The Century Magazine March, 1900

One of the first environmentalist articles was written by Seton and published in the March 1900 issue of The Century Magazine. This abridgment of  “The National Zoo at Washington” reads much like today’s environmentalist writing. The same issues 123 years later. The same warnings. How many of today’s activists understand just how much they owe to Seton?

In this two-part, very long essay, Seton later address the issue of the Zoo itself. But he started with these words that continue to provide structure for contemporary environmentalism. Here is an abridgment of Part I:


At the beginning of this century [the Nineteenth] the continent of North American was one vast and teeming game range. Not only were the Buffalo in millions across the Mississippi, but other large game was fully as abundant. Herds of Elk, numbering ten or fifteen thousand, were commonly seen along the upper Missouri. The Antelope ranged the higher plains in herds of thousands; Whitetail Deer, though less disposed to gather in large flocks, were rarely out of sight in the lower parts of the eastern Rockies, and it was quite usual to see several hundred Blacktail [deer] in the course a day’s travel.

But a change set in when the pioneer Americans, with their horses, their deadly rifles, their energy, and their taste for murder, began to invade the newly found West.

The settlers increased in numbers, and the rifles became more deadly each year; but the animals did not improve their speed, cunning, or fecundity in an equal ration, and so were defeated in the struggle for life, and started on the down grade toward extinction.


Aside from sentimental or esthetic reasons, which I shall not here discuss, the extinction of a large or highly organized animals is a serious matter.

1 It is always dangerous to disturb the balance of nature by removing a poise. Some of the worst plagues have arisen in this way.

2 We do not know, without much careful experiment, how vast a service that animal might have doon to mankind as a domestic species.

The force of this will be more apparent if we recollect how much of the few well-known domestic species have done for the advancement of our race. Who can decide which has done more for mankind, the Cow or the steam-engine, the Horse or electricity, the Sheep or the printing-press, the Dog or the rifle, the Ass or the loom?

No one indeed can pronounce on these, yet all on reflection feel that there is reason in the comparisons. Take away these inventions, and we are put back a century, or perhaps two; but further, take away the domestic animals, and we are reduced to absolute savagery, for it was they who first made it possible for our aboriginal forefathers to settle in one place and learn the rudiments of civilization.

And it is quite possible, though of course not demonstrable, that the humble chuckie barn-fowl has been a larger benefactor of our race than any mechanical invention in our possession, for there is no inhabited country on earth today where the barn-fowl is not a mainstay of health. There are vast regions of South America and Europe where it is the mainstay, and nowhere is there known anything that can take its place, which is probably more than can be said of anything in the world of mechanics.


Now, if the early hunters of these our domestic animals had succeeded in exterminating them before their stock was domesticated—which easily might have been, for domestication succeeds only after long and persistent effort and, in effect, a remodeling of the wild animal by select breeding—the loss to the world would have been a very serious matter, probably more serious than the loss of any invention, because in idea, being born of other ideas, can be lost temporarily, while the destruction of an organized being is irreparable.

And we today, therefore, who deliberately exterminate any large and useful, possibly domesticable, wild animal, may be doing more harm to the country that if we had robbed it of its navy.


This is the most obvious economic view of the question of extermination. But there is another, a yet higher one, which, in the end, will prove more truly economic. We are informed, on excellent authority, that man’s most important business here is to “know himself.”

Evidently one cannot comprehend the nature of a wheel in a machine by study of that wheel alone; one must consider the whole machine or fail. And since it is established that man is merely a wheel in the great machine called the universe, he can never arrive at a comprehension of himself without study of the other wheels also. Therefore to know himself man must study only himself, but all things to which he is related. This is the motive of all scientific research…

Each animal is in itself an inexhaustible volume of facts that man must have to solve the great problem of knowing himself. One by one, not always deliberately, these wonderful volumes have been destroyed, and the facts that might have been read in them have been lost.

It is harder to imagine a greater injury to the world of thought, which is, after all, the real world, than the destruction of one of these wonderful unread volumes. It is possible that the study of “Man” would suffer more by the extinction of some highly organized animal than it did by the burning of the Alexandrian Library. This is why men of science have striven so earnestly to save our native animals from extinction.

(Full article on Hathitrust.)

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!