An open and broad survey successfully designed to make readers think hard about the Möbius strip of exotic and native, and...

A silkily written excursion into the evolution of ecosystems and the possible threats to biodiversity from newcomers.

What are the implications—biological, economical, psychological—when new plant and animal types start to bully established indigenous species out of existence? Plant and animal species, as we know, have been roaming the globe from the start. Consider “the burr stowed in the down of a roving bird,” suggests Discover magazine editor Burdick, or the spider billowing for miles and miles on its strand. Species have been colonizing and re-colonizing forever, taking part in the Darwinian struggle, finding niches, being ousted. But what are we to think when a species simply begins to take over, reducing the biodiversity by half, homogenizing the bio-scape, reducing the crop to rot? This is not simply a case of human aesthetics or economic concerns, like, say, a distaste for a swarm of spiders crawling up your pants or the sound or feral pigs crunching on Norway rats. No, these are questions of extinction: of “eco-imperialism” when conservation agencies seek to eradicate culturally significant populations; of the geography of pandemics; of the interplay of disease, host and vector; of what happens when introduced species encourage native species to go hog wild; of the very notion of what constitutes a weed. Invasion biology (studying how ecosystems work by watching them fall apart) is in its infancy, but to Burdick it’s fairly clear that biodiversity is crucial in the thwarting of species homogenization: the more there are, the more resistant the system is to a species’ invasion. Even if ecological communities were coincidences to start with, they become all the more vulnerable to wasteland when reduced to just a few species. In addition to his philosophical-scientific probings, Burdick provides elegant travel narratives to Guam and Hawaii.

An open and broad survey successfully designed to make readers think hard about the Möbius strip of exotic and native, and of the human agency in extinction. (6 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-374-21973-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2005




A quirky wonder of a book.

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020



Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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