review of Kristin Ohlson’s book Sweet in Tooth and Claw

My mental model of nature is, basically, a vast hellscape of overwhelming suffering. I was hoping this book would give me reasons to doubt that. Alas, most of the cooperation and harmony that the book highlights is among plants, fungi, and microbes, and I wasn’t particularly worried about them to begin with.

There’s fascinating information in here nonetheless. I didn’t know how literally interconnected plant and fungi are. Ectomycorrhizal fungi, for example, link the roots of some trees together; one experiment revealed that “the birch shared carbon fuel through its ectomycorrhizal connection to the fir based on the amount of shade the birch cast on the fir…” Some research found that trying to shield trees from competition with other plants actually resulted in less productive plantations—the trees were being deprived of beneficial mutualisms.

Chapter 2 includes a mini biography of Peter Kropotkin who, apparently, was famed for his scientific contributions, not just his political ones. (He sounds like a very interesting person.) His own observations led him to resist the idea that competition was the primary force in nature:

Instead, Kropotkin was struck immediately by how valiantly living things had to struggle against the ferocity of nature and how they often clustered together to withstand it. He observed warfare and extermination among animals but was surprised to see “there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society….”

Chapter 3 discusses microbiota, and suggests that our society’s tendency to cloister ourselves in increasingly sterile environments results in us having inferior microbiota:

As soon as they’re old enough, babies put everything in their mouths, from their toes to dead flies to the contents of a litter box if they get the chance; according to one group of researchers, they’d eat twenty grams of soil a day if adults didn’t keep swooping in to interfere. It seems that this is part of a biological strategy to build a robust microbiota and immune system. By the age of three the child has a stable signature microbiota as large and diverse as that of an adult.

(I am unclear if they are implying that we ought to just let babies eat dirt.)

Chapter 4 is an inspiring account of how some ranchers, regulators, and scientists have learned to cooperate to improve cattle grazing practices in ways that have dramatically rehydrated and revitalized land that had been declining for decades.

In chapter 5 there’s a discussion of concerns about GMOs; I think this is the first time I’ve read something that seemed scientifically-informed and was still negatively disposed toward GMO crops. The concerns it emphasized have to do not so much with the safety of the crops for consumption as with their fragility and the trend toward monocultures.

Chapter 6 describes the “sharing versus sparing” debate, and takes the side of the former. It throws cold water on the idea that just setting aside wildlife preserves (which end up subject to some of the same dynamics as islands) and wildlife corridors will preserve an adequate amount of biodiversity, arguing instead that we can and must do agriculture in ways that allow the land being used for agriculture to simultaneously be part of a healthy ecosystem.