David Sepkoski


On his book Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene

Cover Interview of September 30, 2020


My assumption is that readers of this book are aware of and concerned about the impact of climate change and other crises linked to human activity. I did not write this book to question the seriousness of these developments, but I do want my readers to think critically about the relationship between science and culture.

While there are certainly isolated examples of rogue scientists who have distorted their findings to serve the interests of industry or politicians, science is more often cultural or political in other, less dramatic ways. The relationship between fact, theory, and belief is extremely complex: facts, like the reality of mass extinctions in the geological past, have contributed to theories, like the nuclear winter scenario, which in turn have conditioned beliefs, like the certainty that biodiversity is an inherently good thing. If we look, say, at the development of the biodiversity movement in the 1990s and beyond, which is the subject of the last chapter of the book, we see that all of these concerns are combined in the practice of science itself.

Importantly, general receptiveness to scientific ideas is strongly conditioned—among scientists as well as the public—by prevailing cultural attitudes. It was no coincidence, the book argues, that the reality of past catastrophic mass extinctions gained widespread acceptance in the era of nuclear proliferation, whereas Victorian naturalists like Darwin rejected such proposals in favor of a model of earth’s history that reinforced wider beliefs about progress and cultural superiority in human society. Likewise, the current belief that biological and cultural diversity is essential for the survival of humanity was conditioned by studies—in ecology, genetics, and paleontology—suggesting that ecological systems are more stable when they are more diverse.

This shouldn’t convince us to mistrust scientists—who are only human, after all—but should give us pause when reflecting on the cultural authority of science. By providing a window on the complex relationship between scientific authority and cultural values, this book encourages readers to be critical and reflective about the sources of some of the deepest values we hold. In the twenty-first century we will increasingly rely on science to help us understand and hopefully overcome the challenges we face, but we must understand that science itself cannot tell us what to care about or how to act.