In Sparing Nature, Jeffrey K. McKee, an anthropologist at Ohio State University in the United States, makes a compelling argument in support of his proposition that there is a longstanding relationship between human population growth and the loss of plant and animal biodiversity worldwide. Reading through the pages, one can detect the ideas of Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, Kingsly Davis, Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, Garrett Hardin and E.O. Wilson, among other notables. Clearly McKee's thinking has been importantly shaped by these scholars. All of these scholars discussed, in one form or another, problems associated with population growth. And one, E.O. Wilson, has repeatedly addressed the biodiversity problem. McKee's work differs in that it is entirely devoted to the subject of population growth and the loss of biodiversity. Using wit combined with scientific rigor, McKee takes the reader on a six million year journey, beginning with our prehuman ancestors and ending at the present day. What he shows the reader on this journey is often disturbing. But it is a "good read." It is clearly the work of an erudite, concerned and thoughtful scientist.
McKee presents three propositions that are the foundation of his book. Proposition one states that "there is a very close relationship between biodiversity loss and human population growth." Proposition two states that "the most important conservation measure we can take is to slow or halt the growth of the human population." Proposition three states that "conserving biodiversity is vital to the health of our planet, and conseqently is vital to us." These propositions are based on a set of beliefs that shape the author's thinking. McKee firmly believes that a major biodiversity crisis is at hand; that humans are largely responsible for the current biodiversity crisis; that this crisis is not sustainable and is life threatening, not only to the flora and fauna of the planet, but to the human species as well; that each species plays a part in maintaining the world's ecosystems and each is important in its own right; that all life-forms compete for space and other limited resources and that human beings are out-competing other organisms for limited space and resources; and that, if rapid corrective action is not taken to radically reduce the number of human beings on the planet, extinction rates of species will accelerate in the future.
McKee presents his argument within the span of nine chapters (a preface, notes, and index complete his 210 page book). Chapter I begins with an introduction to basic ecological concepts. The main propositions of the book are presented. Chapter II provides an overview of how evolution works. The fossil record is used to draw a link between population growth and the loss of biodiversity. Problems with measuring species biodiversity and species loss [End Page 87] are discussed. The claim is made that population growth, and associated expansion of humans into all ecosystems, is leading to the destruction of ecosystem biodiversity, species biodiversity and genetic biodiversity. Finally, McKee introduces Darwin's so-called "Wedge" model to illustrate how one species can push into the abyss of extinction other species.
In Chapter III McKee details the evolution of pre-humans in Africa. Using the fossil record, McKee skillfully and meticulously shows that between 6 million to 1.8 million years ago our prehuman ancestors had little impact on biodiversity. It was not until the arrival of Homo erectus about 1.8 million years ago that the loss of biodiversity became problematic. As our ancient ancestors migrated out of Africa to distant lands, the rate of biodiversity loss accelerated even further. As McKee carefully documents in Chapter IV, the pattern of population growth and biodiversity loss took a major turn for the worse with the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago in what is now the Middle East.
Chapter V introduces the reader to basic demographic concepts and principles. Using quantitative data the author tests the proposition that human population growth is inextricably tied...