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This Week on BackStory - The Departed: Extinction in America

April 18, 2014

Some 20,000 species across the globe are at high risk of extinction, experts say--many here in the United States--and some of our natural fauna have already disappeared. So in this Earth Day episode of BackStory, our hosts explore how Americans have grappled with the idea of extinction over time, and what the loss of native species has meant for our ecosystems and everyday lives.

When did we first realize that species could go extinct? To what extent did earlier extinctions shape the emergence of today's environmentalism? And how have ideas about biological extinction factored into American thinking about human cultures? These are just some of the questions the BackStory Guys and their guests explore in The Departed, featuring stories on our obsession with dinosaurs, the bird that helped birth the conservation movement, the unlikely fish that galvanized a new generation of environmental activists, and much more.

Guests include:

  • Lee Dugatkin, University of Louisville, on the ways extinction played into an 18th-century debate    over American biological inferiority.
  • Jennifer Price, Princeton University, on the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the lessons we can draw from its decimation.
  • Michele Mitchell, NYU, on 19th-century notions about racial extinction--in particular, the claim that newly emancipated African-Americans could not survive in freedom.
  • Brian Switek, science writer, on American "dinomania," and how ideas about dinosaur extinction have paralleled concerns about threats facing humanity.
  • Zygmunt Plater, the lawyer who argued the "snail darter" case before the Supreme Court, on the Endangered Species Act and the impact of his case.

BackStory is a production of VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. The weekly program is newscast compatible and there are no carriage fees. New episodes are uploaded to SubAuto/PRX and Content Depot on Friday afternoons.

The Departed: Extinction in America (available for download, Friday, April 18).

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Contact: Check local listings for stations and times. Phone: (434) 924-3296 E-mail: