Monday, January 22, 2007

Annotation: Twilight of the Mammoths by Paul S. Martin

Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America
by Paul S. Martin

Paul S. Martin’s Twilight of the Mammoths is part academic discourse, part scientific review; yet all argument. The fundamental premise is that the megafauna of the “near history” of the late Quaternary era that are now extinct—large herbivores and carnivores such as mastadons, mammoths, giant sloths, saber-tooth tigers, North American lions, and a number of land-dwelling birds—are extinct worldwide due to the rapid expansion of humans. Martin’s thesis is based on numerous field research observations and subsequent analysis of fossils, facilitated largely by radiocarbon dating. His thesis is also based on critical scientific analysis of anthropogenic and paleontological research by peers over the last forty years. His conclusion is controversial for most in the field, as a radically changing climate was generally believed to be the cause of the mass extinctions. Martin’s intent, however, is not just to convince the reader and the full scientific community that the Clovis people, as the original pioneering North Americans have been called—for example—are responsible for extinction. His goal is to advocate strongly for a new, historically broader vision of what a “Wild America” should be; i.e., a “restoration ecology” that reintroduces animals that fill as closely as possible the niches of extinct fauna—not just bison and gazelle and other browsers that fill the equid niche, but elephants to replace mammoths and mastadons.

Martin’s approach is somewhat mixed, beginning with a heavily technical treatise on radiocarbon dating and Quaternary extinctions by genus, classification, and other categories. He then moves into an overview of his “overkill” idea, followed by a series of essays on field research in caves in the Grand Canyon, for example. Through these first chapters, I felt like I was thrown back into my wildlife biology days, with an academic journal-quality review that isn’t literary in nature but that, I now conclude, is essential to creating a baseline for Martin’s argument. Martin makes his case step-by-step, only occasionally stepping out of character to reveal his frustration with other scientists or, in some cases, with the inability to find good scientific data. Twilight of the Mammoths—and Martin’s thesis—finally come into their own beginning in Chapter 6, “Deadly Syncopation.” Here I realized, much to my delight, that as a reader I was clued in to a historically important scientific debate. Chapter 9 especially is a response to those who have openly doubted Martin—reading almost as a series of passionate letters. Or: Martin here has the pulpit, and is using a strong sermon—one growing in strength over the course of the book—to convince the congregation of fellow scientists (primarily; general readership secondarily) that the cause of the mass extinctions can only be the early humans, or their direct outcomes, such as rats devastating populations on Pacific islands.

Martin’s stylistic devices are primarily two-fold: 1) Persuasive scientific discourse—lengthy reviews of literature, fieldwork, and analysis, eliminating one-by-one arguments against his position; and 2) Personal asides, not quite as full personal essays—bringing a bit of Martin’s personality into the text, sometimes working for and sometimes against his otherwise consistent and determined approach.

What at first I thought was a weakness—the detailed academic review to begin the book—I now see as a strength, an essential establishment of a baseline, so that non-scientific (or, rather, those not in the general scientific field) have all of the taxonomic details from the get-go. Martin’s subsequent strength is to take all of this detailed information and press it into a logical, intuitive argument, even while realizing much more data and forthcoming data analysis tools and techniques—whatever they may be—will undoubtedly change what we know, and how we therefore consider these extinctions.

A single weakness may be that Martin does not spend more time on the ideas of restoration and resurrection. These chapters are succinct—but now that he has convinced me, I’m eager for more stories, more possibilities.

In all, Martin has presented a radical theory that should, I think, result in the elusive “paradigm shift,” not just about how we view the extinctions, but perhaps more importantly about how we view “unadulterated nature,” especially in the Western Hemisphere, Australia, and New Zealand.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I enjoyed the content of Twilight of Mammoths and see it as a fascinating topic. However I am not enamored with Martin's book. Primary faults include:
1. Poor writing / choppy sentences (is this the editor's fault?)

2. Fails to adequately discuss the lack of kill sites for mammoths and sloths and only mentions it in passing (he actually acknowledges the distinct lack of kill sites, having only found bison and other such kill sites with verifiable Clovis points). Shouldn't this be of primary importance?

3. Talks at length of problems with the overchill theory (climate change). This is good. However why doesn't he discuss the overill theory (disease)? This seems to me quite feasible. Neglect of the topic undermines his desire for thoroughness.

4. Fails to address the question (even though he quotes a student who once asked it): If humans catalyzed so many extinctions, why not slow moving bison, bears, etc.? How could humans find and kill American lions, but not brutish ovids?

5. Fails to address how humans could be so thorough in their killing, extinguishing species from the most distant jungles in Central America. Even with advanced technology, this endevour would be most challenging today.

6. Did I mention what a poor writer he was? I like the anecdotes, but his thoughts seem scattered - he needs a better editor.