Inheritors of the Earth

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Our planet has shrunk considerably, and once-remote places increasingly resemble each other. Indeed, a sense of global contraction hangs over the entire book.

Inheritors of the Earth (English version)

Individual habitats are often not as diverse as they could be, meaning that there is usually room for our biological chattel. This seems especially true of islands: Clear the forest, plant fields and gardens, and—though some species disappear—the ones that come compensate, leading to no net loss. Thomas goes one large step further.

New species can arise when two old species meet and hybridize or when a species adapts to local conditions in a new environment. The Asian house sparrow, for example, has now interbred with a related species in Italy to produce a new bird that may eventually be considered a bona fide species; the yellow star thistle, introduced to California in , already prefers not to breed with its parent from Spain.

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Thomas muses as to when the New World thistle will switch from the reviled invasive it is now to the treasured Californian endemic it might become. The idea that speciation is on the rise is provocative. The amount of movement be-tween locales must be just right, and it is an open question whether humans have inadvertently produced such a Goldilocks effect.

Thomas ends by arguing that, because biodiversity change is natural and because human behavior is ultimately the product of natural selection, human-induced biodiversity gains and losses are also natural. That aside, the inevitability and pace of global change demands the sort of fresh thinking that is found in Inheritors of the Earth. At this point, we are more captain and crew than passengers and stowaways.

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The creatures that now call that place home, like those in Puerto Rico, have found a way to coexist with us. Such species may be all that we should reasonably expect as companions into the future. But then again, perhaps we can do better.

See a Problem?

Implicitly, people were thinking that there was a way the world should be. We tend to think of the natural world in terms of our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents. But if you consider the environment over timescales of hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years, it is impossible to avoid the fact that it is always changing.

As an example, during the last 20, years — which in the history of life is no time at all — the environment in the Vale of York has been turned repeatedly on its head. Casting aside this familiar way of thinking about the natural world does present a real problem, Thomas admits, because keeping nature as it was in the recent past is an easy goal to define and agree.

Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction by Chris D. Thomas

Instead of focusing on preserving past ecosystems, Thomas says, we should concentrate on preserving biodiversity, so that living things can respond flexibly to future challenges. As the climate shifts, Thomas argues, we must allow animals and plants to shift as well. In some cases, this means transporting species away from places where they can no longer thrive and giving them a chance to survive elsewhere.

Human beings have made huge changes to the natural world, Thomas admits, and some of those changes have had catastrophic effects on individual species. But when you look at those changes on a wider scale and examine their effect on the variety of living things, the picture improves.

The author conjures up a future in which African black rhinos find refuge in Mediterranean shrubland, or butterflies from Provence can survive on grasslands in southern England, a world where wingnut trees, currently threatened in the Caucasian mountains, can flourish in British gardens.

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