The Wilderness Before Time

Derek Turner writes …

Once I asked a class on environmental ethics how they would define “wilderness.” One student half-jokingly said that “wilderness is any place you can go, where other animals might eat you.” Anyone familiar with Werner Herzog’s film, Grizzly Man, will know that there is something right about this.

Timothy Treadwell, in Alaska's Katmai National Park. This does not end well.

Timothy Treadwell, in Alaska's Katmai National Park. This does not end well.

My student’s comment contains an insight: wilderness is where we go to be reminded that nature doesn’t care about us, and that nature always has the last word.

What if the spiritual pull that draws us to dinosaurs is not that different from what draws us to Denali? Or to Alaska's Katmai National Park, which provided the setting for Grizzly Man?

Like Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Herzog’s film, some of the characters in Jurassic Park also get up close and personal with animals that can, and sometimes do eat them.

"Wilderness is any place you can go, where other animals might eat you." 

"Wilderness is any place you can go, where other animals might eat you." 

Is there a connection between wilderness and paleontology?

Consider the following argument:                                                                             

P1. Wild landscapes—places where humans have no permanent presence, and where human activities have relatively little impact—are especially valuable.

P2. Pre-human landscapes were wild.

C.  Therefore, pre-human landscapes were especially valuable.

Let’s call this the WBT (“wilderness before time”) argument.

(I discuss some other possible connections between paleontology and environmental thinking in earlier posts, here and here.)

Is the WBT argument a good one? It is valid, meaning that the conclusion follows logically from the premises. But are the premises true?

The Prehistoric Wild

P2 looks to be in pretty good shape. The pre-human world was wild if anything is. Some have argued that no place on Earth today is truly wild, because human activities—especially the burning of fossil fuels—have altered every square inch of the planet.[1] However, the pre-human wild was the real deal, completely unaffected by anything that humans would ever do in the future. Because we cannot intervene in the past, we can do nothing to “tame” or “civilize” the pre-human wilderness.

Troubles with The Wilderness Concept

P1 is more questionable. Many environmental thinkers in North America, at least since John Muir, have held that wild places have special (possibly intrinsic) value. There have been many efforts to get clear about the value(s) of wilderness, and the literature on this issue in environmental ethics is vast.[2] Speaking autobiographically, though, reading William Cronon’s classic essay, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” has made it very tough for me to get behind P1.[3] 

Perhaps the most serious problem (though by no means the only one) concerns the often violent history of mistreatment and displacement of Native American and First Nations communities. In North America, many of our cherished “wild” places are landscapes that people had lived in and loved and modified and been modified by for a very long time before disease-bearing Euro-American settlers showed up. In some cases, newcomers forced Native people out and subsequently declared those places “wild,” as if they had always been empty, or as if the people living there were less than human. The idea that such areas are untrammeled by humans is a mythical smokescreen that hides a history of injustice. It’s hard to see how to treat wilderness as an anchoring environmental value without confronting this history.

Gratuitous wilderness shot, from a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevadas, at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.. Does the human presence mar the scene? 

Gratuitous wilderness shot, from a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevadas, at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.. Does the human presence mar the scene? 

Another problem with P1 is its negative anthropocentrism. The idea that something has value in virtue of the fact that humans have not interacted with it implies that human interaction with something diminishes the value of that thing. Hence the injunction to "leave no trace" in the wilderness. But that’s just as arbitrary and unmotivated as positive anthropocentrism, the view that membership in a particular biological species confers special moral status. One could just as well define “wilderness” as any place that’s unoccupied and untrammeled by some other nonhuman species—any place untrammeled by squirrels, for example.                                                                                                    

There is much, much more to be said here, but these are two main reasons why I hesitate to defend P1. When it comes to fundamental environmental values, it might be more helpful to talk about biological diversity, or ecological health, or sense of place, or the value of individual living things and biological relationships.

Nevertheless, wilderness can exert a profound pull, even upon those of us who are more than a little skeptical. We go—at least, those who are lucky enough to be able to afford the cost of transportation and the expensive backpacking gear—in order to be humbled and perhaps tested. We go to be reminded that nature, like the gods of the ancient Epicureans, is utterly indifferent to human life and well-being.

So the WBT argument is valid, and P2 is true, but P1 is problematic. I’m therefore not sure we should buy it. But let’s think about what the argument might mean for paleontology.

Paleontology and the wild, Pre-Human Past     

It’s no coincidence that paleontology started to capture the American imagination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at precisely the moment in American cultural history when people like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt begin to lament the “closing” and the “taming” of the North American wilderness. The wilderness preservation movement was born of nostalgia: The distinctive American character was forged in the process of developing and cultivating the wild frontier—or so went the story told by Frederick Jackson Turner and others—and we need to preserve remaining wild places so that people can continue to have those formative experiences. At the same time that the federal government was establishing national parks—Yellowstone in 1872, Yosemite in 1890, followed by many others—wealthy philanthropists were establishing museums in New Haven (1866), New York (1869), Chicago (1893), and Pittsburgh (1896), institutions whose mission was to give people a window on a prehistoric wilderness that really was untrammeled, and where lots of animals would have been happy to eat you or crush you underfoot.

The WBT argument suggests that paleontology might have, in addition to various epistemic goals, the non-epistemic one of putting us in touch with pre-human wilderness.

The scientific effort to reconstruct the deep past is, perhaps in part, a kind of cognitive backpacking trip—a way of visiting a landscape, one displaced from us in time rather than in space, and one whose value depends on the fact that humans do not belong there. The joys of paleontological reconstruction may derive in part from the promise of access to wilderness. This points to another way in which the scientific study of the deep past is suffused with the values of the broader culture (See Joyce’s great discussion that issue here.) Perhaps we feel impelled to reconstruct prehistoric landscapes because they have value qua wilderness.

The familiar epistemic goals of historical natural science blend with nostalgia for wild places that are increasingly hard to find.

In an earlier post, I suggested that dinosaurs might be overrated, in the sense that their high cultural profile is out of proportion to their scientific importance. Why, for example, is it more important to figure out the colors of the dinosaurs than to figure out why the ammonoids had such high speciation and extinction rates?[4] The WBT argument, together with my student’s observation, goes some way toward accounting for this. Perhaps we want to do our cognitive backpacking across prehistoric landscapes where some of the animals could eat us. 


[1] One person who made this point relatively early was Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, Random House, 1989.

[2] See especially the papers collected in The Great New Wilderness Debate, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Michael Nelson, University of Georgia Press, 1998, as well as The Wilderness Debate Rages On, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Michael Nelson, University of Georgia Press, 2008.

[3] William Cronon (1995) “The Trouble with Wilderness, Or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York, W.W. Norton, pp. 69-90.

[4] M.M. Yacobucci (2016), “Towards a model for speciation in ammonoids,” in Species and Speciation in the Fossil Record, edited by W.D. Allmon and M.M. Yacobucci. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 238-277.