Not so long ago, the idea that giant reptiles once roamed the earth was novel, unbelievable to some, but their reign represents only one part of deep time. Go back further in time, to the Carboniferous (358.9 to 298.9 million years ago), and you will find a world of giants as bizarre and otherworldly as the dinosaurs must have once seemed to us. A world where clubmoss trees grew up to 50 metres tall, with scorpions as large as dogs and flying insects the size of seagulls. With Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction, palaeobiologist George McGhee, Jr. presents a scholarly but fascinating overview of the rise and fall of this lost world, and why it still matters to us.
One fond memory I have of studying biology at Leiden University in the Netherlands was a behind-the-scenes tour for first-year students at the then brand new location of Naturalis Biodiversity Center. This included a tour of the main tower housing the scientific collection normally off-limits to the general public. This is the domain of the museum curator, but their work involves much more than spending time amidst storage cabinets. To get a good idea just how diverse this job is, look no further than this lively and beautifully presented memoir. Here, Lance Grande tells of his career of more than thirty years as a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago.
The term “wildlife” tends to evoke images of apex predators, cuddly creatures, or flagship species – usually vertebrate, usually mammalian – living outdoors in the wilderness of jungles, plains, or oceans. But what about closer to home? What about in your home? Ecologist Rob Dunn has written a delightful book showing that we live amidst a veritable zoo.
When I reviewed the book Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, one of the reasons that was discussed as to why we should protect nature was the possibility of undiscovered pharmaceutical drugs. Seasoned ethnobotanist Robert A. Voeks shows that this so-called jungle medicine narrative has a long history. Though partially true, it equally contains parts myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia. However, if you are expecting a sceptical critique of superstitious indigenous practices – I was initially wondering whether the book would – no, this book delivers something far more interesting. Without belittling traditional knowledge, Voeks instead exposes the flaws in our interpretation and delivers a nuanced and fascinating ethnobotanical history lesson to boot.
Aaah, GMOs. Was there ever a topic comparable to genetically modified organisms that riled people on either side of the debate this much? Written by an organic farmer and plant geneticist, Tomorrow’s Table is a marvellous work that walks the middle road, asking: Why should we not combine the best that organic farming and genetic engineering have to offer? Along the way, it exposes the often illogical, contradictory and, frankly, infuriating attitudes and opinions of the anti-GMO movement, politely smothering them with facts, while also teaching the technology cheerleaders a lesson or two. I love this book.
Planet Earth is home to a staggering number of species. A 2011 article in PloS Biology gave an educated guess of 8.7 million known species of eukaryotes (this is the domain of life to which all multicellular life forms – plants, insects, fungi, mammals etc. – belong, but excludes single-celled life forms such as bacteria). More staggering still is that this probably is only 10-12% of all existing species, with an estimated 86% of terrestrial species and 91% of marine species as of yet undiscovered.
So, scientists describe new species of plants and animals all the time. This much you probably know. What might come as a surprise, however, is that many of these discoveries are not made in the field, but in the massive natural history collections housed in museums around the world. In The Lost Species, Christopher Kemp takes the reader on a tour through the collections to reveal the stories behind some of these discoveries.
Following hot on the heels of Cambridge’s Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, Oxford University Press has just published the edited collection Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma. Whereas the former title was careful about courting controversy, a quick scan of the chapter titles of this book suggest it is seeking out hot-button issues sure to upset some people (“Uncomfortable questions and inconvenient data in conservation science”, “Introduced species are not always the enemy of conservation”, or “Rehabilitating sea otters: feeling good versus being effective”). Together, these two books form an excellent combination of a philosophical and pragmatic examination of biodiversity conservation, and how we could do better.
Perhaps more than any other discipline, conservation science arouses strong feelings of righteousness, of fighting the good cause. Critical questions or results that run counter to the narrative of nature-in-decline are unwelcome, often out of fear that policy makers and the media will misinterpret such findings, leading to drastic reduction in support for conservation efforts. Though understandable, Effective Conservation Science is a collection of 26 cautionary tales of the dangers of such thinking.
Most people would agree that it is important to conserve wildlife and the environment it lives in. But can you clearly articulate why? Defending Biodiversity brings together an ecologist and two philosophers to critically examine the arguments environmentalists often put forward in favour of biodiversity conservation. Because, as they point out, a lot of these arguments are not very strong, and sometimes conflict with each other, or with other parts of what environmentalists wish to achieve. Now, before you get all worked up, all three authors strongly believe that biodiversity ought to be conserved, and this book is not an attack on environmentalists or biodiversity conservation. They are careful to avoid being unnecessarily controversial with this book. Rather, they want to help environmentalists improve and strengthen their arguments and to become more persuasive in debates.
Year-round availability of a wide variety of food in our supermarkets has become so commonplace that it is easy to take it for granted. Sure, many of us will have given a passing thought to where our food comes from or questioned whether those organic carrots are really worth the extra pennies. But I am sure I am not alone in having a slightly cynical gut feeling that this amounts to a certain amount of greenwashing: a new sector profiteering from our concern for the environment, promising us we can buy and eat our way to redemption. This isn’t helped by the fact that many proponents of organic agriculture often don’t seem to really know what they are talking about and keep having misconceptions around the issue (Organic agriculture does not use pesticides? Organic produce is healthier?). Plus, most are de-facto opposed to biotechnological sciences and techniques (don’t even get me started on all the opposition to GMOs – make no mistake, I am not saying there is no issue to be had with GMOs, but rarely for the reasons put forward). At least, that, in brief, is my personal opinion on these issues. All this is a long-winded introduction to say: this book made me sit up and pay attention, but for completely different reasons than I have mentioned above.