Where Do Humans Belong?

A slightly naive review of Where Do Camels Belong?, the story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson (Profile Books, London, 2015), and how it revealed to me my xenophobic tendencies.

It took me nearly a year to finish Ken Thompson’s book, Where Do Camels Belong?. Partly because I’m bad at giving myself time to read, and partly because his tone often reminds me of people I know who argue for the sake of arguing. He annoyed me until it became clear that he is alarmingly right about a great deal of what he argues.

Where Do Camels Belong? (Where does this picture belong?)

I won’t go into detail about Thompson’s evidence (usually solid, sometimes dubious), because I highly recommend you read the book for yourself. In a nutshell, he makes a strong argument for a less gung-ho, more nuanced approach to our interaction with so called invasive species, exotic pests, noxious weeds. He demonstrates that not all introduced species are bad, and many are of overall benefit to the economy or to wildlife (think potatoes, and shrubs which offer forage for bees and berries for birds).

The reader is encouraged to view the natural processes of the world on a bigger timescale than our human-centric society is used to. Consider a constantly, gradually shifting world in which ecosystems balance themselves out and plants and animals introduce themselves to new territories following changes in climate and geology.

The available scientific literature focuses on a relatively small number of introduced species which have caused actual biodiversity loss or economic harm. Thompson cites many cases where the costs of attempting to eradicate a species comprise the bulk of the economic damage of which the species is accused!

What I have come to see is that the introduced species is often a scapegoat for damage caused or enabled by human interference in natural processes. Focusing on the harm caused by a handful of invasive species distracts us and diverts funds from more urgent conservation issues such as destruction of existing quality habitat and climate change. In other words, from addressing the underlying problems.

Does this scapegoating sound familiar, in this era marred by Brexit and Trump, the rejection of refugees, and disturbed, disenfranchised young people blowing up the natives?

Obviously, it’s not a direct parallel. Humans of every race and nationality are all of the one species. But the language we use to reject species and people we feel are different or don’t belong, shares similarities. Invasion, exotic, non-native. It’s a language of fear.

What startled me the most about reading Where do Camels Belong? was discovering my own disproportionate fear of introduced species and the perceived harm that every new species which enters the country might do to my beloved Irish wildlife. “They’re importing bumble bees from Europe to pollinate crops inside polytunnels? Fools! What about disease? Encouraging people to scatter wildflower seeds from the UK? Our local wildflowers will be destroyed! Somebody please think of the outbreeding depression!” I have even been known to wander through parks wondering how much meat there is on a grey squirrel…

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“The only good squirrel is a red squirrel!” (The Nessapotanian Revolution, 2007)

I realised that part of the reason Thompson annoyed me was the defensive attitude with which I began reading the book. Fuelled by the media, and many of my scientific peers and mentors, I was convinced that invasive species could be a major contributing factor to the downfall of our remaining wildlife.

I’m not saying that plants and animals which multiply vigorously and have an above average effect on the make up of an ecosystem are never a problem. We do need to talk about it, and work on preventing it where we can. Where do Camels Belong? is just one book and I’m still making up my mind about it. All I’m saying is let’s be careful, calm, open-minded and scientific about it, and put ourselves in other species’ shoes now and then.

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Standing up for bugs and other environmental essentials at #MarchForScience in Dublin