A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 6, Chapter 30 : The Road to Us (Good-bye) | Summary

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Summary

Bryson ends the book with a chapter discussing the extinction of numerous animal species both in the past and present. He starts the chapter with a discussion of the dodo, a kind of pigeon from Mauritius that withstood only 70 years of human contact before its ultimate extinction by 1693 from interactions with animals brought to the island by outsiders. There are no remaining whole specimens, stuffed or preserved, with which to study it.

Bryson then transitions into a discussion of the Pleistocene megafauna extinction event, arguing the correlation with the arrival of "man the hunter" on the North and South American continents resulted in the extinction of some 30 genera of large mammals, or about three quarters of all their big animals. He poses the question of whether the Stone Age extinctions and more recent ones are part of a single event. In other words, are "humans inherently bad news for other living things"? Bryson discusses the findings of naturalist Tim Flannery and artist Peter Schouten, who in the mid-1990s set out to investigate animals that had gone extinct in the last 300 years. Many extinctions, they learned, occurred through sheer foolishness. As an example Bryson cites a wren that went extinct because a lighthouse keeper's cat killed them all. And a number of naturalists, galvanized by the need to understand the natural world, ultimately led to the depletion of numerous animal populations through their collections. Furthermore, until the 1940s states paid bounties for predatory creatures such as wolves. Given that humans are the only species capable of saving other ones, Bryson suggests, we are not doing a very good job.

He ends the book with the reminder, as a species, we are lucky to exist at all. However, in order to ensure the continued existence of the species, humanity will need to have "a good deal more than lucky breaks."

Analysis

Bryson aptly titles this chapter "Good-bye" as he concludes the book with a discussion of extinction. He uses the topic to touch on the greater question of the role humans play on Earth. As Bryson notes, it is undisputable human activity has resulted in the extinction of numerous species and will result in the extinction of many more.

Bryson's choice of ending contrasts a potentially nihilistic point of view with one that is inherently hopeful. He returns to one of his main ideas—that all living things are lucky to be alive—and adds to it the idea humans are "doubly" lucky. They can appreciate life and make it better; they just have to choose to do so.

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