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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Scientific Insights Into Politics : DOMINION by Niles Eldredge; A John Macrae Book / Henry Holt $25, 288 pages

November 17, 1995|LEE DEMBART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Niles Eldredge, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has done important work with Stephen Jay Gould on amending Darwin's theory of evolution.

Now he turns his considerable skills and knowledge to the subject of the environment, and he has produced a manifesto on behalf of curbing population growth to save the planet.

It's an interesting book, though, to my taste, less for the politics than for the analysis. Others may feel differently.

Not surprisingly, Eldredge gives a reading of science, anthropology and evolution that supports his conclusions about human nature and what it has done to the environment.

He spends a fair amount of time discussing cultural evolution--as distinct from Darwin's biological evolution. In his view, "survival of the fittest" on the cultural level has produced people who believe that they have control over nature and that nature is theirs--ours--for the taking.

In short, they have dominion over it.

He traces this view--and even the word dominion-- to the opening chapter of the book of Genesis. God's command to Adam and Eve is: "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

That set the tone for everything that followed. For 10,000 years, since people began getting together to practice agriculture, Eldredge argues, we have acted as though we own the earth.

But this is all wrong, he says. We are running out of resources. Malthus was right. Population growth will eventually strangle us. We have been very clever at putting off the Malthusian catastrophe so far, but we cannot put it off much longer.

We need a new cultural story, Eldredge says, one to replace Man the Builder, the Doer, the Taker. He writes: "Old stories that were accurate and viable 10,000 years ago have outlived their usefulness."

He wants nothing less than to replace Genesis with "a new story" that says that when people got to this point in history, they realized that they could not continue this way. What had worked so far and had gotten them this far was about to stop working.

So, "The People decided to curb their population numbers. They determined to curtail environmental damage and the loss of other species. They decided to conserve the world's remaining ecosystems. And they embraced sustainable development, matching economic growth to the carrying capacities of their surroundings."

He regrets that the majority of people don't share this view. "People just don't get it," he proclaims, using a phrase whose time, we had hoped, had gone.

For that matter, Eldredge uses a lot of phrases whose time, we had hoped, had gone. At one point he dismisses a competing hypothesis by arguing, "That really won't wash." Another hypothesis is "simply not in the cards." But the ancient Greek Demosthenes, who said humans were featherless bipeds, "hit the nail on the head."

Somebody should have hit Eldredge on the head about the sloppy writing, which detracts from the serious and thoughtful arguments he makes. For example, he overuses the word simply as an intensifier. One competing idea, he says, "simply isn't so."

When people say simply, or obviously or clearly, I sometimes find that the matter being asserted is not so simple or obvious or clear.

Best not to use such words, lest you inadvertently make readers wonder about the strength of your case.

In any event, here are the thoughts of a smart scientist who is bringing insights from science to broader political issues. The very process is interesting, even if the conclusions are not as original as the argument.

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