Non-Fiction Reviews


Making Eden
How plants transformed a barren planet

(2019) David Beerling, Oxford University Press, 20 / US$27.95, hrdbk, xii + 257, ISBN 978-0-198-79830-9

 

The past half billion years or so has seen our planet sport an atmosphere with nearly 20% oxygen that has enabled diverse populations of animals including us humans.  Yet integral to our 'Earthlike' planet being Earth-like are plants.  This then is the story of plants and how they rose (evolved) to those we see today and on which we depend and also how they help shape and regulate our planet.  Finally, it looks at how we face a problem of how we are treating plants in our quest to feed a global population of some 7 billion and rising. Here, the phosphate problem has long been under recognised.

While the above is the essence of Beerling's Making Eden there is much more. Our understanding of how plants have evolved has changed markedly the past half century, if not the past couple of decades since affordable genomics took off following the draft sequencing of the human genome in 2001.  Beerling covers this in a very accessible proverbial New Scientist level style of writing.  That said, those looking for something a little more substantive (academic) will find the end notes and index, that together make up a quarter of the book's page count, invaluable.

The book is also reasonably well illustrated with black-and-white line drawings and graphs etc.  There is also a central, 8-page, glossy colour section ofphotographs.

This book demonstrates that botany is not just a litany of Latin and common name species list but a dynamic subject that is fundamental to our existence.

For SF enthusiasts who are scientists one of this website's core demographics there is obvious relevance of the subject matter to other Earthlike (exo-) planets. There is also relevance to the human condition and Beerling in a few places references the authors J. G. Ballard and Tolkien. Perhaps the best SFnal reference comes early on to Mark Watney of The Martian film adapted from The Martian novel: if you know either of those then you'll appreciate the value of botanical science.

For a more broader readership, this book will be particularly valuable to school leavers thinking of going on to study either biology or a botanical science at college. This book will really get your academic juices going.

This book is excellent at what it does, but perhaps a word of caution is needed. David Beerling is clearly enthusiastic about botany and his enthusiasm for plants is infective (which is no bad thing in a book such as this).  Having said that, there were a few places in which he arguably slightly over-eggs the case for plants.  For example, he mentions that stomata (the pores in leaves that allow gas exchange for photosynthesis) also convey water. Here he notes that in a warmer, more carbon dioxide rich world, stomata become fewer and less open. This reduces plants' transpiration of water back to the atmosphere and so more rainwater ends up running off into rivers. Beerling notes that the freshwater discharge from river into the seas has noticeably increased since the beginning of the 20th century when carbon dioxide levels started to climb more seriously.  Now, all this is true. However, Beerling fails to tell the reader that a warmer world sees more evaporation from the oceans hence, globally speaking, more rainfall on the land (even if in some dry places a warmer world may see them become drier). This more-rainfall-with-temperature effect is actually the dominant effect even if stomata shenanigans are a part of the story.  Such failings are though of only marginal concerns: one expects an ambassador and here Beerling is being a botany ambassador to have a certain bias in championing their cause. Nonetheless what readers need to do is to be aware that Beerling's Making Eden needs to be read as part of a broader science diet.

Talking of broader science reading, those aware of the current botany scene and even dogged followers (if there are any) of my reviews on this site can view Making Eden as a kind of prequel to his Emerald Planet (2017). Both books warn that we really somewhat urgently need to conserve our biosphere if only for our own selfish, human society, survival.  Anything that promulgates that message deserves attention.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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