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IDSEMUG 1984 - Extinction: A History and Prospectus

This course will focus on three major themes: the discovery of the earth’s deep history, for which the concept of extinction played a major role, the very long history of extinction itself, and current controversies over the role of humans in causing extinction. The concept of extinction, although suspected much earlier, was established in modern science only in the late eighteenth century. Within a few decades it became obvious that the overwhelming majority of species of living things that have ever existed have become extinct. For most of the planet’s history extinctions were caused by natural events—extensive volcanic eruptions, asteroid collisions, climate change, and life itself, as when living things have altered the composition of the oceans, the soil or the atmosphere. During the past 50,000 years or so, less than an eyeblink in the history of the planet, an increasing number of extinctions, as well as creations, have been directly or indirectly caused by one species, Homo sapiens. Are anthropogenic extinctions “natural” as well? We will examine historical and recent debates on this question along with such topics as the role of religion in establishing the concept of the earth’s history, catastrophism versus uniformitarianism, the relationship between evolution and extinction, evidence and explanation in the earth sciences, controversies over asteroid collisions, and current debates over “invasive” species. Readings will include original works by Cuvier, Lyell, and Darwin, among others, as well as recent works by historians, philosophers, conservationists, ecologists, journalists, and evolutionary biologists, such as Martin Rudwick, Stephen Gould, E. O. Wilson, Chris Thomas, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Emma Marris. Class Notes: Section 001 not open to Environmental Studies majors.
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