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By Helen Gavaghan
A review of The New Wild
Why invader species will be nature's salvation
By Fred Pearce
Hardcover 7th April, 2015.
Resident as I am on a planet orbiting a single Sun I do not see or think of any species on Earth as alien. Roiled by unifying plate tectonics, enveloped by restless, solar-power gaseous oxygen and nitrogen, and awash in globe encircling salt water, the question of what is biologically alien on Earth strikes me as answerable only within the confines of gravity and time-dependent electromagnetic force fields, rather than by the ecosystem of the day and its planetary latitudinal and longitudinal geolocation.
The possible exception to my thinking is those locations whose fundamental geochemistry was modified before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty sought to prevent human beings remaking the Earth. There biology alien to the world before nuclear weapons might come to exist, but, in the absence of a relacement for the Higgs Boson, even there an alien biology arguably does not lead to alien species or ecologies.
My thinking differs from that of ecologists and environmentalists. Irrespective of their conceptual ecological and evolutionary school strict localism is what to date has guided how ecologists, environmentalists and those protecting national agricultures, frame their thinking and disagreements about species thriving in locations other than the one in which they first experienced the light of day.
Since life must be fed, I understand the perspective of the agriculturalists, keen to prevent blight and rot starving the human race and its dependent biology, chemistry, physics and geology. This is the anthropocene. For the forseeable future, and in the absence of comets and asteroids, humanity is not going to be shifting Earth out of its orbit, nor stilling the plates as they roam Earth's surface.
As a graduate biophysicist, journalist and editor with national and international competence - through training and practise - and published historian with post graduate training in the history of science, technology and medicine, I struggle to grasp the passions driving environmentalists and ecologists.
If the environmental argument is human empathy with a luckless species of bird predated on by a later species of rats arriving where the birds live I'm on the side of the underdog. Go you braves! But I see no moral ecological or environmental superiority in a species reaching shore via plate tectonics and gravity versus a species arriving on a ship. I'm guessing representatives of arriviste species continue to live also in their original location. One species, two ecosystems; what's not to like?
Perhaps it is that particular ecologies look attractive and complete to human eyes, a bit like a doe-eyed ET tugging the heart strings? Does eco favouratism drive environmentalists, or is their passion more complex?
Incidentally I am not writing here of the environmentalists and ecologists seeking to prevent or alleviate the misery which accompanies an oil spil. Doughty biology will find a way even there, but only after a lot of species have suffered and lost their livelihood.
Rather I have in mind such locations as Ascension Island, subject of Chapter One of The New Wild. Thanks to human endeavour that volcanic Island is plush with imported greenery. Having battled to climb volcanic hills on La Palma I have some sense of how it might once have looked.
How would I experience the new world on Ascension Island if I were an anaerobic, lithospheric microbe and the species with the most neural connections decided to anthropomorphise the island in which I existed. Such questions leave me, as a representative of astrocyte-rich humanity, wanting to find a good text on the history of microspcopy. That way I might be confident that as a journalist I have teased out all the possible human motivations for turning Ascension Island into a new Eden.
Pearce notes the Island became a garrison from which the Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic to prevent Napolean Bonaparte - monster of Europe, in British eyes - escaping a second time, and fighting another Waterloo. Later, writes Pearce, Ascension Island was a staging post for laying transatlantic cables, and is now protected by Oceanic isolation breached only by military transport, such as that which took him to the Island.
All very interesting, but when scientists start shipping seeds to terra form and create new ecosystems I want to know what was happening at the time in neighbouring fields of science and human thought. The collective and individual scientific global intellect in my experience usually has a lot of unspoken complex motives behind even the tamest and most compliant protocol in a government-sponsored research programme.
I think a variety of readers, including scientists, politicians and children from eight-year-old upward, will find The New Wild an easy read, and might learn from its content. My fellow biophysicists - those who moved into post graduate practise - might enjoy reading the book on a lazy Sunday afternoon on their iPad at the beach, as they mull biochemical pathways, protein folding, cellular environments and force fields. What Pearce says he saw, he will have seen.