Ken Thompson, Where Do Camels Belong?

What if we were wrong, completely and expensively wrong, about a crucial tenet of contemporary environmental anxiety and citizen environmentalism?

Ken Thompson, in other words, spends most of Where Do Camels Belong?: Why Invasive Species Aren't All Bad a distressingly long way from talking about camels. (The hook is that camels evolved their greatest diversity in North America, only becoming extinct in North America about 8000 years ago, and so they're arguably more native to North America than to anywhere else, but who thinks about anything but the Sahara?) Invasion biology is a comparatively new academic sub discipline, possibly a sub-subdiscipline if you want to house it within conservation biology, and its media-friendly ways have in Thompson's view led it into a place of tenets and beliefs, rather than inquiry. In consequence, invasion biology finds itself used to support wildly expensive, doomed, and sometimes ecologically destructive exercises, when really it should just be buckling down to the slow, difficult work of establishing its own principles.

An example: throughout southern Europe, alpine plants are moving uphill on mountains, climbing toward summits where they've never been seen. This is generally taken to be a signal of climate change, anthropogenic climate change inextricably linked to increased carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and that's probably not incorrect. But the more closely you look at this uphill migration of slow-transmission alpine plants, the more it looks like a recolonization following the Little Ice Age from the 16th through 19th centuries in Europe (p.116). Until there's clarity about these two issues, then it's scientifically unwise, and possible scandalous, to describe it only in terms of anthropogenic climate change.

I was prepared to dislike this book pretty intensely, given my attachment to the Garry Oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island, my antipathy to Scotch broom in the same region, and my general distrust of the corporate, the domineering, and the disengaged. Thompson's strategy was highly appealing, though, his mixture of trivia, scholarship, and economics, and I've come away impressed and troubled. Do I agree with him that a principle-based opposition to invasive species (or even to "invasive species") is wrong-headed? Well, no, but that's not the point. Instead, he wants his readers to come away concerned at the current state of invasion biology and at the uncritical application of practices very, very crudely derived from what he describes as either unpolished science or the inappropriate generalization from a scientific library consisting of far too few studies.

Mission accomplished, for this reader.

One of Thompson's main points (and he does have several) is that what we tend to think of as "invasive species" have their fates quite tightly bound up with our own, to the extent that their migration is facilitated in part or in sum by humans, and that their ongoing survival owes much to humans, either because of our impacts on previously established species or because of ongoing local ecological disruption. He doesn't quite coin the term, but he uses the concept of "anthropophiles" to describe the relationship between humans and the invasive species that we resist or fear most strongly: they follow us around, we drag them around with us and protect them without noticing it, and so we loathe them because they remind us that as a species, we really are great shambling idiots (p.48).

There are North American flatworms in Loch Ness, among other exemplars, because of sterilization protocol failures amongst the North American scientists -- sorry, I mean "scientists" -- pursuing the Loch Ness monster. As Thompson remarks in another context, "We have the plants (and animals) we deserve" (p.121).

Or in California, there's a problematical radish: the garden-variety radish (from Europe, so not a native) has in the wild hybridized with the European "wild" radish to generate a species not seen elsewhere. This new hybrid, which exists nowhere else outside California, has so strongly outcompeted its progenitors that the European wild radish has in essence been extirpated from California, after a relatively short tenure there. Should we think of these potent hybrid radishes as California native plants, now? (There's a similar situation in the UK with rhododendrons, if that helps….)

Or in North America more generally, the current proliferating health of vegetation (both alien and native) owes an incalculably large debt to two invasive European species: honeybees and earthworms. Critical to the fertilization and, um, fertilization of so many plants in North America, these two species were imported from Europe after Columbus. While some species of native earthworm remain in some parts of the continent, and many other kinds of bees have always existed here, the dominant species in each case is a deliberately imported invader.

Thompson is arguing, at length and with sometimes undue intensity, for common sense to be exerted in humanity's many long and expensive campaigns against invasive species. I'm with him on this, in part because I had no idea how little common sense there has sometimes been.

To be clear, though, I'm still going to be pulling broom every chance I get, and ivy and holly and all the rest. The small-scale war continues, around here!


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