Where Do Camels Belong?: The story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson

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Where Do Camels Belong?: The story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The case of the unwanted spider in the bathtub, magnified to a global scale. Interesting and clear, but I wished the book had more of a compelling touch to generate more purpose.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: March 2014
Publisher: Profile
ISBN: 9781781251744

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Much of what passes for invasion biology is poorly supported hype. So says our author, and you can easily fall into agreeing with him after reading his book. In much the same way the Daily Mail et al have their own attitudes to immigrants of the human kind, so it would appear do many people have similar notions about immigrant species. And the end results might be much more damaging.

One problem is that the definition of an invasive species is more than woolly. Rabbits came over to Britain with the Romans; northern America had horses until they became extinct 8,000 years ago – then lo and behold the Spanish put them back. Many people in a silly survey a few years ago voted for 'official' 'county flowers' and picked a host of foreign imports. Who was on the throne of the UK when the collared dove was first in the wild? Our current queen was, that's who.

There's also misdirection elsewhere – I am sure I read the dangers of the Harlequin ladybird in its march from America – although it's not American, and might have a purpose in the end. Many species have been introduced and all the reportage suggests them to be evil, malevolent, invasive, unwanted, unwelcome, damaging, etc (unless they're just too damned cute) yet oftentimes the truth is something much different. Many times the effect of an invasive species is not known properly, and the cause of any problems is in fact something different – more of which in a second.

Yes, I don't like the spider in the bathtub any more than the next stereotypical housewife, and I don't fancy something poisonous reaching my house with my next bunch of bananas. This book of course relates to much more permanent movement of one life form from one place to another, only for there to be no bath taps or slipper the other end. Nature is full of examples of this happening – seeds moving about on seabound rafts, in the stomachs of passing birds; nature taking advantage of land-bridges (to the extent that the English oak is Spanish, and only really came here when the last ice age ended). But who can blame the animal involved – it's only nature, after all. I remember being told at school that the really successful plant forms are the crops we choose to eat – their innate impetus was to survive and their being selected to form monocultures shows that has worked.

Which brings us to the prime species involved in all this – mankind. It's he that chose to spread himself with his own impetus across the world – but he had to shift plants around so he had things to feed on when he got there. And if you need to understand why other species are on the move, it's probably down to man – our transport systems, our willingness to breed, farm or otherwise keep by us certain creatures, and our changes to the environment and climate that are doing things – as I say, it's not always the invasive species that is to blame for changes in the world we see.

All this and more is in this book, which is packed with quotable instances of misunderstood species; a Bad Pharma for the world's ecologists to take note of. And it certainly smacks to me of good science – the copious misdirections in academe on this issue and misfires in our responses to invasions (regularly fighting one with another, and only exacerbating things) do need redressing. The clarity of the writing is enough to convince, even if the book is flawed. It's certainly not irredeemably flawed, but you get to the final two chapters, for example, and get déjà vu, as it reconfirms what it's already shown.

The author also concludes by stating this is not a text-book, when it must serve as one of the few balanced guides to this whole side of life science. Take the pictures out, shove it in hardback and it might get more respect, but this book is definitive enough for me, and does at times have the feel of the academic tome more than the popular. For one, while its conclusions are perfectly sound, measured, and wide-ranging, they do draw steadily and firmly away from lambasting humanity for what they have mostly brought upon themselves. And in a way the book slightly suffers for that; in losing the edge of having that extra focus, in defining itself less successfully by not having that purpose, and in keeping itself unbiased throughout, it does lack the final bit of urgency and clarity that would force it off the store shelves and into the public consciousness. In a way, as informative as it remained throughout, it might actually need a bit more of the Daily Mail polemic about it to be more of a must-read.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre has many more examples of this kind of thing, and refuses to age.

Buy Where Do Camels Belong?: The story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Where Do Camels Belong?: The story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Where Do Camels Belong?: The story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Where Do Camels Belong?: The story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson at Amazon.com.


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