Bioethics Blogs

Thom van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the End of Extinction by Eva Giraud

Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the End of Extinction

by Thom van Dooren

Columbia University Press, 2014. 208 pages.

Flight Ways begins with a question: at what moment should a species be categorized as extinct? The extinction of Passenger Pigeons, for instance, could – in the most technical terms – be marked with the passing of the final bird, Martha. Little connection seems to exist, however, between the pigeons as they moved ‘through the sky in flocks of hundreds of millions of birds that blocked out the sun’ (11) and Martha’s isolated death in 1914. This prolonged period, between endangerment and the death of the last member of a species, is described by van Dooren as the ‘dull edge of extinction’: a period of time that sees, even as individual life forms exist, a break-down in the distinct form of life  that characterises what it meant to be a particular species (11). Flight Ways engages in an ‘ethics of storytelling’ (9) which seeks to make the lives of five species of bird who currently live on this ‘dull edge’ visible: Albatrosses in the North Pacific, Vultures in India, a pocket of Little Penguins inhabiting Sydney harbour, Whooping Cranes in a U.S. breeding programme and, finally, Hawaiian Crows.

What needs to be emphasised is that this book has resonance far beyond its subject matter and – though it will clearly be of interest to those working within the Environmental Humanities or Animal Studies – Flight Ways is an important book that deserves a far wider audience. At the same time as presenting the stories of its birds in an evocative and politically urgent way, van Dooren manages to strike a delicate balance between theoretical innovation and accessibility.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.