Tuesday, 28 September 2010

bloody elk

Irish Elk are crazy. They are the ones you see in museums and think cannot be real. Viz.



Still Life, the taxidermy book I may possibly have mentioned, discusses the reasons for their extinction. Were they hunted to extinction? Was it that their antlers over-evolved and their skulls basically couldn't cope? Maybe, though
other theories say that climate change and habitat loss from early humans ... made it impossible for it to find the phosphorous- and calcium-rich plants it required to regenerate new antlers every year. As a result, the species developed a type of osteoperosis and died out. This is the theory that most scientists adhere to today
When I read this, I thought about how deeply scientific theories, like historical ones, are rooted in the societies which produce them.

As I am sure I've written before, in the tons of history books I have read in the past decade, I have noticed the primary focus shift from discussions of the precise structure of decision-making (the sort of micro-detail historians concentrated on during the illusory, Fukuyaman post-historical present) to analyses of what constitutes effective government. How do you actually, effectively get stuff done. (How do you establish and maintain the rule of law? - much more pressing in a post-Iraq War world.)

Now, I worry about setting this down in the context of science, especially if it is going to be read by a lot of muddle-headed English literature graduates who might think I am saying that everything is relative and there is no real truth, in history or science.

Of course, no one is unbiased. No source, history or document is free of its author's prejudices. Everything human contains some error. But simply because we are writing the histories and doing the science that answers today's questions doesn't mean we are getting them (fundamentally) wrong.

So each generation produces a new definitive biography of Hitler. And they each look at an aspect of him. Thus with the elk. Most scientists look at climate change explanations today. They get funding for it; and climate change is very important to them. But the climate change might not have been a problem for the elk if they were not being hunted. And having no calcium-rich plants would have been fine if they had not grown such stupid antlers. So in a time when we are worried about conspicuous consumption we might focus on the stupid antlers, and I bet people did during the late nineties. Nasty man in the seventies. Now, man plus climate.

None of these explanations is wrong. All of these things are part of what killed off the irish elk. Probably.

(This reminds me of a CSI episode where a series of sheer accidents ends with a girl in a suspicious dumpster. It's all about the whole picture.)

1 comment:

John Finnemore said...

I see. You're basically saying that everything is relative and there's no real truth, in history or science.