Up until 8,000 years ago, giant deer called Irish Elk, with antlers 12 feet across, and standing 7 feet tall at the shoulder roamed Europe. It was the world’s largest deer. Due to abrupt climate change beginning 13,000 years ago in the Younger Dryas period, the elk struggled and eventually disappeared. Europe and North America cooled to ice-age temperatures for 1,300 years, followed by a return to a warming trend.
The Irish Elk, Megaloceros giganteus, was not exclusive to Ireland but lived throughout Europe and western Siberia until it finally went extinct. Despite the name, there was no relation to today’s elk. But this extinct species challenged how scientists and others view the world.
Coincidentally, the Younger Dryas name comes from the national flower of Ireland, Dryas octopetala. It’s an 8-petaled yellow rose-like mountain avens. From pollen found in core samples, they could track how the flowers spread in the cooler tundra temperatures. Today, the flower is rare and protected in Northern Ireland. It also grows in Alaska and is the official flower of the Northwest Territories.
Why the Irish Elk Disappeared
Although the flowers survive, scientists believe the Irish Elk went extinct since it could no longer find enough seasonal, nutritious grasses as the climate cooled. Growing huge horns required considerable nutrition, but that wasn’t the sole reason they died off.
Ancient humans who painted them on cave walls likely helped push the already-struggling species to extinction. The male’s massive antlers to impress females were probably prized trophies. Later, the fossils adorned King Charles II’s palace walls.
Fossils first emerged from Irish peat bogs in the late 1500s, and later, the Irish Elk became the focus of curious debates and hypotheses about extinction. The elk is a good a reminder that scientists have scoffed at the idea that any animal could go extinct until about 200 years ago. We’ve come a long way since then, yet much has remained unchanged.
Scientists Didn’t Believe in Extinction
Today, we’d be hard-pressed to ignore ongoing news about the plight of animals and extinctions caused by human activities. But as recently as the 18th century, the idea that animals could go extinct was controversial. A prevailing attitude based on religious beliefs was that God would not allow animals to go extinct.
So when scientists discovered fossils of animals no longer alive, this immediately caused resistance.
For example, Dr. Thomas Molyneux, the first scientist to describe the Irish Elk, thought surely the Irish Elk must be surviving somewhere.
“That no real species of living creatures is so utterly extinct, as to be lost entirely out of the World since it was first created, is the opinion of many naturalists; and ’tis grounded on so good a principle of Providence taking care in general of all its animal productions, that it deserves our assent,” he wrote.
To back up his beliefs, Molyneux argued that the Irish Elk was today’s North American moose. It wasn’t until 1812 that studies by Georges Cuvier showed the elk was indeed extinct and not related to today’s elk or moose. In the meantime, scientists had a tough time finding modern equivalents for all the fossil species continually uncovered.
“Extinction was the first great battleground of modern paleontology, and the extinction of the Irish Elk was hotly debated,” wrote Kristina Anderson for the University of Waterloo.
Orthogenesis and Resistance to Darwin
Not long after that, Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859 caused more resistance as scientists looked to challenge his ideas about natural selection and evolution. Once again, the Irish Elk was in focus as the poster boy for a theory called Orthogenesis. The idea was that evolution followed a plan in a straight line, which could lead to demise.
In the case of the Irish Elk, it became over-evolved and mortally weighed down by its antlers. Once they got on the path of evolving larger antlers, they couldn’t slow down. Similarly, mammoths’ tusks grew too long, and saber-toothed cats’ fangs led to their unavoidable extinction.
While Orthogenesis is largely discredited today, the Irish Elk was a textbook example until the early 20th century.
The Irish Elk and Consciousness
Recently, the Irish Elk has come back into focus as an example of how humans may have over-evolved, weighed down not by antlers but by big brains and existential dread and angst.
Philosopher and historian Émile P. Torres focuses on existential threats to civilization and humanity, of which there are so many today. They mentioned the Giant Elk as part of a 1933 essay called The Last Messiah by Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. The elk is symbolic of how humans are weighed down by overly-inflated intellect or egos.
“The identity of purpose and perishment is, for giant deer and man alike, the tragic paradox of life,” Zapffe wrote.
As a result, people feel “cosmic panic” and must cope by “artificially limiting the content of consciousness.”
Limiting Consciousness as a Defense Mechanism
People use defense mechanisms to cope with the overwhelming anxiety, such as diversion with things like “social media” and material possessions or isolation. The world is too much to think about, so we block it out. Our egos keep us entrenched in our ways of thinking.
“Most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness,” Zapffe wrote.
Yet, if humans could master their consciousness, they might help create a far less dreadful world. Those that master their fears might learn to help others carry their antlers and not feel so weighed down by “cosmic panic.” Scientists are barely skimming the surface of what consciousness is and how it shapes the world around us.
Symbolically, this goes toward a spiritual discussion far beyond the scope of a blog post. But briefly, many spiritual traditions hold that learning to overcome the burdens of this life through consciousness is the very key to it all. Symbols abound, such as the crucifix, the staff of Thoth/Hermes, or the Buddha on a lotus flower.
Perhaps, the antlers of the Irish Elk could be a similar metaphor, one capable of reaching higher consciousness instead of remaining stuck. It’s also an example of why integrating scientific with non-material spiritual concepts (not religious dogma) might be an answer worth considering.
Evolutionary Advantage or Burden?
Not long ago, 18th century scientists argued that God would not allow the Irish Elk to go extinct. But now we know this isn’t true and the reasons why. Nature is an incredibly delicate ecosystem, all interrelated and connected. When it falls out of balance, the whole changes in ways we still largely ignore, a defense mechanism.
Facing facts, we know that events during the Younger Dryas wiped out two-thirds of all large land mammals, including mastodons and North American camels. Scientists believe the extinction has been ongoing since then, leading to the 6th Extinction Event we’re in now.
This time, human activities are the culprit, particularly burning fossil fuels. If you don’t think so, consider that burning fossil fuels drove Earth’s “most massive extinction,” the Great Dying, some 252 million years ago. Volcanic eruptions ignited massive coal and oil deposits in Siberia, leading to the extinction of 70 percent of all land life. Only 4% of ocean life survived the resulting acidification.
In our modern world, humans are burning carbon much faster than the rate which caused the Great Dying. We must stop, but our species acts like an ostrich with its head in the sand or an elk stuck in a bog. While an elk couldn’t change its world, nature has shown us the many ways we already have.
Ultimately, our gifts can be either an evolutionary hindrance or an advantage leading to a better future.
Featured image: Crystal Palace Megaloceros giganteus by FunkMonk via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).