Skip to main content

Do we need Pandas? – Ken Thompson ***

Before starting a book I usually have a quick flick through to get a general feel for it and to see what is ahead. When I first picked up this introduction to biodiversity and conservation, I got the impression it was going to be a little dry and academic. In hindsight, I’m not at all sure why I thought this, as it turned out to be nothing of the sort. It is, in fact, very accessible and engaging.
The book addresses the basic questions you are likely to have when starting to think about biodiversity and conservation of species. Author Ken Thompson covers what we know about what biodiversity consists of, what explains the patterns of diversity around the world, what functions biodiversity carries out for us and the planet as a whole, and why species are currently threatened. What comes across most, however, and it’s a point I recall being made a few times in the book, is just how little we know about many of the world’s species (let alone the ones we haven’t even identified yet) and ecosystems.
Thompson’s answer to the question posed in the book’s title is, as you might expect, no, or at least, probably not – ultimately, we are unlikely to be affected if we lose certain individual species (even though we can all agree that any loss of life’s diversity would be a shame). But in any case, Thompson explains, this isn’t the sort of question we should be asking. This is because singling out any individual species for protection does not solve the more general, underlying problem of the destruction of natural habitat around the world. For the most part, conservation efforts should concentrate on simply ensuring that earth’s ecosystems are broadly well equipped to support diversity – important factors here would be things like fertility of land, size of forests and wetland, and soil pH. If we focus on these aspects, it is argued, the problem of loss of species will resolve itself.
It is not clear from the book whether this is a minority view among conservationists – and there are other occasions where I would have liked to have been informed whether what was being said reflected more or less the current consensus (if there is a consensus on any of the issues). But here, Thompson’s clear and methodical writing in any case makes his argument convincing. It is the same elsewhere in the book – the author’s ideas are always very well organised, and there is always research and specific examples behind what is being discussed.
There is a lot to recommend this title, then. After reading this, you’ll be in a good position to explore the issues further, and it may challenge the way you think about conservation.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…