Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg [book review]
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When we look at the extinction of a species, there is an innate curiosity of our human minds to ask why. This book is a compilation of research and thoughts that have accumulated for quite a while regarding the role of predators in ecology. While Stolzenburg writes with a powerful prose, the subject matter is no-nonsense. What is the role of predators… including that of the human predator?
Stolzenburg starts the story at his beginning to explain his motivation for searching this topic more in depth, then transfers seamlessly to the 1960s when the idea of predators having a key role in maintaining the balance of habitats as question that researchers were just beginning to take on. Stolzenburg covers key research pieces of the topic which he arranges in a sordid story of political plays, ego competitions, and retries by concerned conservation ecologists. Stolzenburg does not sugar coat the truth about the way that scientists and fellow policy makers can act when their dogma that they have adhered their reputation to is at stake.
This book is easy to follow for the non-ecologist, but rich enough in resources and data for any hardcore academic to use as a reference book. I particularly liked the flow from one event to another and the way Stolzenburg brought the stories alive by placing them in context of what the researchers in the book had experienced. It shows that science is not in a bubble, and everything is in context as well as changing depending on what that context is.
I also appreciated the way that Stolzenburg did not shy away from the truth of things. He noted that research hangs somewhere in the balance of politics and ego. Good research was shunned from the likes of Science because someone that reviewed it did like it. Others attacked the researchers personally saying they were stupid for having a different idea. Still, the battle continues on even today.
Stolzenburg also didn’t shy away from outlining how bad science and research changed the textbooks, which in turn brainwashed an entire generation into believing that ecology can somehow stay balanced without the balance — despite mountains of evidence. This, perhaps, is one of the more intriguing lessons that Stolzenburg and the predator debate had because while conservation ecologists were making headway to right all the wrongs that misguided humans had, one person doing bad science started a cascade that would halt — and reverse — any progress they had made toward restoring a delicate balance.
I’m not an ecologist, but I’m a geoarchaeologist with a strong interest in habitat loss and landscape evolution. I had not really considered animals in my story up until now, but this book has opened my eyes to the domino effect that upsetting the balance can have on the environment. It’s more complex than anyone ever realises, and even the most feared predators and humans play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of our habitat.