I was recently given the opportunity to read and review Will Stolzenburg’s book Where the Wild Things Were, recently out in paperback, about the importance of top predators in ecosystem functioning. It was a pleasure to read and recommended for ecologists and non-ecologists alike. Will does a great job going through the last century of our understanding of food webs, slowly building up the argument that top predators really are necessary to sustain any balance that has evolved within a community. Will was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book:
Q. To me, the great appeal of Where the Wild Things Were lies along two axes: first, a respectable caution with regards to “the truth” and second, a painstaking craft of organization. The argument in the book builds upon itself, while the true weight of the situation is slowly revealed.
I’d like to start with the first part of that, “Truth.” I’m often told as a graduate student that my job is to question all of the “truths” in my field. By contrast, in science journalism, it often seems that the job is to shoe-horn the truth into the hook. One of the great things about this book is the care that you take to delineate what is and is not known. For example, your depiction of the Pleistocene extinction debate (p. 40-41) is excellent. You’re able to somehow take a complex subject that gets a lot of people very angry and lay out the major points without detracting from the flow of the book. What’s your process for getting a handle on what scientists know, and then whittle it down to make it entertaining, but still informative?
A. If my rendition of the Pleistocene overkill seems even-handed, it’s because I’m honestly divided, albeit heavily veering to one side. I’ve always harbored a naive sense of disbelief that these skinny spearmen could clean out entire continents of megafauna in so rapid fashion. But I wince even more when I’m asked to believe that the umpteenth glacial cycle in a series of so many finally punched the megabeasts’ ticket. Over the years I’ve spoken with both sides of the debate more than a few times, and I’ve come to sense that each mischieviously loves the fight as much as the truth. So I’ve come to the point of feeling comfortable just throwing the debate out for grabs, to let the buyer beware, even though I don’t doubt that we had a starring role in the blitzkrieg then as we do now.