangered, even driving competition...


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pp. 235-242
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