hbk, 288 pp

Island Press, 2015

ISBN: 978-1610915748


Reviewed by Sky McCain


Michael Soulé is Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz. Born and raised in San Diego, he became intimate with the life abounding in the canyons and desert shores of southern California. He studied population biology with Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University and was Chair of the Environmental Studies Department at UCSC from 1989 to 1996. A founder and first President of the Society for Conservation Biology and The Wildlands Network (formerly Wildlands Project), he has written and/or edited eleven books on biology, conservation biology, and the social and policy context of conservation and has published about 175 articles on population and evolutionary biology.

This book contains skilfully collected presentations of the many faceted concerns of conservation combined with peer-reviewed scientific research in the broadest areas of biology, environmental studies and genetics. Due to the well prepared overviews and summary paragraphs of the fourteen presented papers, the book serves as an essential text book and simultaneously a fascinating general knowledge source.

I found this array of papers, written throughout a period of over 35 years, clear, informative, inspirited and concise. All these papers are valuable both to the dedicated student of conservation biology—because of the depth of research—and to any layperson interested in the multitude of synchronous and symbiotic relationships within the plant and animal kingdoms and in the concept of the planet as a living, holistic being. It is a collection that would provide stimulating reading for anyone seeking deeper understanding of the ways in which the strands of the web of life are woven together.

One of the most interesting papers is number seven, ‘Conservation: Tactics for a Constant Crisis’, which breaks down the whole topic to: a) Six classes of Human Interference, b) Seven sources of biotic degradation and c) Eight paths to biotic survival. Another stimulating paper is number five, ‘Chaparral-Requiring Birds in Urban Habitat Islands.’ The study of fragments of habitat is extremely important as human population expands followed by demands for housing and social support infrastructure. Soulé chose his home town of San Diego, California and along with a team of researchers found that certain birds, such as the California quail, Greater Roadrunner, Wrentit, Bewicks Wren, Cactus Wren, Blackitailed Gnatchatcher, California Thrasher and Rufous-sided Towhee had either become rare or moved out altogether. Their research revealed the importance of the coyote and how the loss of this predator allowed foxes and domestic cats to threaten and severely cull the bird population. …there is virtually no limit to the number of cats that can occur in an urban canyon. Domestic cats can continue to take wildlife in a canyon long after the density of prey is too low to sustain a native predator that must rely on wildlife for most of its food. The loss of bird species, of course, had knock-on effects—an excellent example of what is known as a ‘trophic cascade’ in which, like a line of dominoes, the loss of one species affects an entire ecosystem.

Soulé combines leadership and scholarship with a passionate belief in the sanctity of life as expressed through the concept of diversity. As his friend and long-time associate James Estes writes in his Introduction, this collection of papers is a …kind of history of one biologist’s collaborative effort to combine scholarship and altruism in the service of Nature and also as a… personal history of the origin and development of conservation biology.

Michael Soulé calls conservation biology a ‘crisis discipline’. The crisis of course, is the geometrically increasing rate of population and whole species extinction. This is now exacerbated, as he explains, by a postmodernist approach to conservation which values human welfare as being far more important than the continued existence of all those other life forms to whom we owe our very being and continuance as a species. He describes how this new movement seeks to, replace the biodiversity-based model of traditional conservation with campaigns emphasising human economic progress.  Under the new regime, humans imagine they could ‘manage’ the Earth as a garden for human use and welfare. But since this approach spells doom for biodiversity, one can only hope that it does not prevail.