Science fiction and fantasy                                            



Inheritors Of The Earth

by Chris D. Thomas

Amongst environmentalists the current accepted wisdom is that the present rate of global species loss is catastrophic, and the only question is how big a disaster the world faces. In Inheritors of the Earth, Chris D. Thomas examines the upsides of the Anthropocene for the species that have thrived, spread, and adapted to a man-made world. It's a cheerful book, and I couldn't help wondering whether the author would put a positive spin on Alderaan's destruction by marvelling at all the space and the opportunity for a fresh start.

This is a book about evolution, which people often think of as taking place at a glacial pace over many thousands of years. Thomas shows how evolution is continuous, with lots of examples from the plant and animal kingdoms of it taking place observably within our lifetimes.

One concept sure to ruffle feathers is the author's rejection of an ideal frozen point in time that we should strive to return the natural world to. This is revolutionary. The author makes sound arguments that nature is always in flux. Many conservation projects focus on restoring animals and plants to their "natural" habitats and states, but Thomas explains a number of reasons why this is impossible. Extinctions is one of those reasons, but it's far from the only one.

The book is also careful to put humanity in its place, as part of the evolutionary process rather than separate from it, and therefore a part of nature. The author debunks the concept of nature in opposition to an artificial state. There is no nature without humanity, and due to global warming, international travel, and other issues, there is no part of the world untouched by human influence.

The book deals with increases in regional biodiversity which can take place when plants and animals move in from other areas. Although we know of species that suffer as a result of other invasive species, such as red squirrels or the dodo, the author plays this down with statistics about how rarely this happens. However, there's no way to positively spin global extinctions and biodiversity loss, the the book's cheerful tone can be jarring.

Species move a lot over time, and the discussion on this topic is fascinating. Again there are a lot of examples of migrating species, caused by a variety of factors, and the examples given are both modern and prehistoric. Thomas makes pointed criticism of conservation efforts that favour so-called "native" plants and animals over immigrants. "Illogical... to hate a fellow human, or another animal or plant, simply because they or their ancestors were somewhere else at a particular time."

It's useful to define terms, but the author explains that "species" is hard to pin down in terms of the point when two breeds or regional variations become far enough apart that they can usefully be called new species. This ties in to the impact of human selection and other activities on the pace of evolution. There's also an eye-opening discussion of hybridisation.On the topic of rewilding, the author writes about the impossibility of returning to the way things were, because evolution and species invasion happen at all levels. There's a brief mention of resurrection biology, where scientists attempt to clone extinct species such as ibex or mammoths.

"Declaring the Anthropocene to be the sixth mass extinction is somewhat premature", Thomas writes. It's a bold statement. Much in Inheritors of the Earth is shocking, and if accepted as the new orthodoxy it will have profound implications for the way we manage our conservation efforts. If I have one criticism, it's that the points Thomas makes are somewhat repetitive. However, the evidence to back them up is thorough and wide-ranging, resulting in a book that's convincing, accessible, and important.

27th January 2018

Book Details

Year: 2017

Categories: Books

  Science
 
  Cheerful

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4 star rating

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Source: own copy

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