Dr Ken Thompson is worried about invasive species, but he’s not worried in the way that most of the world is. In this eye-opening book, he argues that it is a mistake to assume that invasive species are necessarily bad. He explains that we should celebrate those species that are able to coexist happily with us in this new anthropocentric age.
Thompson argues that much of the hysteria around invasive species comes from scientists who exaggerate the dangers of the species they are researching to keep themselves in a job:
there’s a journalist on the phone and he wants an answer now: ‘Will the Asian giant hornet invade Britain and wipe out all our honey bees?’ Privately, you think both of these propositions are pretty unlikely, but if it’s not a threat why would anyone pay you to go to the south of France and study the critter?
One of the central tenets of Thompson’s argument is that it is very difficult to differentiate what is native from what is alien. The problem is that ecosystems are not static entities. They are, and have always been, in a constant process of change:
Paleoecologists naturally think in terms of millennial timescales and tend not to be very impressed by how the world happens to look right now. Instead they see species responding in their own individual ways to environmental change, constantly coming together and separating into what ecologists like to call communities but which in reality are only stills from a movie. Pause the movie a few millennia later … and you get a different snapshot. At some scale, all species are invaders and all ecosystems are novel.
This is not to say that Thompson blithely underestimates the damage caused by some invasive species. He does describe the harm caused on Guam by the brown tree snake, as well as the devastation wreaked on Australia by the notorious cane toad. However, Thompson does not dwell on these well-known cases and much of his argument draws on much less-well known invaders.
On the debit side, he is a specialist on plants, so several chapters look in depth at invading plant species such as purple loosestrife. As someone who can barely recognise much more than an oak or a rose, these sections made for heavy reading, but I understand why they needed to be included alongside the more exciting animal invaders.
Like Feral by George Monbiot, Where Do Camels Belong? is an iconoclastic challenge to received opinion. It has already changed how I see the world:
As we move more and more species around the globe, accidentally or deliberately, the Earth gets more and more like its state 300 million years ago, when all the land was lumped together in a single supercontinent called Pangaea … because shoving all the land together and moving species around are just two different ways of removing the barriers to dispersal that normally prevent kangaroos from meeting camels.
So where do camels belong? Basically anywhere they can thrive, including the desert sands of Arabia, where I encountered some last month.
Where do camels belong? is forthright, well-argued, and revealing. I hope it can provoke a more intelligent debate around invasive species, which is Thompson’s main objective in this informative and forthright analysis.