September 9, 1996
Professor Neil A. Campbell
Department of Botany and Plant Sciences
University of California
Riverside, CA 92521
Re: Your textbook, Biology (Third Edition)
Dear Professor Campbell:
I am an environmentalist. I spent 8 years working on stopping highway construction and reducing dependence on the automobile. While doing research for that campaign, I discovered an article by Reed Noss, "The Ecological Effects of Roads", describing how roads reduce biodiversity by fragmenting habitat and reducing wildlife's choice of mates and other resources. It impressed me as a new, powerful tool for fighting road construction, but
it also reawakened my interest in biology. Soon I realized that wildlife are a lot more interesting to study than road construction, and I have switched to a new campaign -- protecting wildlife habitat, and particularly, creating habitat that is off-limits to humans.
While looking to see what textbooks are being used at the University of California in Berkeley, I saw your book and decided to read it to catch up on developments in biology since I studied it in high school, to give a more solid (scientific) basis to my environmental work, and to see if I could find some new "ammunition" to help my campaign.
I certainly learned a lot, but I also found a few possible errors, and I was surprized to find little "ammunition" to help persuade the "(wo)man in the street" to revere wildlife and protect its habitat. I am grateful that you went to the considerable effort of providing so much information in such a readable form, but I hope you will consider a few suggestions for your next edition.
On p.336 you say that mutations are "the ultimate source of genetic diversity", and that a mutation "in a gamete, or in a cell that gives rise to gametes ... may be transmitted to offspring and to a succession of future generations". I think you should point out that this implies that biodiversity can be contained in an individual, not just in a population. This is a revolutionary concept, because most people say that conserving biodiversity is synonymous with conserving populations and species, and that as long as the populations and species remain, we haven't lost any biodiversity. You should also point out that the probability is that any mutation begins with a single individual. In other words, killing an individual could wipe out a unique, new gene -- one that, for example, might allow that species to survive global warming. This is extremely important information for countering people who say that it is okay to allow some wildlife to die, since the population (or species) remains.
On p.456, you say that "only cladogenesis can promote biological diversity by increasing the number of species". This sentence is ambiguous, and if you mean that biodiversity can be increased only by increasing the number of species, this is wrong. Biodiversity is basically genetic diversity. The number of species is a very crude and inaccurate measure of (surrogate for) biodiversity. For example, a butterfly and a tree are far more diverse than two species of butterfly. Thus, if we place a value on biodiversity, we should value the former more than the latter. This is reasonable, because if we were to lose one butterfly species from each pair of species, it would take much longer to replace it by evolution from a tree than from another species of butterfly!
On p.420, you say that "evolution refers to the processes that have transformed life on Earth from its earliest forms to the vast diversity that characterizes it today". You seem to be saying that there is more biodiversity today than there was in the past. But actually, if you look at genetic diversity, rather than number of species, biodiversity has probably been going downhill almost since the very beginning of life! For example, Stephen J. Gould, in Wonderful Life -- the Burgess Shale, points out that the major extinction event of the Precambrian period wiped out most of the body types found in arthropods, leaving only the four we have today. We may have more species of arthropods now, but we have far less bio-diversity. (Part of the problem is that the word "diversity" is itself ambiguous: it can refer to the degree of difference, or the multiplicity of different forms. In biology and conservation, we care about both, but the former is probably the more important. Do you agree? What is more practical to have around the house, ten different types of hammer, or ten different types of tools, only one of which is a hammer?)
On p.428, you say that "natural selection is not a chance phenomenon". This could be taken to mean that chance doesn't play a significant part in natural selection, which is wrong. A chance (rare, unlikely) event (e.g. a mountain biker accidentally running over and killing the last member of an endangered species of snake) could wipe out a species. (E.g. "The most important influence operating in natural communities is chance", An Island Called California, by Elna Bakker, p.230.) Such a possibility contradicts the traditional view that the species who survive are somehow "fitter" than the ones that become extinct, or that when humans drive a species to extinction, it is okay because we are "fitter" and therefore "deserve" to "win". Gould also discussed chance in the previously mentioned work, showing that chance, as much as "fitness", played a part in the survival of prevertebrates, and that, therefore humans are not the "goal" of evolution. I think this notion is important in tempering human arrogance and anthropocentrism.
On p.669 you ask "What level of human activity do you think should be permitted on wildlife refuges?" This is an excellent question, but I don't think your book has supplied the student with enough information to answer it and be able to defend their answer on the basis of biological fact. Or do you think, as I do, that the answer is obviously "none"?
Obviously, biologists depend on the existence of wildlife (= all non-human, non-domesticated species) for continuing their profession, and have therefore an interest in preserving it. But I don't think most textbooks are written in a way that promotes caring for wildlife (e.g. one could use the information on DNA as easily to exploit wildlife as to help it). So I tried to imagine what a book would be like that did promote reverence for wildlife:
1. Teach the students what anthropocentrism is, and then teach them to see the world from the point of view of other species. I don't think this is at all farfetched. We pride our species in its power of empathy. We usually apply that only to other humans, but given the high degree of genetic commonality between us and other species, we should be pretty good at this. (I heard that our genes are 98% identical with those of a chimpanzee, and I would guess that we share a lot (at least 25%?) with most other forms of life!) For example, when animals run away at our approach, we should be astute enough to know that they don't like having us around. What better place than in a biology text, to try stepping out of our anthropocentric world view?!
On P.1050, you quote Ariel Lugo: "as the world gets smaller, we need to understand each hectare of land on the planet, and try to ascertain its optimal uses". Really??? Isn't this a purely human-centered, and rather arrogant, idea? What is wrong with simply leaving a large portion of the Earth completely alone, and allowing its nonhuman occupants to live in peace?!! I would go so far as to remove it from the map, to denote our respect and our intention to stay out of the area. (Isn't this the proper way to treat land and beings which are considered sacred (replace with the honorific of your choice)?) Why stop with the Earth? Shouldn't we "understand each hectare of land" in the universe and try to "ascertain its optimal uses", also? Do you see how absurd this is? For its own sake, I hope we never find life on other planets....
I think that before we can change our attitudes, we need to understand them. You could greatly help. On p.1147, you correctly point out that "it is a sad irony when human activities cause the extinction of species, including ones that we don't even know exist, which could be potential sources of valuable products". But is science (represented by your book) interested only in exploitation? By neglecting to stress that species also (first!) have a right to exist for their own sake, you are saying, nonverbally (and probably unintentionally), that selfishness is the correct approach.
2. Stop trying so hard to discover why we are different from other species, and focus on what we have in common, which is an enormous amount! For centuries we have attempted to prove that we are somehow superior to other species. But every time we come up with a new criterion, we then discover that other species can do the same thing. Relax! On p.1180, you take pains to avoid the suggestion that animals are conscious. Why? Isn't it more reasonable to assume a continuity between, e.g. chimps and humans, given that our genes are almost identical? Dare to make the very reasonable hypothesis that not only do animals think, but that they think much like we do.
3. Compare our skills with those of other species. We can do many things better than they, but they can also do many things better than we can. In fairness and honesty, this needs to be emphasized much more. E.g. on p.642 you explain that sharks can detect the "electric fields generated by the muscle contractions of nearby fish and other animals". Can we do that? Or only if the field is one generated by an electric eel? Many birds have much better eyesight than we do. Et cetera.
4. Show more clearly and unequivocally exactly where and how we depend on other species for our survival. I have only a vague idea of how I might be affected, for example, if certain nitrogen fixers or other species that provide "ecosystem services" were to become extinct. Are there any appropriate precautions (prophylactic measures) we should take? Is there something specific that we should be doing, for example, to ensure the survival of those nitrogen fixers? On pp.515-6 you say "The great majority of prokaryotic species are essential to all life on Earth". What does that imply about our behaviour? What should we be doing to learn more about and preserve those relationships? Are antibiotics that kill prokaryotes therefore dangerous to us or to the biosphere? On p.593-4 you talk about how important fungi and bacterial decomposers are, but you don't say what the implications are -- what should we be doing, or not doing, to preserve them? I heard that krill in the south Pacific have declined 80% recently (from ozone depletion?). How might that affect us?
5. Compare how we treat and think of ourselves with how we treat and think of other species. For example, we think we own, and have a right to dominate, every square inch of the Earth, and that wildlife have no such right. I think scientists are mostly honest in what they report, but not as honest in what they choose to study. How we think about wildlife directly affects whether it and its habitats get preserved. But how often is this issue examined? My paper Wildlife and the Ecocity (see my web page) discusses this issue in more depth. What is the appropriate approach to organisms that are 98% identical with us? I don't think it is "We have all the rights, and they have none"! I think it should be more like "Either none of us have rights, or we all have the same rights".
6. Teach information about other species that is interesting and useful to us, not just their "vital statistics". For example, field guides serve a purpose, but teaching us to love the species described is not one of them. Help the students make connections between those species and their own lives. Which plants are edible or poisonous? Which animals are safe to approach, and which are dangerous? And vice versa, which species do we harm by approaching, touching, or capturing them, and how? (E.g., a desert tortoise might be so frightened that it voids its bladder, losing its precious store of water and thus endangering its life.)
7. Most biology books seem to feel that their job is done, once they describe how a species feeds and reproduces. We feel that there is more to our lives than eating and sex; why isn't the same true for other species? For example, see p.624: "The main job of the larva is to eat and grow. The primary function of the adult is to find a mate and reproduce". Really? I thought that the purpose of life was to have fun! I seriously doubt that other species "think" of nothing but food and sex. Let's give those x%-identical-to-us species more credit! Just because we don't know what they are thinking, it doesn't mean that they aren't thinking. Similarly, just because we think a certain way, that doesn't imply that other species don't
think that way -- it's a fallacy to presume that they think like us, but there is no reason not to accept it as a hypothesis to be tested.
8. Dare to express some values! I know it's out of fashion, but that is the normal way that communities (human as well as animal) create consensus and thus culture. We are all responsible for creating or culture, including scientists. Isn't it better to do that in school, rather than wait till it is too late to have much of an effect on people? Of what use is the First Amendment, if we can't use it? If we can say that the Alameda whipsnake (a threatened species of the San Francisco Bay Area) grows to 5 feet long, why not that it is beautiful, and that it should be protected? Expressing a particular value gives a strong message, but silence gives an even stronger message -- a nonverbal one, the hardest kind to fight. And it is not, I suspect, the message that you would prefer to send. (E.g., on p.1168, you describe "experimentally deafening some birds", without even the hint that you might disapprove of this arrogant act.)
I hope that these thoughts are helpful. If you think that you are not the best person to implement them, perhaps you could suggest another biologist or means of implementation.
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
P.S. For more information and explanation, see my web page: