Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Conservation Biology: Evolution in Action

Scott Carroll and Charles Fox have edited an excellent book entitled Conservation Biology: Evolution in Action. The publisher is Oxford University Press (2008). As stated in the Preface, the thesis is that "at no time in the nearly four billion years since the origin of life on earth has our planet seen such tremendous environmental change." Even taking into account the major mass extinctions in prehuman history, the current biodiversity crisis poses enormous threats to species in terms of evolution and survival.

The volume is intended to introduce, explore and elaborate evolutionary approaches to conservation biology. The volume is divided into five parts, each of which is preceded by a brief introduction and commentary. The chapters in Part I, "Population Structure and Genetics of Threatened Taxa," present the history and general concepts of conservation genetics, and examine the interaction of genetic and demographic factors. Part II, "Conserving Biodiversity within and among Species," focuses on evolutionary processes, their relationship to biodiversity at different taxonomic levels, and how they influence practical conservation issues. The chapters in part II, "Evolutionary Responses to Environmental Change," examine both genetic and phenotypic modes of adaptation to the stresses and opportunities associated with global change phenomena. Part IV, "Conservation of the Co-evolving Web of Life," examines the evolutionary and co-evolutionary causes and consequences of changing interspecific dynamics, including species invasions, extinction, and host parasite dynamics. Part V, "Evolutionary Management," presents evolutionary analyses of three critically important areas: reserve design, management of transgene flow into the wilds, and the sustainable harvest of wild populations.

This is not light reading, but it is an essential volume for persons who wish to understand how environmental change translates into the biodynamics and interactions of species. The book recognizes that change is inevitable. The big question is whether the rapidity and intensity of changes wrought by the behaviors of man, and specifically his impact upon the environment, are going to be beneficial, detrimental and/or permanent. We are altering the course not only of human history, but of the history of this planet. In the absence of being able to turn back the clock, start over, and see the differences, we are bound to weakly predict the future and respond accordingly.

Can we control evolution? To a certain extent, I believe that we can. Does nature always evolve its species in a manner that could be considered conserving? Perhaps not always, but almost certainly to a greater degree than do the disruptive forces imposed by man. Until our manipulation of the environment tilts the scales from pollution and destruction to sustaining or even replenishment, we will need every tool at our disposal to offer an advantage to pressured species and ecosystems. The eco-evolutionary approach is one paradigm worth considering, for whatever it may ultimately be worth.

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Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.