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Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An…
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Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist's Perspective

by Paul A. Colinvaux

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So, this cover misled me. I thought it would be a not too old book for ages 10 up. Well, ok, I guess kids could read it. And I suspect many of the essays have still-relevant info. in them. But the edition I'm reading (from our State Library and Archives) is so old the cover is not here on GR. And though it's an enjoyable read and I will keep on, I'll read lightly and look for something else on Ecology.

Green cover with animal tracks here: http://pictures.abebooks.com/isbn/978...

Is ecology even studied anymore? I did a keyword search in my library system and got nothing of value much newer than this.

Not all newcomers are invasive, apparently - Colinvaux reports that when the cottony-cushion scale, hitched in from Australia and threatened the citrus, an entomologist brought in Aussie ladybirds called vedalia, which did indeed prey upon them to the point where they live in a "peaceful coexistence" and are not any sort of problem.
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Now I'm done. Overall, I love the book, and would have read it several times if I'd owned it when it was new & I was a teen. Now, I just don't know how much is still relevant, and what the current understanding of how nature works is compared to what it was back 4 decades ago. I do know I'm not convinced by the author's argument, in the last chapter, about how human animals live and human societies grow.

But it's a fairly easy read, and the author's voice is engaging and relatively light. And he keeps saying things in fresh way, in a way that helps us think, in an idiom that sticks. For example, consider herbivores as hunters of plants. As far as the genes of the plants can cope, cows etc. are predators.

Also, it's a great read because the author admits that science is a process. It looks for deeper answers and is not satisfied with intuitive understandings or data that doesn't fit popular theories. As he puts it at one point, "Ecologists are still inclined to argue about these things, but it does look as if we might have the general answer to these questions, all the same." Research is still needed, for example by wildlife management research scientists like my middle son.

But there's a lot in here that makes wonderful sense, just as it is, too. Things that I'm sure Colinvaux and his sources have figured out, things that educators and policy-makers have yet to learn. For example, did you know that the ocean is mostly an infertile 'desert' and that we're already getting pretty much as much sustenance as we can from it?

And did you know that there's less competition than peaceful coexistence in nature? Fighting takes a lot of energy that is better used towards reproduction, after all. If you read only one chapter from this book, read the chapter titled "Peaceful Coexistence." Here's some of it:

"Animals and plants in nature are not... engaged in endless debilitating struggle, as a loose reading of Darwin might suggest. Nature is arranged so that competitive struggles are avoided..... A species lives triumphant in its own special niche....

Natural selection is harsh only to the deviant aggressor who seeks to poach on the niche of another."

Now the above is about inter-species interaction. Consider something even more potentially relevant to discussions of humans' warlike nature: wolves cull the young, old, and sick large herbivores, because if the pack took on a healthy adult, "some of the wolves would get hurt, and a hurt wolf can hunt no more. Natural selection see to it that the strain of brave aggressiveness in wolves is purged from the wolf gene pool because such individuals would incur more than an average share of being fatally hurt. and thus would leave fewer descendants."

Now, the problem with humans is that we create new niches. Colinvaux, in his concluding chapter, says we "Change our niches without changing our breeding strategy." To a certain extent, and from the perspective of 1977, he's right. Fortunately, we've seen evidence that empowering and educating women has led to them choosing smaller families. I am more optimistic than the author that this trend will continue, and that we will somehow develop strategies to share a healthy planet with whales, wolves, frogs, and plankton.

But who is far-sighted, who is looking at the big picture? Ecology doesn't even seem to be a thing anymore - can anyone tell me who is following in Colinvaux's footsteps? Can anyone tell me what has been learned since about the topics he studied?

" ( )
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 6, 2016 |
A marvelous book on the way things work in the natural world. Wish I had a HC 1st! ( )
  JNSelko | Jun 15, 2008 |
Why do birds sing in the morning? Why is the sea blue? What accounts for the immense variety of plant and animal species? A zoologist takes an entertaining look at the world around him, pondering the answers provided by scientific research and describing nature in a way that will lead the curious to observe their surroundings with fresh eyes. [This review from the back cover of the book] ( )
  thelee | Apr 2, 2006 |
The book is about ecology, or the inter- connection of all the plants and animals in the world. This is a developing subject looking to answer the question in Colinvaux's words of "why some animals are common and others rare, why some are bigger than others, why their numbers are the same year after year, why their behaviour may be curious, and how they share the energy of the life giving sun".

Along the way the reader gets to follow the calculations of Nelson Transeau in discovering exactly how efficient plants are at capturing the sun's energy that we all depend on ( 6678 kilograms of sugar equivalent per acre of U.S. corn per crop- a poor conversion rate of 2% of the sun's energy ). Or higher up the food chain look at the unexpected activities of hunting wolf packs on Mount McKinley in Alaska ( they're risk averse ).

The text is very clear and the reader gets access to real science without politics maths or jargon. He shows that a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" is much more a question of peaceful exploration of different niches rather than a struggle for the same ones, getting back for a change to what Darwin actually observed. Equally he sticks to the truth even if he doesn't like it much. He hates the Alaska pipeline for its misuse of fuel reserves and wishes it had never been built but it doesn't stop him dumping the "fragile Alaskan ecosystem" argument.

Finally he looks at the place of people in the world, "for the first time an animal had adopted a new niche without speciating" and identifies this as the most momentous event in the history of life. I think that he's right and if you want to have a good impartial look at the consequences this is probably one of the best places to start.

The book also helps in getting to grips with the confusion of the green debate. ( )
1 vote Miro | Oct 15, 2005 |
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