When considering environmental issues, the usual rallying cry is that of “saving the planet”. Rarely do people acknowledge that, rather, it is us who need saving from ourselves. We have appropriated ever-larger parts of Earth for our use while trying to separate ourselves from it, ensconced in cities. But we cannot keep the forces of life at bay forever. In A Natural History of the Future, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn considers some of the rules and laws that underlie biology to ask what is in store for us as a species, and how we might survive without destroying the very fabric on which we depend.
In Dunn’s view, one of the biggest problems humans have is anthropocentrism. We place ourselves at the centre of the world and imagine it revolves around us. However, from the unknown and unnamed millions of insects, billions of bacteria, trillions of viruses, and an uncharted subterranean biosphere—we are only aware of a tiny sliver of the biodiversity that is out there. We are biased in the organisms that we name, study, and (ultimately) protect. The problem is that this leads us “to imagine that the species we have studied are a reflection of the world itself, rather than just the part of the world we have chosen to study” (p. 22). Thus, most of life is nothing like us, nor dependent on us, but we depend on at least some of it. What Dunn thus dubs the law of anthropocentrism is the jumping-off point to discuss both classic and contemporary research that is revealing some of the general rules and laws of biology that can help us make sense of life, and hopefully save ourselves from ourselves.
A good example is island biogeography which established the relationship between island size and species diversity. The idea has been widely applied and has become a cornerstone in conservation biology. After all, undisturbed habitats fragmented by farmland and roads are islands of a different kind, but the same rules apply. Thanks to pioneering work by Nick Haddad and others on butterflies, we know that creating wildlife corridors to reconnect these fragments is probably the best tool to counter the problems we have created. And while biologists were fretting about this, Dunn points out, “the rest of us were connecting cities to cities” (p. 68), creating a different type of wildlife corridor benefitting a select few species.
“we are only aware of a tiny sliver of the biodiversity that is out there [which] leads us “to imagine that the species we have studied are a reflection of the world itself, rather than just the part of the world we have chosen to study“”
Another obvious candidate is natural selection. Unfortunately, when it comes to agriculture and health care, we seem to blithely ignore it. No surprise, then, that our trigger-happy application of antibiotics and various biocides results in drug-resistant superbugs and pesticide-resistant agricultural pests. The four steps he outlines show how we can use the rules of evolution to stop, or at least slow down, empowering parasites and pests.
Probably the most frightening and interesting are the chapters that discuss the law of escape and the niche concept. The law of escape explains what happens when a species is moved into a new habitat, free from its normal predators and parasites: invasive species that reproduce explosively. Humans have been quick to turn this to their advantage by moving crops to areas free from their native pests. This is risky, though, as pests eventually catch up, something we allow to take us by surprise again and again. Closely related to this is the niche concept: the set of parameters circumscribing where an organism can live. Global warming means species are forced to move either uphill or polewards, which they can only do so fast and so far, and which is handicapped by habitat fragmentation (this is where wildlife corridors again come into play). Humans are not exempt from this, and the work discussed here on the human niche and how it is expected to shift is as fascinating as it is terrifying. We need to prepare for potentially billions of future climate refugees.
A few chapters were less convincing. Thus, Dunn’s law of dependence—how we depend on many of the species around us—is explored by research on how babies acquire their microbiome, and how those born through caesarean section often fail to acquire the right microbes. Perhaps Dunn did not want to retread the many examples he discussed in his excellent Never Home Alone of humans depending on microbes and fungi in their very homes. And when you ask me which species I expect to do well under increased climate variability, Dunn’s law of cognitive buffering is not the first thing to come to mind. He contends that species with an inventive sort of intelligence such as corvids will thrive. My first candidate would be generalist species with short generation times. Both are likely to benefit. A point well-taken is Dunn’s application of inventive intelligence to our institutions. Many bureaucracies excel at doing one thing well but are little flexible and poorly prepared for a future of increased climate variability. Both Debora MacKenzie (in the context of pandemic preparedness) and George Monbiot (in the context of global food production) have called for more resilient institutions that build in a measure of redundancy rather than chase efficiency at all costs.
“Global warming means species are forced to move either uphill or polewards, which they can only do so fast and so far. […] Humans are not exempt from this, and the work discussed here on the human niche and how it is expected to shift is as fascinating as it is terrifying. “
What binds this and other chapters together is Dunn’s excellent writing. Some of his metaphors stick. He compares the rapid emergence of cities to “a sort of vulcanism, an eruption and solidification of cement, glass, and brick” (p. 55). Other metaphors betray the sense of humour only biologists can wield. Termites can digest wood thanks to protists in their gut for who the termites are “an entomological mix between a taco truck and a bed-and-breakfast” (p. 174), supplying them with transport and a steady supply of prechewed food.
Fascinating as Dunn’s examples are, some notable laws and principles are missing. What about our lack of awareness of deep time or the (originally) fisheries science concept of shifting baseline syndrome? Arguably, both of these can be folded into the law of anthropocentrism, showing yet other facets of our ignorance of nature. Other prominent candidates are trophic cascades (a good example of the law of escape) and growth, growth trajectories, and the concept of carrying capacity (i.e. the limits to growth). Of course, there is only so much space in a book, so I do not consider this a big deal. A potentially more serious omission is that Dunn does not connect the ideas presented here to the sense, and more often nonsense, of current climate change policy and practice such as the sustainable development goals, net zero, green growth, or the push for renewable energy. The voices of ecologists are sorely missing in these discussions so this would have been an outstanding opportunity to apply his insights and explain what we are getting right and what wrong.
This is the third book by Dunn I have reviewed and it again stands out for being both fascinating and accessibly written. A Natural History of the Future is an excellent dive into rules and principles that seem self-evident to biologists, but much less so to others.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: