What do you call the last of a species? – by Michelle Nijhuis

Painting by Bjorn Lie

This article was originally published in the New Yorker and is quoted from here with the permission of the author.  The word ‘endling’ was coined twenty years ago by an American doctor, Bruce Webster. He meant it to refer to the last remaining members of human families, and initially the word gained little purchase in common language. Then, around five years later, an exhibition about thylacines in the National Museum of Australia told the story of the the last thylacine, and described it as an endling.

‘…The exhibit gave the word visibility and institutional endorsement … and in the years that followed, Webster’s invention inspired an essay collection (“No More Endlings”), a chamber-orchestra composition (“Endling, Opus 72”), a contemporary ballet (“Self-Encasing Trilogy #1: Endling”), a doom-metal album, at least one art exhibition, and several works of science fiction. In a recent paper in the journal Environmental Philosophy, the historian Dolly Jørgensen notes that writers and artists are drawn to both the emotional power of the concept and the poignancy of the word itself, whose old-fashioned, Tolkienesque suffix—like “Halfling” or “Enting”—evokes a lost world.

Yet nobody seems to apply the word to the last member of a human family, as Webster originally intended. Perhaps that’s because, as Jørgensen observes, “a familial meaning of ‘endling’ does not have the same cultural currency as talking about species extinction.” The word has value, in other words, but the value is of a different nature than Webster expected. People have sometimes given proper names to particular animal endlings: Martha was the last passenger pigeon; Celia the last Pyrenean ibex; Turgi the last Partula turgida, a Polynesian tree snail; Booming Ben the last heath hen; and Lonesome George the last Pinta Island tortoise. By inventing a noun that describes all of them, though, Webster serendipitously connected them to one another, and to a larger, less graspable sense of loss. And this, Jørgensen suggests, has given artists, writers, and others a new way to reckon with the meaning of extinction.

Unfortunately, there is no end of endlings. One of the world’s three surviving northern white rhinos will soon become an endling, as will one of the thirty surviving vaquita porpoises, down from sixty just last year.’

Read the full New Yorker article.

Read Dolly Jorgenson’s original research.

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