Sunday, January 4, 2009

Book Reviews

I want to give a thumbs up to one book I read a few weeks ago, and a shaky horizontal thumb to two I am trying to read.

The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts was a very interesting read for me. Some reviewers seemed to find it tedious, but hey, I'm the person who enjoyed the cetology in Moby Dick. Roberts shows how the decimation of fishing stocks is not just a result of 20th century factory fishing, but of the whole progress of how humans have regarded the sea and its creatures. The extent of habitat destruction from trawling over the last couple of centuries is a real eye opener. But this book isn't just a lament. Roberts offers stories of the sea's resiliency and many suggestions for what might be done. Most are international restrictions of one sort or another, not out and out bans, even on trawling. I took this book back to the library, but I am going to buy a copy when the paperback comes out later this month.

Now for the two I'm having a hard time with. It's not a problem with readability, but with scientific inaccuracy and sloppiness as well as a tendency to screediness. (I hope I've just coined a new word there.) I found myself wondering if people write non-fiction books these days as though they were blogging. Is there creeping blogitis?

One of these books is The End of Food by Paul Roberts. There are lots of interesting bits in this book. But once I find an inaccuracy, or flippant disregard for distinctions, I find it hard to trust other statements from the author. There's a bit early in the book, where Roberts refers to the energy inputs needed to produce a pound of cattle (the ratio is roughly 10:1, plants:flesh) and then says it's about the same for hogs and poultry. Now anybody who has read anything about the challenge of feeding lots of meat to all on the planet knows that is not true. Even the author knows it is not true, as he gives the full information elsewhere. But I find myself losing confidence in an author who is flippant, lazy, or dumbing down.

Another is Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds by Claire Hope Cummings. I was looking forward to reading this after hearing the author on the radio one morning. She apparently lives somewhere near here - Napa County, I think they said - and is a journalist and farmer. Again, there are many interesting things here. But she really isn't clear - or couldn't be bothered to take the time to be clear - about the species concept. She refers to species before GM as having "strong biological boundaries". She writes of "natural genes" being "governed by biological rules". Genes introduced in the lab are still genes, seems to me. And I want to know what these rules are. She reports many cases of crosses and backcrosses of GM crops with wild and weedy relatives, across species, but does not explain how this happens. I really don't think she's got much of a concept of genetics in the flowering plants.

So, even though I was fascinated to learn about the seed bank in Iraq that we destroyed, taking with it a whole history of adaptation and cultivation from one of the places where agriculture began; and even though I appreciated being reminded of all the havoc being wreaked in Hawaii from the agrochemical companies operating there; and even though I liked the caricature of James Watson, whom I have never admired - I don't quite trust this book. I would want to call to the attention of anyone reading it that this is for the most part a tertiary account - the author is summarizing or synthesizing the work of historians and sociologists of science and technology. She is clear in the notes and introduction that she has overgeneralized in places, and that her values do come into play. For this honesty we can all be thankful.

I'm going to keep trying with these latter two books until they are due back at the library. Or I may just read the bibliographies and see if there is anything in them on which I want to follow up. Meanwhile, the Roberts book goes on the book list to the right.

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