An Adaptive Radiation of Texts


Essentials of Conservation Biology . 5th edition . Primack, R. B. 2010 . Sinauer Associates , Sunderland , MA . 601 pp. $86.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8789-640-3.
Conservation Science. Balancing the Needs of People and Nature. Kareiva, P., and M. Marvier. 2011. Roberts, Greenwood Village, CO. 543 pp. $90 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-93622-106-6.
Conservation Biology for All. Sodhi, N. S., and P. R. Ehrlich, editors. 2010. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. 344 pp. $65 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-19-955424-9.

Practitioners and instructors of conservation biology and related fields should take note of three excellent and distinctly different new conservation biology textbooks. The appearance at more or less the same time of such different general texts reflects the escalation and diversification of both conservation needs and research activity and shows the vibrancy and maturing state of conservation biology as an area of scholarship and practice.

For those familiar with the previous work of these authors and editors, the various approaches of the texts will come as no surprise. Primack's most recent edition is encyclopedic and complete, presenting the accretion of added knowledge over the three decades or so of the existence of conservation biology as a recognized discipline. Kareiva and Marvier's book, substantially shorter than Primack's but still comprehensive, presents a pragmatic approach to conservation that reflects the authors’ extensive experience working in both academia and conservation nongovernmental organizations. Sodhi and Ehrlich offer a head-on joining of the issues and topics most central to conservation, with a sharp focus on the places, both conceptual and geographic, where the biggest conservation payoffs can be had.

Comparison of these three treatments to earlier conservation biology texts provides a revealing look at the evolution of the field. Relative to Soulé's widely used 1986 text, all of these books place more emphasis on the ultimate causes of the extinction crisis, human population and consumption, although each gives a slightly different spin on the now widely accepted IPAT (environmental impact = population × affluence × technology) formulation (Ehrlich & Holdren 1972). The newer texts also devote more attention to habitat- and landscape-related issues for biological diversity broadly defined, as opposed to the genetic and demographic threats to persistence of small populations emphasized in earlier texts. There is greater emphasis given to global climate change as a threat to biological diversity (although it is worth remembering that global climate change was already identified as a potentially large threat in texts from the 1980s), ecosystem services, and conservation practice, for which there is now a more extensive record of accomplishment—and failure. All of these shifts in focus point to a field that has become more engaged with the larger context of the extinction crisis, its implications beyond the loss of particular species, and the central importance of humans and social systems in achieving conservation success.

Regarding the increased emphasis on practice and conservation outcomes, it is instructive to contrast the impressive growth of conservation biology as an academic field over the last 35 years (e.g., as indicated by membership in professional conservation organizations, circulation of conservation journals, and publication of conservation research) with the continued decline of the world's biological diversity. All three books reflect an awareness of this disparity and an intent to ensure that future conservation biologists are not blithely “walking north on a southbound train” (Orr 2003).

Primack's new edition is scrupulous in its completeness, covering all significant conservation biology concepts and providing a thorough overview of the scientific and philosophical background and underpinnings of the field. The text is well written and accessible to first-time students of conservation biology. Particularly useful for students is the explanation of all terms of art current in the field. The book contains a wealth of beautiful photographs, which convey the profound aesthetic appeal of the diversity of life, an important motivation for conservation. Concepts are illustrated and elaborated with many examples, which are well presented in both text and graphic form. All of this amounts to a well-executed summative compendium that, if read and thoroughly digested, will provide even students taking their first course in conservation biology with a comprehensive understanding of the field. This if is a significant qualifier because the completeness of the text inevitably presents a challenge to both students and instructors attempting to cover so much material. My experience suggests that instructors will pick and choose the elements of the text they wish to emphasize, leaving parts of the book untouched. Nonetheless, even unread sections will be useful to students for reference long after they complete their class.

Kareiva and Marvier present a forward looking view of the field that takes a less-is-more approach. Through economical writing, sensible limitations on references and examples, less attention to foundational material (e.g., explanation of the taxonomic classification system), and emphasis on some topics at the expense of others, the authors have managed to produce a lively and engaging text that, while necessarily less exhaustively complete than longer treatments, is more readable while still managing to convey nearly all current conservation biology concepts with clarity.

The authors posit that we need to accept that we live in a human-dominated world and get on with protecting nature for people (as opposed to despite people). They have taken the critique of Nordhaus and Shellenberger (2007) to heart, concluding that to succeed conservation must present people with a way forward that does not simply require them to make unpleasant choices. They suggest that rather than pursuing a strategy of no growth, which will never become the basis of widespread action, society must be thoughtful about how it grows. I agree with the authors on this, but it must also be admitted that this is a bit of a leap of faith, as there are relatively few examples of growth resulting in progress in the conservation of biological diversity, and the current tenor of public and political discourse offers little hope for the thoughtfulness the authors prescribe.

Given the primacy of human desires as the basis for conservation, the authors emphasize the important role of ecosystem services, working landscapes, and economic values in conservation of biological diversity. Theirs is a very habitat-based approach, devoting particular attention to conservation in human-dominated landscapes. For example, one of the most useful sections of the book addresses the importance of conservation on private lands. Past treatments of this topic in general texts do not go much further than reporting the high proportion of endangered species that occur on private land. Kareiva and Marvier offer insights into various approaches to conservation on private lands that reflect years of experience in that setting. This has never been more timely because current and projected patterns of development and population growth suggest that conservation where people live (cf. Miller & Hobbes 2002) will be increasingly important in the future.

Although the authors clearly present a particular view—one in which conservation of biological diversity is justified on the basis of its worth to humans—they are evenhanded in their presentation. They take pains to present the ambiguities and uncertainties of many topics, even where inconvenient for their argument, for example, the uncertain relation between ecosystem services and biological diversity. In sum, Kareiva and Marvier have produced a comprehensive book of manageable length that embodies the current and future directions of conservation biology and brings both theoretical and practical considerations to bear on real-world conservation with all its complexities.

Unlike the first two books, Sodhi and Ehrlich do not intend a comprehensive treatment of the field. Rather, as suggested by the book's title, their purpose is to put essential knowledge in the hands of those who need it—conservation practitioners in underserved populations, particularly in the developing world. Thus, they present a balance of condensed coverage of classic themes of the field (e.g., definition and measurement of biological diversity, overviews of the major extinction threats) and applied topics particularly relevant to the needs of their intended audience (e.g., conservation planning and research design). In keeping with their goal of improving access to information, the book is available free of charge on the web. Although this is a collection of contributed chapters, the voice and purpose are remarkably consistent throughout, conveying the urgency of the situation, providing the current scientific evidence and background information that will be most useful in supporting conservation action in tropical countries, and giving specific advice for practitioners (e.g., urging scientists and amateurs to collect and make available species lists and measures of abundance every time they visit a field site in order to provide species trend and other data).

Even more than Kareiva and Marvier, Sodhi and Ehrlich's book is heavily habitat and practice based. Little is included on topics such as genetics and population viability analysis that, although important in conservation biology generally, are of less immediate practical importance to those involved in “saving the big pieces” in the tropics. A particularly noteworthy aspect of many chapters in this volume is the extensive use of examples and studies from the tropical and less-developed world. And although the chapter authors, many of them well-known authorities on their topics, are primarily from the developed world, where conservation biology originated (notably the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia), the large number of studies of tropical biological diversity and conservation cited suggests that progress is being made in the internationalization of the field. By making available the up-to-date science that conservationists in the tropics need to both justify their purpose and guide their actions, this book should make a great contribution to global conservation.

All of these new books show that conservation biology has remained true to its founding principles as a mission-driven field, moving in directions that correspond to real-world conservation needs. The coverage of these texts also reveals areas in which more research is needed. For example, the human psychology of conservation is given little attention. It is, after all, humans who will decide whether to conserve biological diversity, and little is known about the motivations of humans with respect to conservation. More generally, the social sciences, although increasingly integrated into conservation work and research, are still underrepresented. Similarly, although conservation of marine biological diversity is receiving increasing attention, the research effort in the marine environment still lags behind that in terrestrial systems. We can expect these and other emerging topics will be increasingly elaborated in the future. For the present, however, these three texts effectively represent the field, successfully filling distinctly different niches.