Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

Tom MacWright

I read Inheritors of the Earth by Chris D Thomas on

Review

This book came to my attention because the author, Chris D Thomas, is giving a talk for The Long Now foundation in San Francisco. The book is pretty typical of the content at their talks, and, well - it’s certainly an interesting read.

The point it makes is so easily misunderstood, and so narrow, that the book spends a lot of time simply disclaiming what it doesn’t argue. It argues that evolution is happening - but not instantly. That diversity has increased - in some places, but not all, and perhaps not in any general sense. Endangered species are important, but not it doesn’t always take precedent over other environmental priorities. And, as other reviewers have pointed out, Thomas completely avoids discussing the sea, because it’s outside his area of interest - and that’s where the environmental catastrophes have been almost exclusively negative.

There are some other lovely elements to this book. I really enjoyed how he describes his fellow scientists - painting quick, playful portraits of them that sometimes compare them to the animals they research. I feel like most non-fiction books spend too much time on personal exposition - I just don’t care where a certain biologist grew up, or how their face looks in the evening sun - and instead this book just introduces them like you’d introduce a friend.

I also had a special affinity for this because it ends on the story of Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine trees, a topic that’s very relevant in San Franciso - even earlier today, I saw a plan to cut down thousands of Eucalyptus trees. And I often see native plant re-planting and preservation material in the area, which oddly mirrors the anti-newcomer subtext of much of San Francisco life. I often feel like one of the reasons this place feels off-balance is because, for a place defined by change, it seems so resistant to it.

My review (4/5) is much higher than the average. I read many of the other reviews and a lot of them fall into the following buckets:

  • Expects the book to propose One Quick Fix to the ecosystem collapse
  • Mistakes Thomas’s account of biological diversity as a value judgment
  • Claims that Thomas makes no prescriptive recommendations - that he just wants us to go with the flow

So I have a sort of respect for Thomas, for approaching a viewpoint that is so easy to misconstrue, that’s easy to attack, but - as the book supports - is truthy, in its limited scope. And that what it is, really - limited scope, not claiming a value judgment, permanence, or universality. And I appreciate his insistent disclaiming of what he isn’t saying, especially in contrast to so many other conceptual books that extend their theses haphazardly.

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