Thursday, June 29, 2017

Book Review: 'The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man' by Michael Tennesen

Review by David Wineberg

The high points, if that is the term, of The Next Species demonstrate how tampering with one species or ecological unit (like a forest) can wreak unintended havoc far and wide. The removal of a top predator can result in the denuding of forests, as leaf eating prey are suddenly free to overrun the area, stripping it bare. This permits other plants, formerly hidden and controlled, to take over, and even prevent trees returning. Whole forests are disappearing “naturally,” thanks to the hunting, urbanization and pollution by Man. It’s one of many eye-openers in this important overview of the state of the disaster.

One more: an unexpected chain reaction is occurring in the oceans of the world. The slaughter of great whales from the millions to a few thousand has led to killer whales being forced to hunt otters instead, which lead to the overabundance of sea urchins that otters ate. The urchins kill off the kelp forests underseas, and that removes the whole ecosystem where fish bred. The result is massive dead zones where life once teemed.

Agriculture has become its own plague, as farmers sterilize the soil, dry it to dust, drain pesticides and fertilizers into the watershed, destroy habitats with single crop policies and expose vast areas to damage from weather, such as erosion, and draining and drying of aquifers.

Even good intentioned efforts to release animals into the wild are misguided and doomed to fail, as one additional life form does not imply a return to balance. They can and do create other problems when they don’t simply fail.

Unlike the previous five mass extinctions due to volcanic eruptions and meteor hits, this one is happening in slow motion, as Man eliminates one species after another, by hunting, by poisoning and by habitat elimination. Biodiversity is already down almost a third just in our lifetime, and diversity is what keeps disease in check, as well as improving genetic advantages. The remaining life is subject to worsening health and a degradation of the environment it can no longer keep going, a downward spiral.

Sadly, the clear takeaway is that the removal of just one species will allow the Earth to rebalance and replenish, and function for the good of all. “In many ways, we’re the worst of the invasives,” Tennesen says.

There are all kinds of indications that new top species evolve to take over. The rise of Humboldt squid is a fascinating case study Tennesen uses to demonstrate how voids get filled and whole ecological systems change.

After we have totally trashed Earth, we will want to start over. Tennesen examines Mars, and it seems numerous projects are already underway. The most classic manmade solution is a Dutch project to produce a TV reality show there, the whole thing financed by the broadcast rights. Despite it being a one way trip, more than 100,000 people have signed up. Mars will never be the same. (See Earth.)

Unfortunately, life on Mars will change homo sapiens into something else, as the weaker gravity will change our bodies (so that we can never return), and the sterile environments we must create will cause us to mutate, weaken and stagnate. If we stay on Earth until we destroy it, we will adapt to fit the new reality, and again, it will be different and decidedly not better.

This is not a cheerful picture. It is at once fascinating and horrifying. To paraphrase David Suzuki, we are in a car racing over a cliff while arguing over who gets to sit in the front seat. We can only hope that whatever comes after us proves somewhat more benign.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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