What's your greatest fear? There's a very good chance you said "dying alone," because that's pretty much the worst way to end a life. No legacy, no testament to the things you've accomplished, no hope that anything you've done will outlive you. Very few of us die as alone as Lonesome George, who passed away this summer at the ripe old age of "more than 100." George was a Pinta Island tortoise, the very last one on earth.
On June 24, George's keeper at the Galapagos National Park found him "stretched out in the direction of his watering hole with no signs of life." This ignominious end is maybe the greatest metaphor for death—one more banal chore of existence, denied by an inevitable, inconvenient end. But for most of us, when we go, we know that life goes on. Our children, or barring that our fellow humans, will carry on our work and our genes, and the world won't miss a step. George had no children, no fellow Pinta Island tortoises. There were none. He was it.
The subspecies was already considered to be extinct when George was discovered in 1971. His existence then was only a deferral of oblivion for Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii, not a reprieve. And it's all our fault. George and his kind were happily plodding around the Galapagos, 15 different subspecies each with their own island, until we got there. Fortuitously located before the long, empty voyage to the South Pacific, the Galapagos served as a place for whalers and traders to rest and restock. As they landed, animals escaped from their ships: pigs, goats, rats. These animals outcompeted the tortoises for the island's sparse vegetation, and a couple hundred years later, here we are: five subspecies extinct, George just the most recent.
We owe a debt to George's forerunners. On the second voyage of the HMS Beagle, a naturalist named Charles Darwin mused that he could, "on seeing a tortoise, pronounce with certainty from which island it has been brought." This kernel of an idea would have implications, but not for George. George was a reptile and didn't really care for much for science, only for papaya and grass.
He didn't care for company, either. When discovered, George was immediately taken into captivity, and houses with two females of a related subspecies, in the hope that any offspring would genetically resemble him. Sure, they wouldn't be pure Pinta Island tortoises, they'd be hybrids, but they'd be better than nothing. At least some of George's DNA, the complex genetic blueprint that existed in only one creature in the entire universe, might have been salvaged. But George wasn't having the ladies.
"He doesn't really show any interest in them," a conservationist said in 2001. "He mostly hangs out by himself."
The race to save George's kind was on. A bounty was offered for anyone who could find a tortoise he would fuck. Every wild Galapagos tortoise was tested to see if it might be his kin. A plan to preserve his cells for a future cloning was put into place, but the collection wasn't completed by the time he died.
And then something happened. Maybe he sensed his time was nearing an end, or maybe he just embraced being a horny old man, but George mated. He mated with one of his female companions, and then he did it again. Then he mated with his other penmate. It can't be pleasant to see newspapers trumpet your "first sex in decades," but George didn't care. He just wanted his papaya, and his grass, and his testudine 'tang.
Then they flew in two more females, specifically for him to hump. These expensive call girls were prime, plump specimens of tortoisedom, and their only job was servicing George.
In the end, it didn't work out. The eggs laid by George's companions weren't viable, their DNA incompatible. George died without ever passing on his genes. He died alone. But he did not die lonely. He died after a few hedonistic years of glorious sex with four younger females, with every need and want provided by a guilt-wracked humanity. He had his watering hole, he had his food, and when he wanted them, he had his women. And then he died on a Sunday morning, having had his fill.
Most evolutionary branches are dead ends. The Pinta Island tortoise went out with some hardcore living. Not a bad way to go.