In truth it’s a subtle pursuit
The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science
By Will Storr Picador, 395pp, $29.95 have fun, meet people, gather diverting material for a second book. (His first, in 2009, was the quirky The Curse of the Labrador Duck.
The result is an above-average travelogue, by turns amusing and informative. The serious message is that humankind interferes with nature at its peril. Success stories are rare and usually (nine times out of 10) an introduced foreign species simply dies off.
Occasionally real damage is done. Chilton’s cautionary examples include Pacific oysters in The Netherlands, rhododendrons in Ireland, ruddy ducks in Spain, Formosan termites in New Orleans and bullfrogs in Uruguay.
Especially disastrous has been the planting in Iceland of nootka lupine flowers, native to Alaska and British Columbia. The idea was hatched in 1885 as a way of replenishing the island’s thin soils, denuded by deforestation since the 11th century. ‘‘ On paper,’’ writes Chilton, ‘‘ it looked like a good plan ... However, the wrong species was chosen for introduction. Some lupines are perfectly palatable, but other species are toxic, containing noxious chemicals.’’
The genius in charge chose the toxic ones. The result: minimal improvement to Iceland’s soil but a widespread pest potentially fatal to livestock and human beings and, to boot, reduced diversity of native Icelandic plants.
Such examples are interesting but Chilton did not need to traverse the globe to find them. Indeed, he need not have left Australia. Or he could have confined himself to just one other destination.
‘‘ Hawaii,’’ he jokes, ‘‘ is in perpetual competition with Australia for bragging rights about whose landscape has been more thoroughly chewed up by introduced species.
‘‘ Australia has rabbits, cane toads, camels, rabbits, fire ants, foxes, rabbits, pigeons, and more rabbits, but virtually everything in Hawaii has been brought from somewhere else.’’
But if Chilton had gone only to Hawaii, or had just stayed home, he would not have gathered the exotic material he needed for this book. Readers also would have missed out on the nice incidental descriptions of other places and cultures and some witty character sketches of his travelling companions. There were some real eccentrics among them. I expect Chilton was glad to come home to his wife. Everything he needed was here.
The same cannot be said of Storr. He needed to travel to appraise some of his more notable subjects, such as historian and Holocaust denier David Irving. To gain access to Irving he joins a small tour group in eastern Europe. Its members — a ghastly collection of racist cranks whom even Irving despises — pay their hero to show them around concentration camps and other attractions.
‘‘ When I returned to my room,’’