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  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Reader Reactions to How Species Save Our Lives

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 1, 2011

Readers have posted some interesting responses to my latest New York Times column, with pros, cons, and quibbles.  These are a few that caught my attention.  Many readers disagreed with my utilitarian and anthropocentric emphasis on how we should value nature because it is saves our own lives:

Something that troubles me is that the emphasis seems to often be on the ways that human beings can benefit from our interaction with nature. Of course, the benefits from medicine and vaccines which have happened because of a discovery in nature are wonderful.  But don’t we have a moral and human obligation to protect all life, all species, whether or not we as a species benefits? We share this planet with other species. Those species, and individuals, have as much right to exist as we do.
Tim B

Others wrote to provide additional examples of benefits we have derived from nature:

Most interesting of recent note was a Bacteria discovered in Mono Lake in Eastern California that may be the key to treating Cyanide laced waters created by gold mining as it’s physiology is uniquely adapted to that environment. Mono Lake is the oldest lake in North America and LA was quickly destroying it by taking all of it’s feeding water to use for unchecked development. This incredibly unique species that is shocking scientists with hitherto thought impossible differences in it’s metabolism could have been lost within the last few decades as Mono Lake was worthless and would be completely dry by now if not for the intervention of Environmentalists and the Naturalists with the keen eye to notice it.
John Duttle

Having worked in pharmaceutical research for many years, I often worry when articles proclaim that half of our medicinal drugs come from nature. I was therefore pleased that the author carefully explained that ACE inhibitors, which effectively reduce blood pressure, did not come from snake venom, but rather were developed based on our understanding of how the snake venom worked. In fact, most drugs do not come directly from nature; even the famous discovery of penicillin was not useful in human medicine until the natural substance was subjected to significant modification. This does not however detract from the key point of the article, but rather it enhances it. That is: it is not only important for us to protect what exists in our natural world, it is equally important for us to study the natural world and to understand in detail how it works.
W.A. Spitzer, Faywood, NM
This reader seemed to feel I had neglected a distinctively Filipino contribution to medical discoveries from nature.  And in fact I did in this article but I have actually written about cone shells and Dr. Olivera at length in Smithsonian Magazine.  Happy to see him get more attention here, as he surely deserves it:

Having communed with freshwater invertebrates (rotifers, cladocerans, and copepods) for half of my academic career, may I be allowed to share the excitement of colleagues, especially at the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines (UP-MSI), who have tapped familiar invertebrates for life-saving compounds? This time the role of ‘traditional naturalists’ who would march into hell (rain forests) for a heavenly cause (wonder drugs) seems to have been taken over by marine biologists (yes, men and women in white lab coats, with beakers and state-of-the-art gadgets). US-based Dr. Baldomero Olivera Jr. and our very own Dr. Lourdes Cruz have been trailblazers and models par excellence. Currently a motley group (marine biologists, biochemists, microbiologists, molecular biologists) has formed the cleverly and aptly named PHARMASEAS project to search for various drugs from invertebrates: sponges and snails (for now, cone shells and turrid snails). As fellow researchers love to say, they―the UP-MSI researchers―have their work cut out for them. And why not? The Philippines is said to be the ‘center of the center of marine biodiversity’. It is one vast pharmacopoeia of more than 7000 islands, where just about any place, yes any place, in the country is touted to be no more than 6 hours away by car from the seashore.

This reader makes the very valid point that sanitation contributes more to human health than all the pharmaceuticals put together, and it’s a good point.   According to research by historian Philip Curtin, military deaths dropped dramatically in mid-nineteenth century because of sanitary improvements, and that was well before the conquest of diseases like yellow fever and malaria.  I’d quibble a bit, and say that sanitation also ultimately depends on people who can recognize species like Vibirio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera.  And solving the mystery of cholera was exactly the kind of heroic story I like to tell–only in this case it got told by writer Steven Johnson in his excellent book The Ghost Map:

And now a comment unrelated to the above rebuttal. I would like to point out that “industrial scale water treatment” (that is of making “fresh water” potable-disease free, as well as removing pathogens from
“used” water – sewerage) has had a much greater impact on the health of the now predominantly urban world population than “immunization and anti-biotics.” But it doesn’t make such good “heroic serendipitous stories” thus its relevance is under appreciated. The processes are what “nature” does but in a smaller area!

Finally, readers had some useful additions to my list of things we can do to slow the loss of species:

That said, the suggestion I would nominate for your list is this: Plant restored native plant habitat in your garden or around public buildings which use species that existed locally for millenia. These native species have co-evolved with native wildlife and are uniquely adapted to your local climate, without the need for extra water or fertilizing once established. You may have to modify your species selection and garden design to accommodate human needs, such as by not planting potentially flammable species near houses in fire-prone regions of the West; or not planting trees over or near septic tanks. But the more native species you plant, the more you can recreate and maintain important habitat for native wildlife.

Note that WILD plants are not necessarily NATIVE plants. Many species that grow wild were accidentally or deliberately introduced by humans from other parts of the world. You can get help on species identification, selection, cultivation tips, and nursery sources for often hard-to-find native plant species by contacting a native plant society in your area. Non-profit native plant promoting organizations exist for most states or regions in the country.  Here’s a link to a list of them compiled by the New England Wild Flower Society:… Lee Kingman

Human Population 2011 – 7,000,000,000
Human Population 1999 – 6,000,000,000
Human Population 1959 – 3,000,000,000
Human Population 1875 – 1,500,000,000

This is the problem, about which we are and have been in complete denial.

Sue Ferreira
1) Refuse to burn biofuels made from food crops (soy, canola, palm biodiesel, corn ethanol). They use cropland that displaces food, which creates an incentive to create more cropland out of existing ecosystems. To put this into perspective, America devoted over 30 thousand square miles of prime farmland to corn ethanol last year. Good luck not using corn ethanol, since its use is government mandated.

2) Don’t eat ocean fish …period. The seafood cards are largely ineffective. Eat farm-raised catfish and tilapia and shell fish instead. Google “Biodiversivist: An Exercise in Futility?”

3) Don’t build your dream vacation cabin–rent one. They are a fantasy that degrade ecosystems and always end up, like a boat, being a hole that you pour money in.

4) Buy and preserve five to ten acres of ecosystem somewhere that is adjacent to more preserved ecosystems and put it into a conservation reserve program.

5) Animal products, meat, eggs, dairy, all use roughly the same amount of resources to produce. Use them all sparingly with your meals instead of making them the meals.

6) Support Planned Parenthood.

Biodiversivist, Russ Finley

Great summary of some of the medical highlights naturalists have contributed. One minor point I would argue with is your dictum, “Plant trees, and since maintaining them is the hard part, stick around to be a tree steward.” Healthy forests are indeed quite a good thing for some species, but other species require other habitats — grasslands, wetlands, deserts, oceanic continental shelves, and on and on. Preserving habitats is the key thing; if you’re in a place that naturally has forests, by all means plant trees, but in many places habitat conservation is better accomplished in other ways.
David M.

Thanks to all.


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