Darwin & Yellowstone

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Historian Paul Schullery‘s talk at a November 2009 science agenda workshop in Yellowstone National Park focused on climate change, land use change, and invasive species. As I scrolled through the PDF of the talk transcript online (in the latest issue of Yellowstone Science, where I published a piece on religious language and YNP in 2008), to my surprise I saw an image of Darwin. Here’s where Schullery relates Darwin to Yellowstone history:

Those of you who saw Ken Burns’ big film on the national parks in September must have noticed the unusual extent to which scientists were even cast as heroes. My own favorite example of such scientific advocacy made it into the film. It was National Park Service biologist George Melendez Wright’s eloquent recommendation, in 1933, “that the rare predators shall be considered special charges of the national parks in proportion that they are persecuted everywhere else.” And only a few years later, Aldo Leopold himself recommended the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone. Anyone who knows much about the history of land management in the American West will agree that science, at least wildlife science, has rarely gotten more socially subversive than these statements by Wright and Leopold.

But rather than quoting a bunch more historic scientists, I think you only need to hear from one—one that you may have never heard of, a geologist named Theodore Comstock. Comstock visited and studied the park at its beginning, in 1873, with the Jones Expedition, and published several foresightful papers that reached far beyond his specialty. We ought to name a mountain or a microbrewery or something for this guy.

Remember that Comstock worked and wrote in the fierce propwash of the Darwinian revolution. We can barely imagine the mood of his times. The publication of both On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were current events to him, and his awareness of their sudden impact on science and society is reflected in this plea for the preservation of Yellowstone’s authentic wildness—a plea so modern that one of us might say it at this meeting.

Momentous questions are now agitating the scientific world, calling for experiment and observation which are daily becoming less possible, owing in a great measure to the obliterating influence of modern civilization. Thus it would almost seem that the present difficulties in the way of the solution of many questions, bearing upon the process of natural selection, will soon become insurmountable if some means are not employed to render more practicable the study of animals in a state of nature.

Of course Yellowstone provided those means, and Comstock, perhaps more fully than Hayden or any of the other early scientific pioneers of the region, articulated the case for the park as an unparallelled and perpetual opportunity to learn about wild nature.

Too bad I hadn’t come across this connection while I was an intern there. You can read the rest of Schullery’s talk here, and why not peruse more of Yellowstone Science (index), it’s freely accessible!

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