By Dr. Yael Klangwisan

Suffering tends to be silent. Extinction is no different. We need science, the humanities and Scripture to give voice to this silence. In this blog, a biblical scholar reflects on human loneliness without animals, how science is urging us to take note of the extinction threatening all life, and how this crisis is first anticipated in Genesis.  We need the inward gaze, the objectivity of science and the meaning making of Scripture. Dr. Yael Klangwisan, a poet and biblical scholar reflects on these different sources in her blog on extinction and Genesis

In the midst of appalling scenes of political repression and brutality in the world, news of new research regarding the sixth mass extinction is slipping by largely unseen.  This week of all weeks, when no one on the planet needed more bad news, some newspapers like the Guardian and CNN posted stories on the critical research published by the National Academy of Sciences.[1]   The research conducted by Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich and Peter H. Ravenanalyzed data on vertebrates using these species indicators of “biological annihilation” so as to further delineate the trajectory of the sixth mass extinction event that is currently underway in the Anthropocene.[2]Extinction, as the earth’s geological histories tell us, is as inevitable as rain fall, and yet each time a species is lost it is a devastating and particular, mortal loss. The current crisis is a unique kind of extinction event, being as it is driven largely by humanity.  It is the kind of extinction event that unlike the previous five, will take many more millions of years for a strange and new flourishing biodiversity to reassert itself.  It is a compelling and ghastly kind of extinction event as the possibility that human life will be part of the collateral cost is almost certain.  

The import of this research is compelling, particularly embedded as it is in the bricolage of world news of the present time. That is, it is eclipsed by the backdrop of a reeling of Western civilization under the double blow of global pandemic and the totalitarian destabilization of democracy.  However, in their own words, the researchers claim that the data shows the ongoing sixth mass extinction “may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilization, because it is irreversible”.[3]  The researchers claim that a substantial number of “critically endangered vertebrate animal species have been lost in a century, indicating that the sixth mass extinction is human caused and accelerating” and furthermore “acceleration of the extinction crisis is certain because of the still fast growth in human numbers and consumption rates” and that because such “species are links in ecosystems, and, as they fall out, the species they interact with are likely to go also”.  The result of this ominous analysis will be “concentrated, regional biodiversity collapses”. The researchers claim that the only hope of saving homo sapiens from that dark night the dinosaurs entered rests upon the undertaking of massive global action.[4]

It almost feels trite to return to Genesis after such a desolate witness.  The utopian vignette of Adam and his animal carnival appears at the mythical beginning of the bible’s Anthropocene.  The scene is Genesis 2 (verse 18ff) where God brings a plethora of creatures to Adam “to see what he would call  them”, though the mood of the vignette in verse 18 that of loneliness, lo-tov heyot ha’adam levaddo.  Sadly, the human-animal tête-à-tête is a side note in the story which is moving determinedly towards the possibility of civilization through the creation of Eve. Human ascendancy in creation is foregrounded and established, and the human-animal relation is foreclosed against definitively in Gen 3:21 when the animal becomes the very material of technological advancement, “the Lord God made coats of skins, and clothed them”.  It remains, however, to consider how lonely it would be in a world where the links in ecosystems have disintegrated and biodiversity has collapsed in ways that jeopardize humanity’s own ability to support its systems of life. It would bring the reader of the biblical text closer in essence to the crisis of Genesis 6:19-7:3 which recounts Noah’s singular attempt at the safeguarding of biodiversity prior to the divine flooding of the world, where biodiversity was apparently reduced to two of each “unclean” kind and seven of the “clean” kind and the birds—though how this was even feasible on an ark even should it be the size of an ocean liner is not divulged by the biblical writer.  Regardless, there is stark gravity in the consideration that many of the names of animals even now extinct or becoming extinct (or long since the beginning of the Anthropocene) are likely not even known to us and this due to rapid change in the environments they and humans have lived.  

The poet Rilke describes a kind of fall of humanity. He contends that at the moment of the human-animal tête-à-tête, the (Edenic) human gaze was pure, that it was open, that it played a part in a future wherein generations, time and death would entangle in their tenuous balance, and that destruction and healing wrested as part of this eons-old cycle, “boundless and unfathomable”.[5][6]  But humanity, proud in its consciousness, its peculiar sentience and the blinkered nature of its technological advancement has lost this innocence and in particular lost sight of the animal other, their habitus, upon which civilization and technology has been so dependent.  As Rilke writes of humanity in the eighth elegy, “… spectators, always, everywhere, turned toward the world of objects, never outward. It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down. We rearrange it, then break down ourselves. Who has twisted us around like this, so that no matter what we do, we are in the posture of someone going away? … we live here, forever taking leave.” As Rilke casts in ominously prophetic poetry here, we may well take leave forever if we do not heed the cracks in this world that is as fragile as a teacup.  With Rilke, we must become more than spectators, we must actively grieve the passing of such creatures as the Dark Flying Fox of Réunion, a bat that no longer “quivers across the porcelain of evening”.[7]  We must turn to the endangered animal with the human gaze; we cannot recreate that first tête-a-tête, but we can attend to the animal. And, despite all odds, and with some sort of esprit de corps, we can learn their names, their habitus, their unique manner of being in the world, not just as an extension of us, not just lesser forms of humanity, but perfect and complete in themselves.  This inward work is as necessary as the documentation of loss that scientific research provides. And the give and take of the animal/human gaze allows us to read and understand the biblical text at a deeper level. 


[1]Damian Carrington, “Sixth mass extinction of wildlife accelerating, scientists warn,” The Guardian (June 1, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/01/sixth-mass-extinction-of-wildlife-accelerating-scientists-warn; Ivana Kottasová, “The sixth mass extinction is happening faster than expected. Scientists say it’s our fault” CNN (June 1, 2020), https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/01/world/sixth-mass-extinction-accelerating-intl/index.html.

[2]Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Peter H. Raven, “Vertebrates on the brink as indicators of biological annihilation and the sixth mass extinction,” Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences (Jun 2020), https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/05/27/1922686117.

[3]Ceballos,  Ehrlich and Raven, “Vertebrates on the brink”.

[4]Ceballos,  Ehrlich and Raven, “Vertebrates on the brink”.

[5]Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies.”

[6]Deborah B Rose, T. Van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew, Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[7]Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies.”

The Sixth Mass Extinction & Genesis