Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)
The first thing I think of when hearing the name of marine biologist Daniel Pauly is shifting baseline syndrome. Once seen, this powerful concept of generational amnesia with regards to the state of the natural world is impossible to unsee. I previously reviewed Vanishing Fish, a collection of Pauly’s essays that introduced this and other influential ideas—and came away very impressed. It is followed by this outstanding biography that, true to its subtitle, convinces that the life and work of Pauly are remarkable.
I remember, some years ago, the news headlines of an impending insect mass extinction. But I similarly remember pushback against the term “insect apocalypse”. When the publisher Jonathan Cape announced that well-known entomologist Dave Goulson was working on Silent Earth, my interest was naturally piqued. So, how bad is it, really?
Ever since humans appeared on the scene, we have been altering life on Earth. Where once our actions could be considered part of nature’s fabric, our influence has become outsized and our options to exercise it have multiplied. Though the subtitle of Life Changing does not make it explicit, science writer Helen Pilcher focuses on our impact on the genetics and evolution of life around us. A book that stands out for its balanced tone, it managed to surprise me more than once, despite my familiarity with the topics considered.
Life most likely originated in the oceans, and it is to oceans that astronomers are looking to find life elsewhere in the universe. With the publication last year of Kevin Peter Hand’s Alien Oceans, I decided this was the right time to finally review Ocean Worlds, a book that I have been very keen to read ever since buying it some years ago. This, then, is the first of a two-part dive into the story of oceans on Earth and elsewhere.
What does the deep ocean make you think of? An alien world right on our doorstep? The cradle of life? A global garbage dump? The lungs of the planet? Or the world’s most abused ecosystem? If I am to believe marine biologist Alex Rogers, the deep ocean is all of the above, and so much more. With three decades of research experience and scientific consultancy credits for the BBC series Blue Planet II under his belt, he knows what he is talking about and he knows how to talk about it. The Deep is an intensely captivating and urgent book that swings between wonder and horror.
The phenomenon of “shifting baselines” is, to me, one of the most powerful concepts in ecology, explaining a lot of the damage humanity has wreaked on its environment. Vanishing Fish is a career-spanning collection of previously published essays, with some new material, from the pen of fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly who coined this term in 1995. And when a man like him speaks, I listen. The book gives an eye-opening overview of the state of the world’s fisheries, and the research that revealed the institutional ignorance that partially obscures the gravity of the situation.
I cannot deny that the first thing that came to my mind upon seeing this book was Leslie Nielsen’s slightly smutty beaver joke in Naked Gun. Shame on me, as environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb presents a serious, incisive book that shows just how important beavers and their dams are for biodiversity, ecosystem health, and hydrology. If humans are now said to be a geological force to be reckoned with, birthing the term Anthropocene, our persecution of beavers led to the loss of another geological force.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s speciality, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.
The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise lays bare a conundrum of our times. How is it that so many of us loathe resource extraction (e.g. the cutting down of trees for timber, or the mining of ores to produce metals), yet we absolutely adore the products that are subsequently made from these resources? We are up in arms when our forests are under threat, or companies want to start fracking in protected areas (a current concern in the UK), and when we successfully halt these things, the results are invariably hailed as a victory for the environment. Except that they aren’t.