Professor Arthur Shapiro’s Review of Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden

Rambunctious GardenProfessor Arthur Shapiro is Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology at University of California Davis and a renowned expert on the butterflies of California.  His public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Natural Areas Program is one of the most popular articles on Million Trees.

Professor Shapiro has written a review of Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden and given us permission to reprint it here.  We share his high opinion of Ms. Marris’ book and we urge you to give it the careful read it deserves.


Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris

Review by: Arthur M. Shapiro

The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 88, No. 1 (March 2013), p. 45

Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Stable URL: .

“Several years ago, I attended a seminar on the psychology of the animal-liberation movement. The speaker observed that although very few animal-lib activists were actually religious, most such people scored very highly on the “religiosity” scale in personality inventories. He suggested that animal liberation served the same functions for such people as religion did for many more: it gave life meaning and conferred a group identity centered on shared moral superiority over others. After years of interacting with “weed warriors”—people who spend their free time trying to eradicate “invasive species” from parks and public lands—I would advance the same hypothesis about most of them. They tend to be absolutely convinced of the righteousness of their cause and highly resistant to any suggestion that naturalized exotics might not be all bad. They also tend to be oblivious to the disconcerting degree to which their rhetoric converges to that of racists and xenophobes, and highly defensive if you point that out to them. After all, they are on the “green” side, right?  

In the face of such popular enthusiasm for the alarmist viewpoint on exotics, Emma Marris, a professional science writer, has produced an eminently reasonable, well-researched, and engagingly written defense of the notion that human beings have changed the world and the most sensible way to deal with that is to manage it for the greatest good. She demonstrates very convincingly that communities and ecosystems have always been in flux as the physical world changes around them. The idea of freezing them at some arbitrary moment in time is as wrongheaded as it is impractical. Some naturalized exotics present serious threats to human beings or their support systems: we call them pests, pathogens, and vectors, and they are not what is at issue. Some are such radical ecological gamechangers that they need to be assessed with an eye to the full scope of their impacts (think cheatgrass in the desert and its impact on fire ecology). Most, however, are trivial, and in a world of limiting resources where we must assign priorities to our actions, they do not merit serious attention. But it is not merely a matter of using our management resources effectively. Much of our “invasive species” discourse simply ignores the evolutionary creativity consequent on community reorganization.

Yet we know both in theory and from the fossil record that precisely such creativity is essential for long-term survival in a changing physical context. Ecotypes or ecological races arise in response to novel challenges, both biotic and abiotic. The future of endangered species is likely to depend on such processes. Failure to appreciate this is the single biggest flaw in the “climatic envelope” or “niche modeling” approach to conservation biology. Much of California’s lowland butterfly fauna is now dependent on nonnative larval host plants. When I tell garden clubs—or public land managers—that successful eradication of invasive “weeds” would drive their beloved backyard butterflies to extinction, they stare at me in disbelief. But it is true and emblematic of the larger problem explored very well in this volume.

Shortly after Marris’s book appeared there was a flurry of articles in the professional literature advancing precisely the same ideas. Among the best are by Carroll (2011. Evolutionary Applications 4:184–199) and Thomas (2011. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 26:216 –221). But Marris got there first, and with luck her wise words will be read and acted upon far and wide.”

Arthur M. Shapiro, Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, California

7 thoughts on “Professor Arthur Shapiro’s Review of Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden”

  1. Thank you for providing Professor Shapiro’s book review. Marris’s book is, indeed, eye-opening for the lay reader, as well as balanced and eloquent about its thesis. But few people have the courage to directly discuss the psychology of the native plant enthusiasts’ passion, nor even allude to its domain in religiosity. I applaud Dr. Shapiro for sharing his idea. We are at that time of year in our spiritual calendars that even more strongly illuminates the depth of his insight.

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