Let me begin by saying that everyone who says this book’s illustrations and layout are beautiful is absolutely right. As a print book, I suspect this would be gorgeous. I received an eARC from NetGalley and MIT Press, and it was a little harder to read on my phone screen, but that isn’t why I didn’t finish Rewilding. Rather, as beautiful and perhaps comprehensive a review of this subject as it is, I found Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe’s writing style incompatible with how I like my popular science books.
I first came upon the concept of rewilding when I read How to Clone a Mammoth last year. Beth Shapiro provided a great overview of the state of the ancient DNA field, and she mentioned many of the rewilding experiments that this book covers in more detail. I think it’s a fascinating and perhaps worthwhile enterprise; I want to be clear that I’m not objecting to this book based on its authors’ ideas (so far as I got through reading them). Instead, I didn’t appreciate their voice here.
When I read a science book, I’m happy for the authors to inject their own thoughts, opinions, and personality into their writing. However, I want them to be able to separate those biases from how they present the science itself. Jepson and Blythe don’t do that here.
Here’s an early example that raised my hackles: they present the overkill hypothesis as a settled fact within the scientific community. They laud Paul Martin as a visionary, a “time traveller” who has “the imagination and command of facts to think across eras and continents.” When they touch on “resistance to the overkill theory” they say, “In retrospect, it is interesting to ask why there was so much resistance to the overkill hypothesis” and then go on to say it was inexorably logical and blame conservation movements in the 1980s. Ok.
Look, I am not a scientist. I don’t even have a particularly deep knowledge of this subject as a layperson. But I can use Google, and I do have some sweet critical thinking skills, and literally the first result when I google “overkill hypothesis” is this meta-analysis from 2018. It concludes that the overkill hypothesis enjoys excellent support among ecologists, like Jepson and Blythe, but remains controversial among archaeologists, and it points to a breakdown in communication between these disciplines as a result for the discrepancy. Note that I’m not saying Jepson and Blythe are wrong to champion the overkill hypothesis—I just take issue with how they present it as more settled than it is, and how their anemic attempt at presenting “both sides” criticism makes it seem like critics are unreasonable or biased while they are not.
As I continued reading, I encountered more writing that left me on edge. Chapter 4 begins to talk about the rewilding experiments of past decades and says, “A few of these scientists had the combination of vision, boldness, powers of persuasion, and opportunity to try out new approaches….” When Jepson and Blythe describe the Oostvaardersplassen experiment, they say, “Frans Vera is someone with a genius for looking at things differently and assembling disparate forms of evidence to develop, test, and articulate new ideas. He is also fearless when it comes to challenging mainstream thinking….” I cannot stand this level of aggrandizement in a popular science book!
It is one thing to laud the accomplishments of scientists. Praise Marie Curie all you want for her contributions to theories of radioactivity in the face of institutional sexism. By all means, tell me that Vera did some good ecological research into rewilding. But stop trying to paint individual scientists as mavericks who challenge a system that is somehow otherwise going to hold back scientific progress. Sure, I am open to critiquing the conservatism within science—but that’s not the same thing as saying, “this person is a visionary!!1111.”
So I stopped reading after that. Your mileage may vary. As I said at the beginning, the illustrations and layout of this book are great—props to whatever designers worked on it. There is bound to be a lot of good, accurate, useful information to be learned here when it comes to environmental history, ecology, and the subject of rewilding in particular. Nevertheless, I personally could not stomach the biased writing any longer, and rather than trudge through the remaining seventy pages or so, I decided to call it a day.
I’m not panning the book to the point of saying don’t read it, but I hope that my review provides some perspective as you go into it.