It begins in the Highlands of New Guinea in the 1980s, where Flannery collected specimens, leading to his authoritative studies of the mammals of Papua New Guinea, the South West Pacific and the Moluccas. Its tales read like a Boy’s Own Adventure. Flannery takes us into a delicately braided world where ‘‘the infrequent flashing moments when tree kangaroos and men meet are full of meaning and excitement’’.
‘‘In the mind of the hunter they are added to the retold experience of father, uncles and grandfathers. The knowledge of many coalesces to form a detailed understanding of the lives of these most obscure animals.
‘‘For tree kangaroos too, the moment of encounter with a hunter is a crucial one. Those that tarry too long, not realising the danger they are in, meet a swift death. Likewise, those whose belly is a little too pale and easily seen in the canopy from below …
‘‘This has happened over 20,000 tree kangaroo generations, as human hunters have pursued their prey. Throughout this time tree kangaroos have also stored up knowledge, not in memory but in genes … A tree kangaroo’s behaviour, and even its appearance, if read properly, presents a catalogue of its predator’s behaviour as detailed as the predator’s is of the tree kangaroo as prey.’’
This lesson in Darwinian selection understood from human and non-human perspectives introduces Flannery’s holistic ecological vision, which grows increasingly elaborate as the book proceeds.
There is something very old fashioned and masculine about this early Flannery. His joy at being the hardy explorer like his predecessors Lumholz, Wollaston, Cairn and Grant, guided by the natives out hunting for specimens, or being immersed in the frontier worlds of First Fleeter Watkins Tench, 18th-century mariner John Nichol, and the wayward convict and early 19th-century cohabitor with Victorian tribes, William Buckley, suggests almost a secret longing to have been these characters at the moment of first contact.
These were men living in an emergent Enlightenment world, newly making modernity. Here, before the confining institutional practices of science established themselves, gentlemen naturalists and collectors could open new vistas of knowledge for European audiences.
As the book proceeds, its panoptic vision widens and deepens through time and across space. Flannery is a Time Lord, whose geological imagination can tie together thousands, or millions, and sometimes billions, of years in a few lines.
Ground Zero, The Fatal Impact and America under the gun speak of world-changing, continent-shaping impacts: the asteroid strike that terminated the Age of Dinosaurs 65 million years ago, European settlement, disease and trade that drove the decimation of American Indian peoples and the slaughter of species. A Fresh look at the Earth (2010) looks at the sources of life on our planet. They’re taking over (2013) is a fabulous overview of our planet dominated by jellyfish.
His sense of time’s expanse sometimes teeters on the edge of the abyss. Here’s Hamlet in the Antipodes.
‘‘To flick a triangle of clay from such a bone, revealing its shape and knowing you are the first living being in 50,000 years to see that sight, was as energising as sex …
‘‘A huge kangaroo, almost twice the weight and a third taller than any living today had stood on this spot … I was holding its anklebone in my hand 50,000 years after its burial, a still-living thing on its land, yet separated from its life by such a gulf of extinction and change as might separate me from my unimaginably distant ancestors, if humanity and my genes survive so long. The gulf of time will consume you if you linger over it too long …’’
For all that, this magnificent tapestry has its wrinkles. The book lacks any reflection on earlier work. This is problematic if for no other reason than because science moves on, later scholarship provides new insights, views change and public acceptance of once-common practices and beliefs shifts.
For instance, Flannery writes: ‘‘As explained by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, following their isolation from other Aboriginal groups as rising seas flooded Bass Strait about 10,000 years ago, the Tasmanian population of a few thousand lost the ability to make bone needles (and thus the ability to sew rugs) and possibly the knowledge required to make fire.’’
This view, consonant with the idea of a lesser race shuffling toward extinction, has long been contested. Anthropological research from 1992 onwards provided strong evidence to the contrary. And the ongoing production of maireener shell necklaces, carefully strung through holes bored in each delicate shell, indicates an unbroken Indigenous tradition of needle use.
While stacking its 49 chapters into five chronological blocks displays Flannery’s evolving interests, Life is a scrap book: there is nothing to indicate why each piece has been chosen, where it was first published, or its relationship to the whole. Without an introduction that explains its organising principle, or defines its deep themes, the collection provides no narrative ‘‘build’’.
The absence of a conclusion is a missed opportunity. One cannot help but be repelled by his description, in Throwim Away Spices (2019), of the Humboldt Museum of Natural History, an imperial charnel house assembled in the name of science.
‘‘Row upon row, and stack upon stack, were thousands of skulls of the largest and most endangered creatures on the Earth. Elephant, rhino, giraffe, hippo, Cape buffalo. All had come from German East Africa during the colonial era. It was a wonder anything was left alive on the savannah.
The Germans were great scientists and patriots, and wherever they went they sent specimens back to the Fatherland … Through their efforts was built one of the most fabulous collections on Earth.’’
Flannery is disturbed by this savage plunder. He mourns, but also perhaps a little for those earlier times – when specimens were amassed for ‘‘classificatory purposes’’ as bogus as phrenology. Fabulous for whom? For what?
Oolacunta (2004) offers a clue. Returning from a study trip to the Natural History Museum in London, he writes: ‘‘Looking at the taxidermied remains of broad-faced potoroos, nail-tailed wallabies and desert rat-kangaroos, I feel as if Britain has taken the heart of my country. The desert rat-kangaroo, eastern hare-wallaby and crescent nailtail once thrived right across the land stretching out 1100 metres below me. Perhaps, I secretly hope, my studies of the ecology of these vanished creatures will assist in regaining that equilibrium, for until we know what we have lost, we cannot make good the damage.’’
Perhaps. However, Flannery fails to consider any possible link between a taxonomic practice that kills, collects and dissects, and the exterminist industrial culture within which it evolved, which has rendered nature in all its forms into something that is valueless until transformed into a resource and a commodity.
I’m left wondering how critically he reflects on the relationship between the Enlightenment that generated our global extinction crisis, and the purpose and activities of its scientific servants.
In 2050: The Great Stumpy Reef (2005), A Warning from the Golden Toad (2005) and They’re taking over (2013), Flannery highlights the destructive turbulence that global warming is generating. But we don’t get a clear view of his current thinking about how the ecological sciences relate to the catastrophic world towards which we are plunging.
My uncertainty here is tweaked by his hopes for ‘‘restoration ecology’’ and ‘‘de-extinction science’’, including by reintroducing ersatz megafauna – for instance, elephants and high-order predators such as wolves and Komodo dragons – into landscapes debased by human practices. Are ‘‘wilding’’, or genetically engineering climate-suited species, truly restoration or another hubristic attempt at ecological domination?
Flannery observes that ‘‘no other species can perceive environmental problems or correct them, which means the responsibility for managing this world of wounds we’ve created is uniquely ours’’. It is a shame that, for all its grandeur, Life doesn’t end with a powerful new piece that directly confronts the difficult ecological choices we face in this life-annihilating phase of the Anthropocene, and that directly considers the values, processes and new institutions we need to survive it.
Peter Christoff teaches environmental politics and climate policy in the School of Geography, University of Melbourne.