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Thursday, March 17, 2022

Review: A Natural History of the Future

 A Natural History of The Future is an ecologist's view of the world, and it's the best introduction to ecological thinking that I've read. The idea that Rob Dunn has, is to introduce the reader to laws of the natural world (that are patterned after the laws in physics) that describe certainties about the biological/ecological world that enable us to predict what will happen over time.

The introduction is great, pointing out that the first research done into organism classification and thinking happened in Sweden. Sweden was unusual in that the diversity of life was actually very low, and the very human bias made the original ecologists focus on things that they cared about, like plants and animals, when much of the biomass of the planet actually exists in the form of insects and micro-organisms. The result was that when Terry Erwin visited the rainforest and collected specimens, he found 1200 new species living in just one type of tree. This blew people's mind, basically noting that the number of unclassified species far out-number the classified species on the planet.

The rest of the book covers these laws, such as the law of escape, which is that when an organism escapes its natural predators and parasites, it will multiply and thrive. He points out that humanity in the temperate zones effectively escaped their predators such as malaria, hook worms, and other parasites, and ominously notes that our warming of the global environment is expanding the range of those parasites and their agents (mosquitoes). The liberal in me notes that in the USA the first places to suffer the re-emergence of those agents are Texas and Florida.

There's the law of evolution, with the most prominent example being antibiotic resistance amongst microbes. Here, the prognosis for humanity isn't as bad as you might imagine. It turned out that the agricultural companies producing transgenic crops have a solution: plant the transgenic crops next to sacrificial non-transgenic crops. The pests and parasites that prey on the crop would preferentially feed on the non-transgenic crops, diluting the gene pool of any transgenic-resistant crops and preventing the rise of widespread transgenic resistance. Of course, capitalistic farmers would not heed those prescriptions and within a few generations those transgenic crop pastures would turn into hotbeds of transgenic resistance. 

All in all, the book is full of great concepts, new ideas, and a very good perspective that no matter what humanity does, we might well remove ourselves and our mammalian friends from the planet, but life on the planet will not be wiped out. He points out that there are already microbes that thrive in extremely hot, acidic, and salty conditions and cannot wait to take over the planet once humanity has made the atmosphere and ecosystem more friendly to them.

Very sobering and well worth your time. Recommended.

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