cover image The Work of Nature: How the Diversity of Life Sustains Us

The Work of Nature: How the Diversity of Life Sustains Us

Yvonne Baskin. Island Press, $40 (282pp) ISBN 978-1-55963-519-6

How many species can we afford to lose and still have a functioning planet? This is the central question for scientists who study the functional role of biodiversity. While it is morally appealing to protect dolphins and whales, it is equally important to acknowledge the critical roles played by the likes of dung beetles, parasites, microbes and beavers in producing the very matter that sustains life on earth. In this comprehensive overview of biodiversity, science journalist Baskin explains how species loss can have devastating and unexpected consequences. Using data from all continents, she explains how the biochemical processes are affected by overpopulation, pollution, introduction of exotic species, deforestation, single-crop agriculture, etc. She enlivens this sometimes dry analysis with engaging material, noting that people as early as the 15th century guessed at the relationship between rainy climate and forests, and that the overhunting of mammoths and mastodons might have altered the Arctic landscape. Cautioning that ""a world without elephants, moose, prairie dogs, mangrove swamps and coral reefs would not just be an emptier version of the same scenery"" because ""the processes of earth, fire and water would change, too,"" she comes to the sobering conclusion that we must not assume that any species is expendable but must ""work to preserve all [organisms]."" Illustrations not seen by PW. (Apr.)