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Vanished: Hope and Histories of Extinction
History Department Annual Stenton Lecture 2021
Dr Sadiah Qureshi (University of Birmingham): ‘Vanished: Hope and Histories of Extinction’
We are so familiar with extinction that it is hard to imagine a world where nothing was believed to be extinct. We are accustomed to stories of extinction from playing with toy dinosaurs to museum visits. For decades, anyone visiting the Natural History Museum in London immediately encountered, Dippy the dinosaur. From July 2017, visitors are greeted by ‘Hope’, the blue whale. She dives from the ceiling towards the crowds in an astonishingly beautiful reminder of the fragility of the natural world in the Anthropocene. Below her, in the alcoves of the vast entrance hall, visitors can see collected specimens of extinct and endangered species, from the mastodon to coral.
Yet, the science of extinction is modern. Up until the eighteenth century, well-known losses, such as the Mauritian dodo, were attributed to human actions. In the later eighteenth century, working from the extensive natural history collections in Paris, George Cuvier argued that fossilised elephantine beasts such as the Mastodon were a different species to their living relatives. This research helped establish the notion that extinction was both endemic and widespread in earth’s history and quickly underpinned new ideas about loss and endangerment in the modern world. In the twentieth century, the rise of ecology and conservation movements in the 1960s and 1970s created a new awareness of anthropogenically-induced species loss and we are currently witnessing a new era of activism with the emergence of Extinction Rebellion.
We now know that rapacious exploitation of natural resources is directly contributing to the habitat loss, overconsumption and pollution underpinning many modern extinctions, from the great auk to the Yangtze dolphin. For millenia, each loss permanently diminished the natural world. Yet, within the last decade, the serious prospect of de-extinction has arisen. Scientists are racing to resurrect lost species while their supporters dream of mammoths roaming the earth once more.
Drawing on scientific writings, activist art and museum collections and displays, this Stenton Lecture will explore how naturalists established the notion that extinction was an endemic natural process and the lasting legacies of this shift for current debates about climate change, the ‘sixth extinction’ and the future of our planet.’
Dr Qureshi’s lecture will be accompanied by a Stenton workshop in partnership with the British Museum entitled: ‘Collecting and Nineteenth-century Empires’.
Confirmed speakers include Mirjam Brusius (German Historical Institute); Kate Nichols (Birmingham); Ricardo Roque (Lisbon); Subhadra Das (Galton Collections, UCL), Marenka Thompson-Odlum (Glasgow/ Oxford), Amara Thornton (UCL), as well as speakers from the British Museum.