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Science General

What Is Natural?

Coral Reef Crisis

by (author) Jan Sapp

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2003
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 1998
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2003
    List Price

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During the late 1960s and 1970s, massive herds of poisonous crown-of-thorns starfish suddenly began to infest coral reef communities around the world, leaving in their wake devastation comparable to a burnt-out rainforest. In What is Natural?, Jan Sapp both examines this ecological catastrophe and captures the intense debate among scientists about what caused the crisis, and how it should be handled.

The crown-of-thorns story takes readers on tropical expeditions around the world, and into both marine laboratories and government committees, where scientists rigorously search for answers to the many profound questions surrounding this event. Were these fierce starfish outbreaks the kind of manmade disaster heralded by such environmentalists as Rachel Carson in Silent Spring? Indeed, discussions of the cause of the starfish plagues have involved virtually every environmental issue of our time--over-fishing, pesticide use, atomic testing, rain forest depletion, and over-population--but many marine biologists maintain that the epidemic is a natural feature of coral-reef life, and ecological "balance of nature" that should not be tampered with until we know the scientific truth of the crisis. But should we search for the scientific truth before taking action? And what if an environmental emergency cannot wait for a rigorous scientific search for "the truth"?

The starfish plagues are arguably one of most mysterious ecological phenomena of this century. Through the window of this singular event, What is Natural lucidly illustrates the complexity of environmental issues while probing the most fundamental questions about the relationship between man and nature.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Jan Sapp is a Professor of the History of Science in the Department of Biology, at York University, in Toronto, Canada. He has written two other books for Oxford: Evolution by Assciation (1994) and Beyond the Gene (1987).

Editorial Reviews

"Provides thought-provoking insight on questions surrounding the 'balance of nature.' Sapp leads the reader through an unbiased examination of the devastation of coral reef communities directly caused by the poisonous crown-of-thorns starfish.... Sapp captures the essence of the complex relationship between humans and nature. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries."--Library Journal

"The best science whodunnit I have ever read."--David Bellamy, New Scientist

"It is fascinating to read a history of the evolution of coral-reef science in the context of ecological paradigms of the times, written from an unbiased perspective of an historian outside the field. This is a genuine interest to all those interested in the history of science, especially for those interested in the development of ideas in ecology and coral-reef science. It gives coral-reef scientists insight into the context of their own development."--Charles Birkeland, University of Guam Marine Laboratory

"Distinguished historian of science Jan Sapp tells the colorful and often gripping story of the threats to coral reefs posed by the mysterious population explosion of the crown-of-thorns starfish.... Through interviews with the scientists and environmentalists most closely involved, Sapp's lively account of scientific issues and personality conflicts reveals that such shocking environmental upheavals hold signal lessons for us today."--John Ogden, Director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography

"While suggesting causes, he illuminates the problems of resolving such a wide-reaching mystery and of implementing a timely, effective solution." --Science News

"Dr. Sapp has written a masterful story of the crown-of-thorns starfish controversy. It is not only a story of the relationship of coral-reef science to ecology and the politics of environmentalism but also a stark illustration of how poorly we understand the biology of coral reefs--one of the most diverse ecosystems covering more than one million square kilometers of our planet."--Ira Rubinoff, Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

"As the poet sees 'the world in a grain of sand,' so does Jan Sapp see the complexity of the biosphere in the entwined life histories of coral reefs and their enemy, the crown-of thorns starfish. This thoroughly documented account is rich in anecdotes from the Dante-esque comedy of human investigations. A sensitive inquiry into the fundamental problems of complexity and stability that human beings have yet to solve."--Garrett Hardin, Emeritus Professor of Human Ecology, University of California, Santa Barbara

"Anyone with even a passing interest in coral reef ecology, or in the ways that scientific controversies play out, will find Sapp's narrative an absorbing read. He offers lucid accounts of technical reports and the media's spin of the story, as well as in-depth profiles of the major players."--Civilization

"The reader of this book needs only to set aside a few quiet hours with it; the reward is a delightful intellectual challenge, as well as an entertaining read."--Science Books and Films

Other titles by Jan Sapp