7 Questions with David Sepkoski, author of “Catastrophic Thinking”
The Chicago blog, NOVEMBER 23, 2020
We live in an age in which we are repeatedly reminded—by scientists, by the media, by popular culture—of the looming threat of mass extinction. Such apocalyptic talk feels familiar to us, but the current fascination with extinction is a relatively recent phenomenon. As David Sepkoski reveals, the way we value biodiversity depends crucially on our sense that it is precarious—that it is something actively threatened, and that its loss could have profound consequences. In his new book, Sepkoski uncovers how and why we learned to value diversity as a precious resource at the same time as we learned to think catastrophically about extinction. We asked him a few questions about it.
In the book, you explain how an “extinction imaginary” helps inform the way we see and value the world around us. Can you give us a quick introduction to that term?
A central claim of this book is that scientific ideas and cultural values can’t be cleanly separated: science doesn’t “cause” us to believe certain things about society or politics, nor do political or social values “explain” particular scientific theories. Rather, the science and culture of a particular place and time are tightly interwoven and reinforce each other by setting the conditions of possibility for thinking and believing certain things rather than others. In the 1980s and 1990s it was popular to apply Michel Foucault’s concept of “discourse” to describe this kind of multicausal interrelationship—and indeed, I sometimes refer to an “extinction discourse” that applied at different times—but I felt that this term misses the important element of imagination that is central to the way societies have conceived and worried about the consequences of extinction.