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Thom van Dooren, "A World in a Shell: Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions" (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2022), 273 pp.:

Thom van Dooren, A World in a Shell: Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2022), 273 pp.

Against the background of numerous ongoing large-scale extinction events, how can the humanities contribute to a much-needed shift in human thinking and behavior and join forces with environmentalists, activists, Indigenous peoples, and scientists to ensure multispecies flourishing? One compelling approach is provided by Thom van Dooren’s fascinating new book A World in a Shell, in which he argues that “storytelling about extinction and biodiversity loss is a vital task” (14) because it “thicken[s] and enliven[s] our understanding about what particular extinctions mean” and “allow[s] us to acknowledge and even mourn” (14). It is due to these two aesthetic responses—acknowledgment and mourning—that van Dooren’s stories are so effective, especially because he always succeeds in striking a delicate balance. If appropriately conveyed, acknowledgment and mourning transpose into a form of “keeping faith with the dead” (Rose and van Dooren 2017), and, when further coupled with other “discomforting feelings of shame and guilt, alongside sadness and grief,” they may even galvanize hopeful “resistance” against alarming biodiversity loss (Jones, Rigby, and Williams 399, 400). Van Dooren’s stories succeed in eliciting the entire gamut of such cognitive and affective responses, elegantly maneuvering between acknowledgment of historical guilt, scientific research, and emotional engagement in an effort to protest against what many scholars call “The Sixth Extinction.”

Focusing on the overwhelming diversity of snails on the Hawaiian archipelago, A World in a Shell is a compelling addition to van Dooren’s well-received stories of birds on the edge of extinction in Flight Ways (2014) and Wake of Crows (2019). His commitment to now tell the stories of invertebrates is highly topical since, overshadowed by endangered “charismatic mammals and birds” (144), they are “largely invisible within the modern conservation picture” (132), even though they should be equally “grievable,” in Judith Butler’s terms. Moreover, invertebrates currently comprise by far the species most at risk of extinction, while “we don’t even have a name for” (116) most of them. The IUCN Red List includes about “28,000 threatened species” while experts presume that “over a million species [are] at risk of extinction” (115), the vast majority of which are invertebrates. On average, their smallness and nocturnal rhythms make it notoriously difficult to discover them; however, if they are not named, they neither can be declared threatened, nor can they excite public awareness. A vicious cycle, as “indifference and ignorance feed onto one another” (134), yet relentless and quick taxonomical work—called “triage taxonomy” (131)—may ensure survival of some by generating attention and facilitating fundraising efforts. Ultimately, as van Dooren argues convincingly, “species-centric” conservation efforts must be complemented by “ecosystem-level approaches” (145) to account for unnamed and undiscovered species.

Van Dooren lays bare so many fascinating entanglements between snails, their genealogy, and being-in-the-world, capitalizing on the fact that snail shells, like trees, “record some of the features of the life of a species,” and, borrowing from Dalia Nassar’s typology, represent “embodied history” (140). The fact that Hawai‘i could even host snails without a land bridge was a “great perplexity” (55) even to Charles Darwin. One intriguing hypothesis is that the “first ones flew here” (57), either by hitch-hiking with birds—outside, latching onto their plumage, or even inside, surviving “digestive tracts” (59) in their formidable shells—or they may have even drifted there by sea currents. As snails are “all hermaphrodites” (37), the odds of mating with a fellow drifter and thriving in such a remote habitat are considerably larger too. In a similar vein, their dispersal within the Hawaiian archipelago also testifies “millions of years of unlikely journeys” (78). Either way, they have defied all odds, and their bodies are living tokens of the awe-inspiring wonders of evolution. Replete with such accounts, van Dooren’s work decrypts the ecological histories encoded in Hawaiian snails, superimposing the present and the past: looking at them in real time is at the same time looking through them into deep time, as though their shells were prisms of two chronologies.

Even though the unparalleled Hawaiian gastropod diversity—over “750 species of Hawaiian land snails have been recognized” (6)—attests to its flourishing in such deep time serendipities, many snail species are now in great danger of becoming extinct. In the colonial history of Hawai‘i, humans have imported invasive species, most notably the predatory “rosy wolfsnail” (2), and have conducted unsustainable agriculture to feed their cattle, resulting in “deforestation and habitat loss” (138). What is more, shortly after the U.S. annexation of Hawai‘i in 1898, Hawai‘i’s territory became a testing ground for military explosives, resulting in snail habitats being “blown apart, and with them their rare and endangered snails” (156). Snail species endemic to Hawai‘i are particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction because they are philopatric, that is “pretty tied to particular home places” (38), contrary to the common view that snails are nomadic vagrants, carrying their home on their back. Their home is characterized by an elaborate network of slime, which gives chemical cues for “spatial orientation” (38) and homing, while simultaneously allowing upward “three-dimensional movement” (41) on trees and even eusocial collaboration, as snails prefer travelling on the slime of their kin to “retain moisture” (39). It is therefore felicitous that van Dooren uses Uexküll’s notion of “Umwelt” (45) to describe the slimy travel routes of snails, although the term is criticized in current strains of ecocriticism due to its suggestion of a single center around which the world organizes itself. The emphasis, however, is on the second syllable “-welt” to convey not only the richness and depth of snail slime worlds, but also the danger that the very same “worlds are placed at risk by, and ultimately lost to, extinction” (47; emphasis in original).

Through such fascinating glimpses into gastropod life, van Dooren brilliantly brings together cognitive and affective components to motivate conservation efforts. Many such attempts are ongoing: organizations carefully maintain “exclosures” (2) and “chambers in the laboratory” (76) to protect still extant individuals from predation. Furthermore, snails are deeply connected with Hawaiian Indigenous cosmologies, and colonization has severed both their bond to the snails and to the ‘āina, the Hawaiian term for “land.” The “work of (re)connection” (105) is thus doubly incentivized, and relationships with snails may serve as a blueprint for how humans may find a renewed attachment to the soil, fueling a much-needed “cultural renaissance” (103). Overall, A World in a Shell shows that snails “have the capacity to interrupt the pervasive phenomena of unknown extinctions” (141) because they leave with their shells a “calciferous remainder” (139) after death. Even if they are occurring in the dark, their shells intimate that extinction occurs at an order of magnitude much higher than one could extrapolate from the remnants of megafauna. Indeed, snails prove that we have barely taxonomized the surface of the Earth’s incredible biodiversity. Their shells, just like van Dooren’s book, shed light on these dark vanishings, leaving us in acknowledgment and mourning, yet also cradling hope.

However, let me end with a remark that pertains to the specific genre that Thom van Dooren has so adeptly navigated for years: non-fiction animal stories. This book is slightly different from his previous ones insofar as it revolves around animals that are rather uncommon to the readership; in fact, van Dooren immediately mentions that not a single specimen of the Hawaiian snails featured in the book constitutes what “most people associate with their kind, eating living vegetation like the tender lettuce plants in your garden” (7). Beyond such ethological differences, these snails display more appealing external features, too: van Dooren’s book includes sixteen “Plates,” high-resolution images of different snail species, in which the reader can behold shells of great geometrical variety, sometimes of unbelievable size, embellished with unimaginably beautiful colors and patterns, with Laminella sanguinea perhaps constituting the most striking paragon of the faraway snail. Yet, as a reader, I cannot help but reiterate what van Dooren and his colleague say at the beginning while looking at the shells of extinct species: “‘Just to see them alive and crawling would have been so amazing.’ But try as I might, I can’t quite imagine the sight” (6). It may be possible that a reader, for whom it sufficed to crouch down and look at the silently emerging snails during a sprinkle of rain in a nearby recreation area, is now tempted to go to Hawai‘i to observe those snails of which a reader could, by looking at the images and following the stories, not “quite imagine the sight.” This line of argumentation follows William Cronon’s, as he writes that whenever “we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet” (88), we tap into a troublesome notion of wilderness because it devalues all lifeforms in one’s direct proximity. The snail on the city pavement should therefore be “no less worthy of our wonder” (88) than the Hawaiian. This may pose an interesting question to sociologists: For whom are animal stories enough in themselves, and who feels the urge to see the animals firsthand all the more after having read about them?

Burak Sezer (Universität zu Köln)

Works Cited


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004. Print.


Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Ed. William Cronon. New York: Norton, 1996. 69-89. Print.


Jones, Owain, Kate Rigby, and Linda Williams. “Everyday Ecocide, Toxic Dwelling, and the Inability to Mourn: A Response to Geographies of Extinction.” Environmental Humanities 12.1 (2020): 388-405.


Rose, Deborah, and Thom van Dooren. “Encountering a More-Than-Human World: Ethos and the Arts of Witness.” The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. Ed. Ursula K. Heise, Jon Christensen, and Michelle Niemann. London: Routledge, 2017. 120-28.

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