The Yale Symphony Orchestra has shared the stage with renowned performers like Yo-Yo Ma. But until Saturday night the YSO had yet to share the stage with a pigeon.
The YSO’s performance, which honored the extinct passenger pigeon, was the culminating event to the daylong symposium “Extinction: Biology, Culture and Our Futures” hosted by the Franke Program in Sciences and Humanities. Attended by over 50 people in the Whitney Humanities Center, the symposium was inspired by the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Six experts in various fields spoke on the topic of extinction, incorporating into the discussion history, comparative literature and the way we talk about extinction.
“I hope that people see that there is a real conversation going on between the sciences and humanities on the topic of extinction,” said Justin Eichenlaub, assistant director of the Franke Program. “There are actual moments where humanists can help scientists and social scientists see the stakes of what is happening with these issues and vice versa.”
The idea behind the Franke Program is to bring people together from different fields and expand otherwise limited discussions beyond disciplinary boundaries, Eichenlaub added. The talks featured historians, linguists, evolutionary biologists, researchers and even comparative literature experts. The symposium’s culminating event underscored the Program’s cross-disciplinary aim.
Over 90 members of the YSO performed The Columbiad, 19th-century composer Phillip Anthony Heinrich’s musical interpretation of the passenger pigeon migration. The piece ranges from resembling the bird’s thunder-like flapping to the cooing of the doves in their nightly repose. On stage with the orchestra stood a passenger pigeon specimen provided by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The YSO performance was the North American premiere of the piece and the first time the piece has been played in more than 150 years.
In one of the event’s speeches, “Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity,” David Seposki, a research scholar from the Max Planck Institute of Science in Germany, explained how ideas surrounding extinction have changed over time. Before the advent of Darwinism, people denied the existence of mass extinction. But during the Darwin era, the conversation changed, and scientists began to accept extinction. Still, they viewed it only as a natural occurrence, refusing to believe it had anything to do with human actions.
Then the passenger pigeon went extinct, and it “revolutionized” the way society thought about extinction, said Ben Novak, lead researcher at the Long Now Foundation — an organization that is working to reverse the extinction of the passenger pigeon.
Tali Perelman ’17 attended both the symposium and the YSO concert after reading about passenger pigeons in her environmental history class.
“I was really struck by Novak’s assertion that human history is tied so closely to the passenger pigeon history” Perelman said. “I think the YSO performance really reinforced that, making what could have been just dry facts into a really intimate, really comprehensive presentation.”
Novak’s talk focused on the topic of de-extinction and the possibilities of bringing back extinct species that are necessary to ecological systems through cloning of genes. Although people often believe there are a sufficient number of pigeons in North America, Novak said there is no current dominant breed of pigeon in the American Northeast — where the passenger pigeon once lived.
Professor of English at UCLA Ursula Heise spoke about how extinction is represented in literature and whether the narratives surrounding extinction should be changed.
“The problem is that a lot of these [extinction] stories are stuck in a template of mourning and loss. There may be other ways of talking about natural change,” Heise said. “You have to be careful about only telling decline stories.”
Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon — named after the American matriarch Martha Washington — died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo at the age of 29.