The Arctic Auk Quest: Extinction Puzzle Solved

‘The Last of Its Kind’ records the search for a rare bird that results in a monumental discovery; but the book’s narrative form fails.
The Arctic Auk Quest: Extinction Puzzle Solved
"The Last of Its Kind: The Search for the Great Auk and the Discovery of Extinction," by
Dustin Bass

In Gisli Palsson’s new book, “The Last of Its Kind,” we are introduced to what the author notes in his subhead: “The Search for the Great Auk and the Discovery of Extinction.” It is an adventurous journey that results in a sobering discovery.

The book combines biographical material on two British ornithologists, John Wolley and Alfred Newton, as well as the North Atlantic bird, the great auk. Wolley and Newton set off for Iceland during the mid-19th century in search of this bird in order to capture it and some of its eggs for scientific purposes. The bird was a rare find, as the ornithologists came to realize. This rarity was for a profound reason, which, as Mr. Palsson makes clear, the researchers struggled to determine.

Unnatural Extinction

In the 1800s, the idea that mankind could cause animals’  extinction was an idea not merely misunderstood, but dismissed as impossible. Whether man could eliminate a species had apparently never been researched, and if it had, it was never documented. After Wolley and Newton failed to find the great auk, the two scientists resolved to conduct extensive interviews of Icelanders who lived near Eldey Island, the location known for the great auk’s last appearance. These interviews were consolidated into Wolley’s “The Gare-Fowl Books.” The “gare-fowl” was another name for the great auk.
Great Auk (Pinguinis impennis) specimen. (Mike Pennington/ CC BY-SA 2.0)
Great Auk (Pinguinis impennis) specimen. (Mike Pennington/ CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mr. Palsson indicates that despite Wolley and Newton never reaching Eldey Island (it appears more like a boulder jutting from the ocean than an island) due to weather and the dangers it posed, the two scientists still made a valuable contribution to our understanding of species and extinction. As Mr. Palsson notes, “Not until the late 1880s were extinction and species paired, and extinction became a matter of biology and governance. The species that instigated this pairing was the great auk, and it was Wolley and Newton’s 1858 expedition to Iceland that sparked this important conceptual development, adding the concept of unnatural extinction to modern language and thought.”

Part of that conceptual development relied on basic research of nature’s supply and demand. The great auk only laid one egg a season. The birds, along with their eggs (exotic looking and never the same), were hunted en masse. High demand for the plumed feathers and the great auk’s skin during the Victorian Era drained the supply dry.

American readers will hardly miss the parallel between this and the near extinction of the bison. The demand for its hides and shootings for sport resulted in an overkill based on the false idea that the bison’s innumerable presence made it impossible to extinguish. Although Wolley tragically died young, Newton’s lectures and writings alerted the scientific community to the fact of the great auk’s extinction. His research ultimately laid the groundwork for establishing bird hunting seasons.

Scientific Discoveries, Local Sensitivities

The author further highlights a number of mid-19th century scientific discoveries and theories, specifically the rise of paleontology and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Mr. Palsson indicates that the incidental discovery of Jurassic period fossils by a British local, Mary Anning, substantiated the idea that species could naturally reach extinction. For Darwin, unnatural extinction was not a concern or at least not a theory he wished to pursue. It may have been, as Mr. Palsson indicates, due to the fact that unnatural extinction was inconsistent with his theory of natural selection.
The Icelanders did not believe that the great auk was extinct. The author points out that in all the interviews, the seamen and bird hunters all spoke of the bird in present tense. Furthermore, Mr. Palsson intimates that the Icelanders were later very sensitive and, understandably, combative concerning the idea that they had killed off the last great auk.

A Worthy Subject Poorly Conceived

“The Last of Its Kind” presents a number of important people, discoveries, and scientific and nonscientific views from the Victorian Era. As important as these contributions and contributors were to science and the protection of species, the book itself is chronologically convoluted.

The theme correlating Wolley and Newton’s expedition with the discovery of not just the extinction of the great auk, but unnatural extinction in general, would have been a great narrative device had the narrative moved accordingly.  However, Mr. Palsson’s work proves repetitive and jumbled. It may have been best to have produced a longform essay instead of a book.

I found it odd that Princeton Press editors would allow this scholarly work to be published as is. “The Last of Its Kind” undoubtedly presents a worthy subject and introduces many important people and moments, I just wish the presentation was worthy of the subject.

"The Last of Its Kind: The Search for the Great Auk and the Discovery of Extinction," by <span class="a-truncate" data-a-word-break="normal" data-a-max-rows="2" data-a-overflow-marker="&hellip;" data-a-recalculate="false" data-a-updated="true"><span class="a-truncate-full a-offscreen">Gisli Palsson. </span></span>
"The Last of Its Kind: The Search for the Great Auk and the Discovery of Extinction," by Gisli Palsson. 
‘The Last of Its Kind: The Search for the Great Auk and the Discovery of Extinction’ By Gísli Palsson Princeton University Press, Feb. 6, 2024 Hardcover: 328 pages
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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.