Monday, February 18, 2013

The Reality of the Natural World

Daisy Bowie-Sell offered up an interesting comment that David Attenenborough apparently made to the London Telegraph:
The United Nations has said that 50 per cent of the population of Planet Earth is urbanised. That means half the people, probably more, are out of touch with the natural world. Some probably don’t see a living wild thing from one day to the next, unless it’s a rat or a pigeon.
This makes me curious as to whether or not Attenborough has had a chance to look at Jim Sterba's recent book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, reviewed by Russell Baker in the February 21 New York Review. Sterba's backyards are not strictly urban. However, if we follow the logic of his book, then the efforts of the natural world to reclaim suburban backyards will eventually move into the realm of city parks and perhaps even less "natural" urban settings. (San Francisco has had hawks nest in skyscrapers in the Financial District.)

One point on which Sterba and Attenborough appear to agree is that most of the public is out of touch with how this "natural world" works. Unfortunately, too many of the images from Attenborough's own programs tend to overstress the cuteness factor. (Look at the photograph on Bowie-Sell's article for a perfect example.) Russell Baker had a nice way of trying to reorient the natural world away from a "peaceable kingdom" of cute denizens:
Bambi and Lassie are two of the best-known practically human specimens that warm the popular heart. Those who seek something closer to Darwinian reality may prefer Bugs Bunny.
Sterba's principal point is that Darwinian fitness is not obliged to accommodate the human race, whether in suburban, exurban, or urban settings. We should not think that our scientific thinking can always control how selection works. Thus, we may need to prepare ourselves for new residents in the neighborhood!

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