A lost world

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, points out that it was until the early 1800s until scientists began speaking about the idea of extinction. Before that, scientists didn’t acknowledge or were even aware of the deaths of species. 

Scientists knew a lot about the animal kingdom, but they didn’t think of animals as being extinct — until those bones of mastodons starting popping up in laboratories and curio stalls. The entire idea of extinction started as a theory.  

Think of the change in mindset when an idea like extinction takes hold. We knew we had a past. We studied it and celebrated it. But a lost past? That had to be something very difficult to swallow. 

Not only did we have to learn about the past — we also had to think about the past that was no longer there. 

Kolbert points out extinction is one of the first scientific facts today’s children are taught as they play with dinosaur dolls in their first months.  This knowledge grows with each child as they graduate to more complicated dinosaur models. Even if we only occasionally think about it directly, extinction is something we understand as part of life. A lost world.