Eating Extinct Animals

Yesterday, I wrote about how we may have eaten the Woolly Mammoth to extinction. Today, I want to write about eating extinct animals today.

Last year, I took care of my nephews in Cincinnati for a week while my sister and brother-in-law were on a trip. I decided to make it a point to work my way through their packed freezer, which had some truly ancient and scary looking items, including some cod that was older than my then nine-year old nephew and that had survived a move several years earlier.

Around the same time, I was reading Steven Rinella’s, American Buffalo, an excellent book about this iconic animal’s role throughout human history. At one point, Rinella mentions a mummified, 36,000 year old Steppe Bison in Alaska, and writes off-handedly:

Dale Guthrie, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska, cooked and ate part of the animal’s neck. He reported it to be “well aged but still a little tough.”

I did a double-take when I read this line. It seemed wrong in more ways than one. I was also intrigued, so I did a little research, and I feel good about the overall ethics and wisdom of the move. It turns out that eating ancient animals is a thing, although Woolly Mammoth apparently does not keep well.

It made me feel a whole lot better about cooking that decade-old cod for my nephews. I ended up turning it into a tasty fishcake, which forever boosted their respect for my cooking abilities.

Eating the Woolly Mammoth to Extinction

Earlier this year, I listened to a podcast about extinct foods. It opened by claiming that the woolly mammoth went extinct because of humans. Wikipedia is not as definitive about it, although I did find some other articles that also argued humans played a strong role.

These days, it’s de rigeur to blame all of our most extractive, unsustainable practices on capitalism. Capitalism deserves its share of blame, but I think this kind of reasoning is overly simplistic. Animals are not ecologists. Animals behave in ways that are fundamentally selfish and sometimes destructive. Ecosystems succeed when there is just the right mix of competing and cooperating species. There is no management from above.

We are most definitely animals. It doesn’t surprise me that humans have been eating animals to extinction long before higher order economic systems existed. But, we are also theoretically capable of seeing and understanding ecosystems in the way other animals are not. In order to do that, we still have to figure out ways to see how our practices in aggregate impact the world at large. Furthermore, those feedback loops must not just be intellectually understood, but felt. Charts correlating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with climate, for example, clearly aren’t enough.

This is what scares me about the de-extinction movement. It’s amazing that we can now revive the Woolly Mammoth, but should we? I would feel better about our chances at doing this “right” if we were better at building social systems with feedback loops that helped us make better collective decisions. I believe that we are capable of this, but our track record hasn’t been stellar.