Zest Books, 2016
In the last quarter of the 19th century, naturalists influenced by Charles Darwin began to realize that they lived in what one of them called “a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest, and fiercest and strangest forms have recently disappeared.” As subsequent scientific research has proved, waves of extinction extend back 440 million years, the first four related to drastic climate change caused by shifting continental landmasses, and the fifth caused by the meteor strike and massive volcanic eruptions that doomed the dinosaurs. The fifth, coinciding with the Ice Age, took with it the mammoths. “The Last of the Giants” is concerned with what scientists are now calling “the sixth extinction” – the crisis of extinction at an accelerated rate in the past 500 years, much of it in the last century.
Among the victims of this new extinction have been animals that were once giants in their environments. Some of these disappearances are familiar: the California grizzly, the lion, the tiger, the rhinoceros, the red wolf, the baiji. Others are little-known, because their disappearance antedates living memory: Steller’s sea cow, the elephant bird, the moa, the aurochs, the thylacine, the giant tortoise. Campbell’s book investigates the history of these species one at a time, discussing their demise in relation to what he calls the “crisis of coexistence” that emerged when these dominant species encountered another: man, or as he puts it, us.
A book on this topic could be deadly dull if it were written in scientific language supported by tables and charts. In the absence of such professional tools, it could become a jeremiad. “The Last of the Giants” is neither. It’s a study in the spirit of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse,” or of Douglas Adams’s “Last Chance to See” – a book that makes its point by telling stories based on careful, thoughtful research. What did it feel like to be a Maori who first paddled to New Zealand in about 1200? To start with, the great islands were inhabited solely by birds whose songs could be heard a quarter mile off-shore. Amid these birds were the moa – 12-foot-high flightless birds that had slowly adapted to an environment without predators over thousands of years. Campbell describes the birds – pointing out that their dominance made them (like other giant species) produce offspring infrequently – in this case, in the form of eggs, which the Maori ate, while hunting the great birds. Three hundred years later, the moa was virtually extinct – and the Maori, deprived of what had become one of their primary foods, had turned to cannibalism.
Written in an easily accessible style, this book offers a fascinating glimpse into the Earth’s ecological past. Again and again, it portrays animals who became giants because they were dominant in some area – often islands, where they developed without predators until humans arrived. It is sometimes a story of greed, which lost the world Steller’s sea cow and is losing the African black rhinoceros. More often, it’s a matter of indifference, which lost the world the baiji. But always, it’s a story of man’s coexistence with animals whose sudden absence affects the whole ecology in which they were once dominant. Campbell’s stories demonstrate, without preaching, that it’s important to teach ourselves to think in geological terms – that is, in the long run of thousands of years. Its concluding chapter suggests ways of learning to live with the remaining giants who are disappearing in increasing numbers.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.