What we talk about when we talk about extinction

A relational view of biodiversity loss

To the right of the window in my office that looks out on the chicken coop is a framed wall hanging, a cloth reproduction of a painting of two birds. The birds are called huias, which were once common across the North Island of New Zealand but are now extinct. There’s a female, with a remarkable, scythe-like bill, and a male, its own bill resembling a wedge or perhaps a chisel. The fact that individuals of the same species but different sexes could look so different is one reason that huias stick in your head. Males and females likely occupied different ecological niches. They may even have foraged cooperatively, teaming up to break apart logs and probe for grubs.

The wall hanging is actually a dishcloth but it was cheap and art is what you want it to be. I bought it during a trip to Auckland five years ago, and almost immediately put it up in what was then my grad school office. Some of its appeal is aesthetic: the huias are painted flat against a plain turquoise background, giving the dishcloth a kind of pop art flair typically absent from the staid traditions of natural history illustration. But the birds are also symbols to me. They remind me of the power of evolution by natural selection, of the permanence of extinction, of the dance of sex and death that makes life what it is.

“Extinction” is a word like “guillotine”, sharp on the tongue and evocative of a categorical historical horror. It’s a word that contains stories of loss and pity. Huias were here once, and now they aren’t, and every intrinsic and relational quality they had is gone forever. The forests they knew, their habits and fears and hungers, things we can only guess at. I look at the painting of the birds in my office and I imagine the last handful calling for each other across acres and acres of kauris. Then the endling, and its absolute and final loneliness.

What we talk about when we talk about extinction is usually this moment: the grim conclusion of a long process and the point of no return. This is partly a consequence of a typological view of biodiversity, where species are self-contained and tangible entities that either exist or don’t exist, not dynamic populations varying in time and space. The type specimen in a museum drawer serves as a species’ scientific birth certificate, a single individual chosen to be the standard for its kind in perpetuity. When the rest are gone, we end up with tidy lists of the dead.

A binary view of what it means to be extant or extinct has its uses. Yet it is an impoverished and atomized way of thinking about the fullness of what a species is, and ignores those relational qualities that give its existence meaning. Consider the sum total of a species’ ecological interactions, a vast network that begins eroding long before its ultimate demise and whose broken strands will leave an imprint on ecosystems long into the future. It’s why managing to preserve a dozen or so huias on an island in the Hauraki Gulf would have still been a failure worth grieving, and why extinction can feel so anticlimactic. Most of the time, we get used to living without something before it’s really gone.

The winnowing of genetic diversity that accompanies a species’ decline to guns or heat or the inexorable creep of suburbia is often portrayed as analogous to species loss, as it can represent the extirpation of discrete subspecies or populations. But there are reasons to think of genetic diversity extinction in a relational way instead. Like ecological interactions, genealogies are situational, and variation in DNA reflects messy stories of ancestry and kinship that played out in specific places and were shaped by specific processes and events. This, too, is what we lose on the road to extinction: not only an abstract quantity of genetic variation, but a historical record of lives that were rich and varied in their particularities, intertwined with each other and the broader world. What made huias matter to us if not that?