Our senior mentor, Paul Paquet, texted this morning to let me know that Michael Soulé had died. Earlier this week, Paul had sent an email entitled, ‘Michael Soulé’s Last Stand’. I opened it with a heavy heart, knowing Michael had been battling advanced dementia. Family members were soliciting comments from people to read aloud to Michael. I wrote a few lines, which I expand upon below.
I wanted to take some more time to think and share some thoughts and feelings about Michael and his influence on me, and more broadly. I met him only recently, and did not know him well. But what he shared during our time together, and over the decades prior in print, made a lasting impression.
In the late nineties, and dressed in my undergraduate grunge gear, I would spent a lot of time at the university library. Uvic had a paper subscription to Conservation Biology, BioScience, Ecology and more. I read many issues, front to back. When I found my way to Soulé’s, ‘What is Conservation Biology?’ – by then more than a decade old – I was floored. Here before me was the very roots of an entire discipline to which I would dedicate my professional life. The philosophy, principles, and tools were presented compellingly and with clarity.
I arranged my coursework around the sub-disciplines he identified. I pursued a post doc at UC Santa Cruz in the Environmental Studies department where Michael had been faculty years prior, perhaps hoping traces of him would remain in the halls. Many other decisions in between these periods were somehow influenced by him, or by those whom he influenced (especially Paul Paquet). It will continue this way for quite some time.
And the ‘normative postulates’ he identified that underlie Conservation Biology – oh my! Here was an extraordinary scientist discussing how values (values!) could and should provide guiding principles for why and how we conduct science. Among them, he argued (and found no disagreement from me) that biological diversity has intrinsic value. Species other than humans were valuable, and we humans could neither bestow nor revoke this value. This, he wrote, is the most fundamental of normative postulates. It was extraordinary to be a scientist-in-training and feel something as a way to understand it.
When I am criticized by other scientists for behaving, communicating or otherwise operating according to my values, thinking of this work brings me solace.
He accepted an invitation to visit our lab group in 2015. We took great care of our scholarly Elder. He remains to this day the only other human who has rested in the recliner I keep in my office for ‘quiet time’. Although it was a roadside find (I was an Assistant Professor!), he found it very comfortable. After awaking refreshed, he referred to it as the ‘Cadillac Chair’.
Earlier in the day and during the informal lunch seminar someone asked him why he chose the career he did. He came to tears, and the room quieted. Then in a quiet voice he replied, “Out of love”.
A gentle man. And scholar.
Another story comes to mind. I wanted to share with him some new theoretical and empirical work I was embarking on related to the motivations of hunters (and the evolutionary landscape that shaped these motivations). He thought I was onto something when I talked about costly signalling (basically, showing off). With not an ounce of discomfort or insecurity he told me that when he killed his first elk and while driving to the butcher, he rehearsed the ‘most manly of lines’ to use upon dropping off the impressive carcass. He expressed himself with remarkable honesty and candour, and knew his species very well.
I can’t remember if it was before or after the UVic visit but we also had an absolutely unforgettable time with Michael in Bozeman, Montana. Our team bumped into him en route to an outside reception at the conclusion of the Society for Conservation Biology conference. As we walked the streets, looking for place to sit down for a quick beer before the event, he kindly and without any sense of authority, answered every question we threw at him. Some of the questions were complex. It was, after all, the height of scholarly ‘conflict drama’ between him and Peter Karieva. As many well know, they had different visions for conservation science.
We arrived at the reception a little late, and opening remarks were being made by someone who knew both Michael and Peter. A former PhD of Michael’s and prominent conservation scientist for Conservation International, M. Sanjayan, was on the mic. As we found our place to stand and listen we realized Sanjayan was speaking of the Soulé-Karieva debate to the crowd of several hundred. We all smiled. We then looked to our left, and realized we were all standing next to Karieva.
A fabulous picture captured the moment. There was Michael, gentle and comfortable in the presence of someone who was extraordinarily critical of his work. Aerin Jacob was among us and, ever the bridge-builder, engaged them both.
Many outstanding women and men have advanced the discipline, now more appropriately known as Conservation Science. Plus, many of us are only now waking up to the reality that Indigenous peoples have practiced their own form of conservation science and management, guided by values, for millennia. In other words, there is a large universe of inspiration out there to guide our work. Nonetheless, those of us in this field owe a great debt to its founder.
When Aerin and I emailed today about Michael’s passing, she shared the following:
“I will take one of Michael’s papers, essays, or books down to the river tonight, and read it, toast to his legacy… I feel both very sad at knowing that he is gone and astounded and grateful for his legacy and courage (and love, love for nature!).”
I hope others that know of Michael’s work find their own way to remember the man and his contributions. This little blog was my way.
RIP Dr Soulé