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A Natural History of the Future

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Rob Dunn has done an excellent job of taking seemingly complex scientific concepts and making them easy to understand for the regular reader (of which I am one, with no scientific background).  Everything is backed by research and I found the read to be enlightening.  One I'll return to again for sure.

I missed out on downloading the ARC for this book so picked up a copy from my local library.  Thank you to Netgalley & Perseus Books, Basic Books for sharing the original ARC.
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Several new works of nonfiction explore the long history of planet Earth including the relatively recent impact of humans and other animals. Each provides a unique perspective and context for investigation. 

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A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species
Rob Dunn, Nov 2021, Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group
Themes: Natural history, Nature, Ecology

A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FUTURE explains how Earth has become a human ecosystem. Focusing on ecology and evolution, the author skillfully explains the history of humans and their impact, climate change, and the need for action.
Take-aways: Educators will find the timely topics useful in curriculum updates.

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Whether helping educators keep up-to-date in their subject-areas, promoting student reading in the content-areas, or simply encouraging nonfiction leisure reading, teacher librarians need to be aware of the best new titles across the curriculum and how to activate life-long learning. - Annette Lamb
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I read a fair number of science and nature books, but this one surprised me again and again. 

The book certainly challenged my latent anthropocentrism. The sheer amount and diversity of life is far beyond human knowledge or understanding—and certain beyond our control.

The author introduces a number of biological laws that govern the natural world. They cover topics like species diversity and ecosystem stability, niches and escapes, cognitive buffering, and more. 

These laws govern what will happen (and is happening now) in our changing world. We need to understand them.

Dunn writes, “If we consider how they [these laws] will influence the natural history of the future, we can create a world that is more forgiving of our existence.”

If you’re interested in climate resilience, ecology, and the natural world around us, you should read this book.
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A very interesting look into nature, both what we know and what we don't know about it. 
Its one of those books that is full of information, some the reader will know already, some that they have heard of and some -i am sure- they will learn from/through this book. 
Worth a read!
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A great book for everyone interested in evolutionary biology - and of course for fans of Rob Dunn’s engaging style. It really delivers on the title promise, as you can compare it to many books describing natural history, but the author uses the same tools to give a vision of what is ahead of humanity. It is perhaps not surprising that much of the book is devoted to the (well known) problem of the climate crisis but the approach and style are refreshing and enlightening.

Thanks to the publisher, Perseus Books, PublicAffairs, and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.
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Humanity's impact on the environment around us is easy to see. We have dammed and re-routed rivers, built large cities whose growth has sprawled and interconnected, constructed nationwide and international transportation networks, and much more. All of these things have transformed the natural world. 

But along with many of our environmental "improvements" have often come unintended consequences. Climate change is probably humanity's largest unintended environmental impact - indeed it may prove to be our most impactful change, and one that is already giving evidence to how detrimental it can be to humanity itself.

Rob Dunn's A Natural History of the Future gives us plenty of food for thought as we contemplate a warmer future. That said, this is not a book about how to prevent global warming. It doesn't lay out policy prescriptions for mitigating climate impact, ala Bill Gates' How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Rather it's a book urging us all to think about humanity's place in the natural world, to rethink what we do and the impact it has on the planet's inhabitants in total - human, plant, animal, or microscopic.

The book is full of examples of unintended consequences. Trying to contain the Mississippi River behind levees to clear land for occupation has led to larger and more damaging flooding when those levees inevitably burst. Creating large cities and connecting them with interstate highways has led to environmental conditions favoring certain animals - urban rats and pigeons for example - over others. Creating Cape Canaveral led to the extinction of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. Favoring birth by C-section has led to babies who lack the appropriate gut microbiome normally acquired from their mothers during vaginal births. Babies born via C-section can be more susceptible to asthma, celiac disease, obesity and Type 1 diabetes.

The book is also full of examples of how much we know about life and the species that surround us, but more importantly, how much we DON'T know. We know that if you were able to put all the life on Earth on a gigantic scale, the weight of humanity in total would be a very small percentage of the total - most life on earth is microbial. Yet our understanding of microbial life is only just beginning. We can list a number of species that have gone extinct, but we know that species form dependencies with other species (think of humans and their dogs, or cows, or even more directly humans and their malaria viruses or humans and their pinworms). So any count we have on extinct species is necessarily low as we haven't made attempts to understand the co-extinctions that went along with them. 

We also know that all species eventually go extinct - one of the many biological laws that Dunn cites throughout the book. As he puts it: "We [humanity] are a clumsy giant late to the drama, a character in life's play that doesn't make it to the curtain call." In other words, no matter what we do - however we handle the looming climate crisis - at some point in the future humanity will face extinction, and life on Earth will go on without us. The ultimate message of the book is that we should be humble and open to learning more, so that we can begin to live within nature's laws, using them to our benefit rather than continuing to try to "tame" nature and facing the growing unintended and adverse consequences.

Four Stars for ⭐⭐⭐⭐ A Natural History of the Future.

NOTE: I received an advanced reviewer's copy of this book through NetGalley and Basic Books in exchange for a fair and honest review. The book is generally available Tuesday, November 9, 2021.
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In depth review of studies, statistics, charts, graphs offering a new view of climate change issues. Not the usual  information. We are at the mercy of the laws of nature according to the author. This is like living within our means of what earth resources we can use. High temperatures are arriving and that means more violence. Studies reveal hundreds of millions of people will become (and have become) climate refugees. How will countries cope? Animal and plant species may or may not adapt - specific examples are given and explained. We need to stop thinking we can control our planet. We must reintroduce biodiversity, as low diversity has smaller yields and people need to eat. This book is not just solar panels and electric cars but caring for the earth for our survival
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Ecobiologists study lifeforms and their environments. It’s a wide open field, as its proponents discover how very little work has been done to date. They keep finding huge gaps. We don’t even have names for the vast majority of lifeforms on Earth, let alone what other lifeforms rely on them, or that they rely on, or under what conditions they thrive. Because nothing exists in isolation. There might be trillions of species (mostly microscopic) or maybe just billions. We don’t know what we don’t know. So it’s quite a leap for ecobiologist Rob Dunn to leverage what we do know into predictions for life in climate change. The result, A Natural History of the Future, is most thoughtful, careful, reasoned, and entertaining.

Dunn goes back to Darwin to examine what happens to groups of species in isolation, say on islands. These islands can be as big as Madagascar or as tiny as street medians in Manhattan. But what they have in common is the smaller they are (or become), the fewer new species take hold and the more go extinct.  Climate change promises to create islands of refuge in what used to be vast expanses. It’s self defense, not flourishing. That does not bode well. 

Scientists have found that species will travel to find ideal environments when theirs go wrong. Corridors, even as rough and slim as street medians, find plants and insects making their way towards survival. Ecobiologists are actually helping, designing corridors to help plants, animals and insects find islands of conditions where they can thrive again. Because that’s how it works: lifeforms only thrive when their environments suit them perfectly.  When that changes, they adapt if they can, move if they can, or die out.

Is moving to another planet the solution? Dunn figures if earthly bacteria haven’t made it to the moon or Mars already, they will soon. Because they are all over us, our clothing, our equipment and the air we breathe in and out. For those expecting other planets to be pure laboratories for our experiments – wrong. Bacteria and viruses have already made themselves homes in the international space stations, those paragons of sterility. Man does not control the environment; he can only damage it.

This brings up monocultures and diversification. Endless papers prove beyond any doubt that monocultures are a dead end. Only diversification lets a plot of land thrive. The huge number of subsoil species, each focused on their own plant or root, makes for a healthy civilization in that plot. A single species, hemmed in by endless biocides (pest, fungal, herb and so on) is not only of no benefit, but destructive to the soil itself. With climate change, those monocultures won’t work, if only because the crops can’t take the neverending heat. With no fallback plants, and no protective cover thanks to bacteria and insects, food supplies will plummet.

The big unknown is stability. For all of human existence, the climate has been quite stable and resilient, beating off the effects of storms, volcanoes, earthquakes and the occasional meteor. What’s coming is different. Farmers won’t know from year to year what to expect or what to plant, between temperature swings and weather events. We have only to watch the wine grape harvests in France, where the past five years have seen killer frosts, summer hailstorms, droughts and flash floods. The 2021 harvest promises to be down by 30%, a rather large number that, in say wheat, would mean starvation. 

Some are preparing for the worst. But while well-intentioned efforts to store seeds in the Arctic until things stabilize again are well underway, the seeds alone won’t work, Dunn says. They need the bacteria and other living aids they get in the earth and in the air to thrive. They require the bacteria on their leaves, stalks and roots. Planting one of those seeds a thousand years from now might well produce a sickly plant that dies without fruiting. A seed alone is necessary, but not sufficient.

They also know that humans have thousands of species that they rely on or as followers. We are biased towards thinking in terms of vertebrates – rodents, birds, mammals that hang around us. But our skin, mouths, hair, armpits, and guts contain billions of life forms that need us to survive, and which we need to survive. Our microbiomes produce our vitamins and minerals for us. They process what we eat. Without them, we die. How will we replenish them on the moon? We don’t even know how to do that on Earth.

We find these things out the hard way. Several animals have gone extinct in captivity, because we insist on cleaning and delousing them until they can no longer survive. Without a host, their parasites vanish too, multiplying the loss to the biosphere. Dunn provides a number of examples that are fascinating – both for the reality of it all and for our singular ignorance of how the world works.

At the same time, there are big successes. Dunn tells the story of cassava, whose root has been the mainstay of billions of people, particularly since it was brought to Africa from South America. The plant was suffering greatly from an attack of mealybugs, threatening famine. Searching up and down the western hemisphere, scientists found a tiny wasp that laid its eggs among mealybugs, consuming them. They brought the wasps to Africa where the infestation was, and sure enough, the mealybug plague flattened. Everything is there for a reason. Everything is connected. Nothing in nature is insignificant or irrelevant. Or it wouldn’t be.

For these kinds of reasons, Dunn thinks human might not fare well on other planets. Unless there is a way to maintain the connection to all the bacteria, viruses, mites and insects that keep humans going, there will be problems. Humans are not above nature; they are locked into it, despite all attempts to deny or rise above it.

Talking about evolutionary history, Dunn shows it is the younger species that have the most difficulty surviving change. Humans are babes in evolutionary timeframes. So while people have learned to overcome climate differences around the world, it remains to be seen how they fare in relentless heat, deserts without the possibility of crops, insects and other animals, air that can’t breathed and water that can’t be consumed. Cockroaches will find a way as they have for half a billion years. People – the jury is still out.

Mixing economics into it, Dunn says: “In countries where the average annual temperatures are at or above the optimum for economic output, increases in temperature consistently led to decreases in GDP. When temperatures increase in the United States, India, or China, GDP declines in every case. GDP declines because crops fail, conditions become too hot to work outside, brains become addled, and, directly or indirectly, violence breaks out.”  And “Increasing temperatures above the temperatures associated with the optimum human niche lead to rising violence, decreases in GDP…and a reduced probability of being able to sustain large populations.” 

 “What is more, for those societies on which (Solomon) Hsiang and other climate economists have focused, the effects of climate changes seem to be independent of any details of those societies. Repeatedly, when climate changed, agriculture collapsed. Cities collapsed. Governance collapsed. As Hsiang put it when I talked to him over the phone, ‘We see it again and again, a society is on top of the world resilience, should also tend to lead to a more stable food supply.’”

There is a lot on bacteria and their brothers in the book. In one particularly frightening sequence, Dunn talks about drug resistance and how we achieve it. An experiment with E. coli and its mortal enemy antibiotics shows how truly fragile our current advantage is. A long box topped with agar is also topped with antibiotics, going from none to thousands of times the dose to kill E. coli. The bacteria eat through the agar until they hit the antibiotic, which stops them. But a day later, the e-coli has produced so many new generations that one of them can handle the drug. The new strain of E. coli proceeds eating its way through to the next barrier, an even stronger dosage. To make a long story short, it only took ten days for E. coli to evolve to be stronger than unheard of doses of antibiotics. It’s that simple to make key drugs worthless. Dunn says “Resistant cells, strains, and species grow, unbothered, throughout our societies’ ecological systems. But ‘unbothered’ is not the right word, because these cells, strains, and species actually do better in the presence of our biocides; their competition has been killed off. They grow as if favored, selected by us when we selected against the rest of life.” Natural selection is unstoppable. Bacteria will survive climate change. Will Man?

So when we design biocides, we favor resistance, defeating the whole purpose. We encourage bad bacteria to find a workaround. This cannot end well. Dunn employs the example of a castle with a moat all the way around, and no bridge across it, just to be totally secure. The enemy will eventually cross that moat one way or another, but without a bridge, the occupants will not be able to get out. We have no strategy to save ourselves from ourselves; we just continue to dig moats.

The world of ecobiologists is very supportive. Dunn loves to quote his peers and his and their students all over the world, not just mentioning their names, but praising the work they do. It adds quite a lot that the author actually knows most of his sources personally, and is not simply repositioning internet finds. The book has a real feel of credibility because of it.

A Natural History of the Future is no monoculture. Its expertise is nothing if not diversified. This is the first climate change book I have read that lays out the detailed specifics of how and why things will change at our level, if not deteriorate appreciably. It’s the science behind the emotion. And that has been a missing link in the argument.

David Wineberg
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3.5 stars

Definitely a thought provoking read. It really pushes the reader to think about and conceptualize how our actions will have lasting effects on unfixable problems in the future. Now with that sharp of a statement I will say that the book doesn’t read as depressing or hyper-fearful, but more so as a nudge and reminder that we need to keep ourselves accountable for the choices that we make and remember that our choices don’t only affect us but everyone we share the planet with. The author provides very well thought out hypotheses based on actual scientific data and experiments, there aren’t any guesstimates or non-researched conjectures. 

The one thing that I am a bit disappointed that the author didn’t cover was the immense impact governments and large corporations have on climate change and other negative influences on our ecosystem. The book really pushed the onus on us as individuals and the things that we can do and change to help, but never holding bigger corporations and governments accountable. I feel like this was a huge factor to leave out and really only told a partial truth and outlook on the reality of environmental and biological impacts, which is why I can't give book a higher rating than a 3.5. But overall I did really enjoy reading this book, it was very informative without being dry. 

ARC given by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
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Very thought-provoking and illuminating about not only what's to come, but a different way to conceptualize how our choices/actions will have effects into the future in ways humans won't be able to fix in the future. He makes it clear that while life on the planet will continue, whether humans will be part of that life is uncertain. This would be a great book for a book club or a group of family/friends who want to discuss. It's engaging enough alone reading it, but would be really fun to talk about with others after reading it.

Note: I voluntarily requested, read, and reviewed this book. Thank you to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for sending me a temporary digital advance reading copy/advance review (ARC) galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. As always, my opinions are my own and do not represent my co-host or the podcast. I request, read, and review many books prior to publication to explore possible future guests for the podcast. I wish we could interview the author of every one of these books because I'm so impressed by the creativity, thoughtfulness, and wisdom shared through the temporary books I get through NetGalley.
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Maybe you’ve seen “Save the Humans” bumper stickers. They came about due to twin realizations. First, the desire to save whales proved too remote to spur humanity into better behavior.  Second, the sci-fi subtext that humans don’t need other species and that we can survive any form of cataclysm [including those that kill off everything else] is wrong on both counts. 

	Dunn’s book explores what changes Earth’s lifeforms can expect of the future. As one might expect, these changes are heavily influenced by climate change, but Dunn also looks at the effect of other factors – notably the growing resistances that results from heavy use of biocides (e.g. pesticides, antibiotics, etc.)

	Dunn investigates the effect of islands on evolution and speciation, and goes on to show that not all islands are surrounded by water. (By geographic definition they may be, but in terms of constraints that restrict the movement, interactions, and well-being of lifeforms there are many besides water.) This is important because climate change will drive species to attempt migration to areas that present the conditions to which the species is evolutionarily adapted. Some will fail and may go extinct. Some will succeed, but will upset the ecological applecart of the location into which they’ve moved.  

	Chapter nine discusses a crucial principle: being able to break a thing doesn’t mean one can readily fix it. Dunn describes plans to use robotic drones to replace the extinct bee pollinators that play a crucial role in our ecosystem, as well as the ways the drones are likely to fail to live up to their predecessors.

	I found this book to be immensely thought-provoking. One can argue whether the author is too gloomy about human future (“human future” because Dunn is clear that life on the planet will go on), but it’s impossible to ignore that challenges exist.
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As a biology degree holder and lifelong lover of evolution, microbiology, and genetics, this book was everything I wanted in a look at our future here on Earth.  

Dunn doesn’t just argue climate change and greenhouse gases; he dives deep into crop diversity (or the lack thereof), biocides resistance, and the interdependence of humans with hundreds, maybe thousands of other species.  

This book wasn’t gloom and doom but a well thought-out prediction for where we are headed based on experiments and trends in scientific data.  Using the laws of biology, Dunn explained what the future will look like for us if we continue down the path we are going.  

The fact that “nature” will continue on without us but may not look the same really hit home.  Humans, and all our dependents, are endanger of extinction.  

I enjoyed reading this book.  I love continuing to learn in my field long after I have graduated.  This book was easy to follow but informative enough I didn’t feel like it was “dumbed down”. A great look at the evolutionary biology of humanity; past, present, AND future.
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I really enjoyed reading A Natural History of the Future, I found it to be very informative and enlightening. Scientific terms are explained clearly and everything is backed by scientific evidence. This book is really easy to read and was occasionally humorous.
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The book book starts off with the concept of natural laws and how man see themselves as the dominant species outside the natural world, master and ruler of all living things.
The book goes from agar bacteria in petri dishes that become indestructible within days to ecological corridors - (making it easer on species to migrate from A to B - to he law of area containment, and man escaping predators by becoming hunters.

I enjoyed parts of the book, however, I'd more or less had to wriggle my way through the first 70 pages, loved the second half of the book more, esp. the bits on global warming and the imminent migration to more livable regions of the planet.

In view of the recent floods in Europe (I am in NL) we need to consider that survival of the fittest is not about the richest, the most beautiful, but which are best adapted to their environment -
We are no match for the might and power of nature, and it is a big relief to realize that the future is not about us. We lose - anyway..
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Thank you netgalley for providing an ARC in exchange for a review

"our best bet for extanding our stay on this planet is to pay attention to the rules of life and work with them rather than against them" 

This book was wonderful, very informative. The author explains a lot of scientific concepts but makes them easy to understand. It's all based on scientific evidence : the author explains some research experiments, how they were conducted, the results and the analysis of these results.
Despite being scientific, the book is easy to read and understand, and some fragments are funny. 

My only regret is that I would have liked to read about the impact of big corporations and governments on climate change. While I agree that it's important to reduce our meat consumption or use bikes or public transportation more often, these actions aren't enough if big corporations keep polluting like they do and governments do not stop them. 

This book often mentions insects. If you are very sensitive to this subject, you might want to avoid it.
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I've explored the prospects of humankind from different perspectives. I read about global scenarios of what awaits us due to climate change: droughts, floods, and food shortages. I read about how technological achievements buffer the effects of climate change in such fields as transportation, building, and AI. I read about violence engendered, partially, by the warming of the planet.  I watched a lot of documentaries. The book by Rob Dunn, 'A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human Species,' is a decent contribution to my collection. 

The research contains a unique approach I have never encountered before in books about the future. Each chapter takes the existing universal law of nature and expands its reach into the nearest future. The benefit of this manner lies in creating an understandable connection between the present and the past. Conclusions have a solid evidence base. The author doesn't intend to frighten or shock a reader. The book leaves a feeling that the subject in question is self-evident, and a reader needs only a slight conscious effort to make the same discoveries as the author. 

An occasional intermixture of popular science and science language is my single personal complaint about the narrative. An introduction is a prime example of this mixing, but the text got captivating after the first few pages.
  
The book contributed significantly to my understanding of nature and human's influence on it. We place climate change on a pedestal that it doesn't deserve. From our anthropocentric, self-centered perspective, global changes in the environment threaten everything on Earth. We tend to forget that even if humans, mammals, birds, and even insects go extinct, life will continue. Humans represent the tiniest fraction of the biomass. Without a doubt, we are the first species that has been warming the planet on a global scale. Yet, the hope that in our elusive superiority, we are unable to destroy all species is a starting point for saving as much of diverse nature as we can.  


I'd gladly recommend the book for those who want to learn more about the future and read professional, well-written research.
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