One critique of Botkin’s Book

By Guy Knudsen

Probably posting this in the wrong place, but the only place where I could figure out how to post it. I did buy Dan Botkin’s book (Moon in nautilus etc), got the kindle version which was cheapest, and am still deciding whether it was a good purchase or not. Anything that makes me think has some value, I guess. My three main problems with the book are 1) Very wordy, he goes on endlessly elaborating on isolated examples (wolves on the island as one instance), they are anecdotally interesting but his use of them to derive grander principles seems contrived. “Cherry-picking” is the term that comes to mind; 2) He repeatedly states the obvious and well-known (e.g., change rather than permanent steady-state is the ecological norm), sets up straw men to compare himself with (e.g., the idea that most ecology is based on, and ecologists believe, that nature is a steady state phenomenon, which is patently false, similarly his trivial and inaccurate exposition of the logistic equation in population biology, which he then proceeds to knock down), thereby proclaiming himself a “renegade naturalist”; 3) endless self-promotion (I guess that’s really just a variation on #2). When I read him, I’m reminded of Walter Mondale’s comment on Gary Hart’s self-proclaimed “big ideas”: Where’s the beef? One example that’s about as vegan as an idea can get, not in his book but on his website (modestly titled “Daniel B. Botkin: Solving Environmental Problems by Understanding How Nature Works”), where he provides “The Rules of Ecology” (so far there’s only one), which includes statement such as “The evolutionary goal is simply to stay around.” If you think just a little bit about that statement, you hopefully realize either that it’s flat-out wrong, or else he’s using the term “goal” metaphorically, much as Dawkins did when he talked about “genes maximizing their representation in the gene pool.” Again, this is metaphor, which is not explanation, and it would be helpful if Botkin would explain and acknowledge that, rather than throwing it out as part of “Botkin Rule of Ecology #1”.

Wondering if maybe I was alone in my discomfort with this book, I did locate one review (coincidentally in one of my favorite journals, Trends in Ecology and Evolution) which takes on Botkin’s book, both the good and bad aspects, much more eloquently than I could:



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10 Responses to One critique of Botkin’s Book

  1. Ed Javorka says:

    This post from Guy so clearly expresses my views (and disappointment) about this book. It was nothing great or new or novel. We all know (or should know) that all things change…nothing stays the same in geologic time. This is the basic point the Botkin book makes.
    Based on Sharon’s review a few months back, I expected some really new or bright insights.
    The whole premise could and should have been presented in a few dozen pages. But I guess people don’t buy leaflets, they buy books.
    I think most of us who love and defend true, existing “old growth” (such as groves of western red cedars aged at 800-900 years or more) fully realize that these trees will not live forever. But we still want them saved for at least one or two more generations to view. Fighting hard to preserve these ancient trees and/or wilderness areas doesn’t make us unaware that these places will eventually change…fire or earthquake or windstorm or ????

  2. greg nagle says:

    He spent a couple of days in my dept about 20 years ago, I had the same impression as Gary, he has been a tad too self promoting on some rather basic thinking which he has repeated since then. He seemed to appeal much more to those without strong backgrounds in ecology who already knew much of this. Does anyone in ecology still believe in the Clementsian world view of ecological stability? But we had a lot of extension people and human dimensions people who did not know much science so his raps were quite interesting to them.

    But, I am in Asia and do not have access to the book so I owe him a more comprehensive read. A shorter version like his earlier articles seems good for an undergrad class.

    I am loud and love attention but I lacked Botkins taste for self promotion, a hazard among some academics.

  3. nesbitt says:

    I agree that Botkin was partly beating a dead horse, but I do not have a PHD, nor am I an academic. Just a dirt forester with a Masters in Forest Ecology. I thought his “Moon and—” interesting and a refresher of the subject. I also wondered why he thought he had to prove glaciers and other long ago historical events disproved a steady state ecology. I also agree Botkin pushed his previous book too much, but in summary I am glad I read the book, and was glad to see your comments. However, on “Global Warming”, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I did not hear or see it.

  4. Sharon says:

    I am kind of surprised that we wandered into critiquing self-promotion .. wow! Is there a self-promotion index that has been developed? I know plenty of self-promoting academics.. and do we not listen to what they have to say? Because that would be a lot of literature..

  5. Guy Knudsen says:

    I don’t think there’s a self-promotion index, not a bad idea though! I figure it’s like good art, or pornography: maybe can’t define it, but you know it when you see it 🙂 And you’re right, it’s not disqualifying, just something one needs to weigh (substance/hype ratio). Here’s my gold standard, maybe some of y’all aren’t old enough to remember this though:

  6. greg nagle says:

    One has to recognize that those who can get ahead in academia surrounded by others on their pedestals, almost always have to be self promoting. The point about Botkin based on others reading is that he does not seem to have anything new to say but repeats his same basic arguments, I admit to the same myself.

    As fate would have it, I found a copy of his Discordant Harmonies in Hanoi and reread parts of it, including his sassy chapter on Kaibab deer and certain mythologies surrouding that issue. It was a nice job, I had forgotten what he had said on it but I appreciated his new take on it at that time.|

    WHat might have been more useful recently is an examination of predator prey relations regarding wolves and the northern yellowstone elk herd, with recent data much less open to interpretation than the Kaibab issue.

    What I understand is that at one point, that northern herd had been reduced by half which was fine with me since they had hammered the riparian.

    Vegetation response to changes in elk behavior were mixed, not so strong as Beschta et al suggested at first but very obvious in areas where elk had to worry about being jumped by wolves.

    With reductions in wolves with avid hunting outside the park boundary, I would be curious to know more about recent elk resoponses.

    As for social narratives on wolves and elk, I well remember pro wolf propaganda in 1999 proclaiming that the elk population would not be reduced for the usual simple minded reasons-they only take the lame and the sick etc. Another legend.

    I do not see that Botkin has said much new lately (?) In person he might be much more appealing.

    I was more impressed by those calm New England types I knew in grad school who did not wear what they knew on their sleeves, at Cornell blatant self promotion usually did not go over well , at least in the sciences and Botkin is not a practicing scientist, The best can let their data speak well for them, those were my best friends.

    But what the heck, Botkin is a faculty in CA right?

    What else can you expect.

    I prefer the NE.

  7. Stump- Bob Sproul says:

    I prefer the woods.
    But I am not academic, so I am enjoying this book, some new thoughts for me. I read the review from the professor in New Mexico. I wonder if as he states that ecologist already know all this stuff how come we still have this “Clinton era science as law for our forests”.

    • Bob Zybach says:

      Bob: And I think that is the key point of the book. Sure, many of us here on this blog, via education and/or personal experience, are very familiar with the dynamics of change and evolution as they appear in our forests and grasslands. Most everyone else is not. Case in point: ESA embraces disproven mythology, just as Botkin keeps describing. I agree with Guy that some of this is overstated and redundant to those of us that are already familiar with his work and these concepts, but apparently to our lawmakers, this is all new territory and needs to be approached with caution, one step at a time.

      I also agree that Botkin’s ego can sometimes cloud his message, as can his wordiness. Fortunately, I’m a reader who routinely destroys his books with dog-ears, written notes, high-lighters, paperclips, and copying machines, so I can wade back through the chapters and find the key points and ideas that impressed me. With Botkin, these ideas are usually fairly elegant, profound in their simplicity and common sense, and buried in lengthy stories.

      Yes, a pamphlet could have easily summarized these thoughts and statements — even many of the stories — but that would have defrayed much of the educational capabilities (for our students and legislators?) offered by the greater amount of illustration and opportunities for reflection the stories provide.

      At least that’s my take to this point.

  8. greg nagle says:

    I think Jerry Franklin can answer that better than me, and all of those people involved with the NWFP seemed to understand well the issue of disturbance over time, none had this idea of a stable ecosystem since fire was so much a part of it. And they understood how such a drastic disturbance such as severe fire can result in ecosystem benefits.

    At any rate botkin is readable but i cannot get his book from my perch here in Laung Prabang, Laos.

    BTW< hardly an academic, I started college at age 32 after 12 years woods work including 8 years as a planter, and 4 doing forest inventory. I then worked in africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. Amongst other efforts.

    I worked in 8 states on 50 districts so unlike other academics, i got a few miles under my belt including 9×9 on a couple hundred clearcuts and uncountable inventory plots in 5 states. I can say I learned more that way than I did in school.

  9. Pingback: Botkin on the Nekola Review | Forest Policy Pub Book Club

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