- Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species by Ursula K. Heise
by Ursula K. Heise. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, U.S.A., 2016. 288pp., illus. Trade, paper, eBook. ISBN: 9780226358024; ISBN: 9780226358161; ISBN: 9780226358338.
A full selection of reviews is published monthly on the Leonardo website: <leonardo.info/reviews>.
If a great book is defined by the fact that it helps you think differently, then Ursula K. Heise’s new book is a truly great book. Next to its scholarly and stylistic qualities, which are great, Imagining Extinction is also a work that both frames and reframes the field of ecocriticism. It frames the field thanks to the broadness of the material and issues it studies. It also reframes it to its new, that is, cultural take, on the dispute on the extinction of species.
According to many biologists as well as the general public extremely sensitive to this kind of scientific research, we are currently facing a new mass extinction of species in the history of life on Earth. This crisis is not only studied by scientists; it is also a hot topic in cultural production and political activism. The essential claim of Heise is that it is time to reconsider the productive interaction between culture and science in the larger debates on extinction and biodiversity. Generally speaking, the relationship between both fields is seen as a one-way traffic: Scientists observe, measure, analyze, determine what is right or wrong, while cultural agents (writers, poets, film-makers, photographers, etc.) come always after these specialists, their intervention being that of science vulgarization as well as of awareness and consciousness-raising. Cultural agents, in this perspective, have certainly a major role to play, but their impact is limited to social and cultural action and does not apply to science itself, which remains free from cultural speculation.
A representative of cultural studies in literature and science studies (to label her work as an example of eco-criticism would not do justice to the broad scope of her research), Heise instead makes a plea for the crucial importance of cultural elements for a better understanding of science itself. Such a claim is of course not totally new (the productive role of culture, more precisely of language, has been a permanent and extremely stimulating concern since the 1980s), but the foregrounding of culture, that is of cultural values having to do with the basic difference between what we value as a community and what we do not, be it by choice, indifference or ignorance, is an important innovation in the debate on biodiversity (which is the larger horizon of the extinction debate).
Imagining Extinction opens with a fascinating evaluation of the criteria that enable us to measure biodiversity. For even if it is “easy” to observe that this or that species has disappeared, there is no direct link between species extinction and declining biodiversity. This is not only because the disappearance of a species cannot be interpreted in absolute terms (it can be nuanced by historical criteria, for instance when we compare the current state of biodiversity with previous periods that suffered even greater species extinction than what may be happening today), but also because the “scientific” definition of a species is always biased or, more positively put, influenced and determined by other, that is, cultural, criteria: Certain species are considered more important than others, and the presence or absence of the former (the dodo, the whale, the gorilla, etc.) will have a completely different impact than the absence or presence of the latter (for instance a mutating virus). This difference is not just theoretical; it is directly and materially reflected in the actual research, which overlooks many species for reasons that are inextricably scientific, cultural and economic (as is well known, it is easier to get funding to [End Page 537] study the possible extinction of a species we consider “essential” than to study the life or death of species that remain under the radar). Moreover, the debate on the...