In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Turner, Andrew Adonis on LBJ, John Gray on Victor Serge and Helen Lewis on the science of the breast.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our Critic at large is Craig Raine, who writes about Tate Liverpool’s exhibition of late Turner, Monet and Twombly. The show, Raine argues, “passes the kleptomania test with ease. There are many, many works here that one would steal without compunction were theft possible with impunity.” Of Turner’s painting of the salute in Venice, Raine says “There is something candidly magical at work. The same applies to Monet.” As for Twombly, Raine maintains he is a “great painter, the equal of Turner and Monet”.

In Books, former Labour Cabinet minister Andrew Adonis reviews The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B Johnson. This book, which deals with the first year of LBJ’s presidency, shows, Adonis writes, that “Lyndon Johnson left behind the second most substantial legacy of any US president of the 20th century, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. The “compass” of Johnson’s presidency was set, Adonis argues, within days of his assumption of it following the assassination of John F Kennedy. “Within weeks, its triumphs and its disasters were equally foretold.”

Also in Books: John Gray reviews a new edition of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary; Guy Dammann on Soul Music by Candace Allen; Olivia Laing reviews Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’s Antigone; and Helen Lewis on Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Lynn Shelton’s slacker comedy Your Sister’s Sister; Rachel Cooke on Armando Ianucci’s Veep; “The many moods of Marilyn, à la Andy Warhol”, a poem by John Kinsella; Andrew Billen on The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre; Antonia Quirke on The Cave on Radio 4. PLUS: Will Self’s "Real Meals".

Power play: President Lyndon B Johnson in 1965 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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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