Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Don DeLillo and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

Critics agree: it's easy to disagree about Don DeLillo. "The meanings that I find in [DeLillo's] complex, elliptical, compelling novels," says Douglas Kennedy, writing in the Times, "might be oceans apart from what you yourself might discover in his work."

In the Financial Times, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney puzzles over this short novel's treatment of "the Iraq war, which is portrayed opaquely, although unmistakeably, as the high water mark of America the hyper-power", while Stephen Amidon in the Sunday Times finds it "an oblique approach to a topic that might be blinding if viewed straight on.".

The Guardian's James Lasdun praises the author's "art of suggestion": "certain hints in the text, along with an elegant manipulation of the time-frame, permit a satisfying, even touching ending".

 

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

In the Times, Neel Mukherjee finds Jonathan Safran Foer "brings a scrupulous balance to the debate" over vegetarianism with his new book, despite some sections "so bleak and shocking that they will fill you with shame, horror, anger and disgust".

Writing in the Telegraph, Sameer Rahim is less convinced: "Is Safran Foer's case for vegetarianism unanswerable? It is certainly compelling. But he runs the risk of sentimentality when he compares our responses to sick livestock and sick pets."

The Observer's food critic Jay Rayner also has objections: "While the subject may be new to him, there is actually nothing new of any substance here for an informed readership." Safran Foer "lurches from unsupported statement to unsupported statement, refusing to accept, for example, that certain animal behaviour is just instinct and therefore ascribing to it a higher intelligence".

"Point Omega" and "Eating Animals" will be reviewed in forthcoming editions of the New Statesman.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder