Animals have dwindled in novels since 1835. Is fiction undergoing its own extinction event?

From The Guardian:

A recent study in People and Nature claims that animals are being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world. The German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research searched the entire online Project Gutenberg archive of 60,000 texts, written between 1705 and 1969. They found that since 1835, animal usage in fiction – other than domesticated beasts such as horses and dogs or “threat” animals such as bears or lions – has dwindled to a fraction of its former propensity. Professor Christian Wirth, the study’s senior author, argues that this has implications for our response to the climate crisis: “We can only halt the loss of biodiversity by a radical change in awareness.”I think he’s right, but not because animals have been written out of novels. They’ve just been written in the wrong way.

Like all such headline-making research papers, context is everything. I am not sure that public-domain books only, written in English only, from a western canon only, are fully representative of the rich and increasingly human diverse fictional world today. But the decline in actual biodiversity is terrifyingly real. According to the latest reports from the UN and WWF, we have not only lost 60% of animal populations since 1970, but one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction if we do not act now.

Has that profound sense of loss in fact made animals more attractive to fiction writers? There is certainly no shortage of animals in the world of children’s literature. My latest book, The Wild Before – about tackling biodiversity decline – has a hare as a main character, and an animal cast, following in the tradition of books such as Watership Down. This past year alone has seen critically acclaimed children’s books starring a stranded polar bear, a haunting Greenland shark and a magical talking stray cat.

It is no coincidence that The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows and the Beatrix Potter books, early children’s classics of anthropomorphism, emerged out of the Industrial Revolution and the first huge jump in biodiversity decline. It appears that the less connected we are to other species, the more their mystery and appeal deepens. Would either Judith Kerr have invited a tiger in for tea, or Yann Martel set one sailing across the ocean in Life of Pi, if encounters with those endangered creatures were commonplace? Would the bestiary of fantasy creatures, from Tolkien’s wargs to George RR Martin’s direwolves (based on an extinct species), have captured our imagination if real wolves weren’t so absent from our landscape?

Link to the rest at The Guardian

9 thoughts on “Animals have dwindled in novels since 1835. Is fiction undergoing its own extinction event?”

  1. It may be extinction stuff. I figure it’s more that we have lost our connections with animals and nature. Look at the string of books over the last ten years, about people in urban areas trying to reconnect with various aspects of rural life. How many people these days know where their food comes from? Or anything about rabbits? Or worry about predators ruining their livelihood or even their own lives? We as a collective follow that age old advice to Write What We Know, and frankly, we don’t know animals like we used to.

    • That’s what I was thinking. I live in a rural area (generations in the same area), and even here where small gardens are prevalent, people are losing touch with nature. One of our biggest sources of local income is nature tourism (whitewater rafting, hiking, etc.). City dwellers clog our roads during the tourist season, especially on the weekends, and during the recent pandemic, housing prices soared as city folk snapped up local residences after discovering that yes, indeed, they can work from home. We’re hardly bucolic, but roughly 80% of our county is either national forest or a series of lakes developed and used by local power companies. There’s lots and lots of nature here for people to enjoy. And they do, much to the irritation of locals trying to navigate daily traffic or hold onto generational farming land.

  2. The OP is incredibly confused.

    Let’s pretend, as a premise, that there are fewer visible-to-writers species (vs invertebrates, for example). That doesn’t mean there are fewer animals per se.

    Regarding non-fiction, nature books and specialty genres like hunting & fishing and similar outdoor sports have always been a specialized (and highly collectible) area. The number of outdoor survival, back to nature, mountain climbing, farming, gardening, etc., books is broader than ever.

    And this is nothing new. There have always (or at least, for as long as we’ve had writers) been urban dwellers who understand rats better than badgers. But there have been foxhunters and fishermen and farmers for just as long. We have more urban dwellers than we used to — the Industrial Revolution brought a lot of farmers’ sons to town since they were no longer as crucial to the maintenance of the farm — but the difference between the variety of life in an urban environment vs a rural one is the same as it’s ever been. (Does this person think the aurochs walked down the streets of London?) If urban dwellers don’t see a milk cow on a daily basis, much less a cougar, let them watch the ever increasing quantity of nature shows. Or read a book.

    And that last remark, about Tolkien… has this person never noticed the decoration in medieval manuscripts? They depicted both imaginary creatures and real ones. Trust me — there were still plenty of wolves in Britain at the time.

    And the notion that people don’t understand where their food comes from… that’s a problem with the people themselves. They don’t know how their urban environment works, either (plumbing, electricity, computers, power distribution). People who don’t read books, who take no interest in anything outside of their daily lives — that’s on them. It’s not “the fault” of an external event.

    No, what the OP is doing is trying to create an article about a fashionable “cause”, so that his particular work can be discussed.

    • Aurochs have been on my mind lately.
      They died off relatively recently (late middle ages) and in fact it wouldn’t surprise me if a few syrvived in tbe growing european wilderness. But even if they are in fact gone, it was recent enough their DNA might be recoverable. While the russians seem serious about bringing back mammoths, I think Aurochs might be a better target. Easier. And actually useful.

      As for tbe OP title?
      Answer is no, of course.
      Anthropomorphic animals are a growth business in fiction.
      It just happens to be *visual* fiction because we have the technology to commercialize such stories. And its not just Disney and WB, either.

        • Current tech can do better, but the Heck cattle can be useful.
          As of 2015, 85% of auroch genes had been identified and 90% of those exist in various cattle breeds. And that was off a bone 6000 years old.


          The mitochondrial DNA of aurochs has also been sequenced so the Heck and similar breeds can serve as gene “donors” much like the elefants the russians want to use for mammoth clones. (There’s also an american company trying.)

          They might fill a niche similar to the wild herds of bison in the US that are useful in ecological restoration projects. Plus it would be nice to undo some of tbe damage of previous generations.

          We really need to pay more attention to managing e osystems, out of self-defense if anything.

          • The interesting “Wilding” book (Isabella Tree) talks about rewilding a substantial portion of their British farmland. They considered Heck cattle, which are being used for wilding in Dutch polders, for the bovine niche but thought they had too much aggression in the mix (via the Spanish Fighting Bulls) and went with a different breed which seems to have worked out fine.

            I think, for rewilding purposes, it’s the mechanical interaction (hooves, grazing, rubs, hair sheds, etc.) that was important for filling that eco-niche, not the specific breed genetics. In our understandable zeal to recreate extinct species, we shouldn’t lose sight of the purposes we hope to make of them, even if that purpose is just to leave them alone in a rewilding project.


            • Noted. And agreed: care is required.

              I just think that some thought should go towards giving evolution some say, even if it inconveniences some humans. Like with wolves, bears, and coyotes. Aurochs coexisted with humans for tens of millenia and were wiped out by pre-tech humans so it shouldn’t be hard for humans to tolerate a reborn quasi-auroch. Evolution selected for their features so something about that combination worked long after other megafauna had perished. They outlasted mammoths and giant sloths among others, after all.

              Plus they made “good eatin’. 😀

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