[7 August 2002]

By Celia McClinton

Something of An Oddity

What an odd book! Twigger’s agent gets him a contract to write about the Milu, Elaphurus davidianus, a Chinese deer that, to the Chinese way of thinking, is a strange combination of things that don’t fit together. Its head is like a camel’s, its tail like a mule’s, its hooves bovine. As a struggling young writer, Twigger is delighted. The advance is good, and he can get away from writing in the first person, though he spends the first 40 pages explaining all this in the first person. He can, at last, do real historical research.

Hunted to all but extinction in the wild a thousand years ago, the Milu survived as the special property of the Emperor who alone could hunt it and taste its meat. Pere Armand David, a Catholic missionary and the same guy who gave us the giant panda, discovered the Milu in 1865 and it was first described for science in 1866. The Boxer Rebellion played havoc with the surviving Milu, but the Duke of Bedford was able to establish a herd at the Woburn Abbey. There the herd miraculously survived and some animals have now been returned to Beijing where there are plans to return them to the wild. Nonetheless, they are “critically endangered.”

You can get all this on the web, which is more than you get from Twigger’s book. What Twigger is more interested in writing about is writing itself, and his writing in particular. His frustration with his historical research, which he holds is always going sideways, not forward, looms large. He digresses at length about library automation and the likely extinction of the book. He complains about computers and microfilm and the disappearance of used bookstores in Egypt. A book of musings by a serious bibliophile is worthwhile, but it is not what this book pretends to be. Most readers will feel duped.

Nonetheless, the publisher insists on calling this a Nature book, and Twigger does speculate on the intellectual implications of concepts that surround evolution and extinction, but the observations are sophomoric at their best and wrong at their worst.

Twigger asserts that we are concerned with extinction of any species because it is a forecast of the demise of our own species. His agent readily agrees. Well, okay, but it’s hardly a profound idea. Evolution, including the idea of extinction, is a threat because, until Darwin started writing, humans had assumed they lived in a changeless universe made whole and complete. By the time Darwin finished, he had radically changed western cosmology. We have had to come to terms with a universe that is nothing but change, and possibly random, purposeless change at that. It is still disconcerting.

Twigger rightly complains that extinction in popular Darwinism is the fault of the critters themselves. They are somehow odd, exceptional and don’t fit the pattern. Weak animals go under because they are weak; indeed, they’ve chosen to be weak. People go under because they are victims and have chosen to be victims. We might hope that this type of ‘Social Darwinism’ died on Europe’s many battlefields, but it probably hasn’t. Twigger holds that since WWII ‘the survivor’ has become a most admirable social type. Survivors comply with oppression, do nothing but survive, and often do so simply by accident. When bad things happen, survivors just happen to be lucky enough to be elsewhere. His discussion of survivors is good, but it’s the stuff, in its present form, of a magazine article, not a book.

Among the many problems presented by Darwinism, Twigger holds, is that it has simply robbed us of our good stories by which he means, I suppose, our myths. Having spent much of my academic life studying evolution, I must disagree. Evolution is the story and the publication industry knows this well. It has recently explored everything from trilobites to the discovery of the Ice Age, some pretty damn good stories. One wants to scream at Twigger, “Go back to the university and study a little science (which he seems to have confused with technology) before you write anymore about it.”

Twigger asks, without providing an answer, why we should worry about the extinction of any species when we are now quite capable of our own destruction. After all, we are all, human and Milu alike, captives in a controlled environment, a kind temporary holding-pen. Well, my word, averting nuclear catastrophe may well be our number one environmental priority but that certainly doesn’t preclude a little worry and bother about other things as well, like thermal pollution and species conservation.

About the title. The Extinction Club is a group of aristocratic chauvinists who deliberately bring about the extinction of species, a kind of reverse green terrorism, simply because they themselves have become extinct. Twigger doesn’t approve. Good of him. But he has run for public office on a decidedly “green” Extinction Club ticket. This, like the Flat Earth Society, must have something to do with the British sense of humor, something admittedly beyond the grasp of most Americans.

In reflecting on a prospective trip to New York, Twigger admits that Americans didn’t seem “to give a toss” about what he had to say. This book is not likely to change our attitude towards him that much.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/extinction-club/