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The Ptarmigan's Dilemma: An Ecological Exploration into the Mysteries of Life [Paperback]

John Theberge , Mary Theberge
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

April 5 2011 0771085184 978-0771085185
Winner of the 2010 Lane Anderson Award

Drawing on breakthrough research in evolution, genetics, and on their extensive work in the field and lab, wildlife biologists John and Mary Theberge explain for non-scientists the real facts of life.

Birds that suddenly grow gall bladders, when their species has none. Moose with antlers so big they encumber their movement through the forest. Butterflies that risk extinction by overwintering en masse. These are just a few stories the Theberges tell in their examination of what the mechanisms of evolution are and how they work. With examples from the very latest discoveries in genetics and ones they have made in their own field work, The Ptarmigan's Dilemma is a ground-breaking explanation of evolution for non-scientists.

By marrying the separate sciences of ecology and genetics, the Theberges paint a picture far richer than either discipline can alone of how, for almost 4 billion years, life on Earth has evolved into the rich diversity that's under threat today. Along the way, they explain just what "the survival of the fittest" really means, how dramatic evolutionary changes can take place in just one generation, and how our too-little knowledge of or interest in how life on Earth organizes and supports itself is rapidly making us a danger to ourselves.


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Review

"The Ptarmigan's Dilemma is a gem. I can't praise it highly enough. It's lucid, deep, moving, smart. It's become my must-have bedside book, whose wisdom ends one day and begins the next. I passionately love it." 
— Alanna Mitchell, author of Sea Sick

"Anyone who thinks a scientific understanding of nature takes the beauty and mystery out of life, should read this book! And here's a hint -- the ptarmigan's dilemma is also yours and mine, because misjudgment about living within our environmental limits can mean death for the bird, and us." 
— Monte Hummel, President Emeritus, WWF-Canada.

"This book can be savored for both its passionate accounts of the natural world and the informative discussion of the principles that underlie life's order and regulation. Highly recommended for all lovers of nature."
— Library Journal

About the Author

JOHN THEBERGE and MARY THEBERGE have spent more than thirty years conducting field research in the Yukon, Labrador, and British Columbia, and especially in Algonquin Park, Ontario. They have collaborated on many scientific and popular articles and were jointly awarded the 1994 Equinox Citation for Environmental Achievement.

John B. Theberge was until his recent retirement a professor of ecology and resource management in the faculty of environment studies at the University of Waterloo, where he taught since 1970. Mary Theberge is a wildlife illustrator and wolf researcher and has presented many popular programs about their discoveries. They are the authors of several books, including Kluane: Pinnacle of the Yukon, Wolf Country, and Legacy: A Natural History of Ontario.


From the Hardcover edition.

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ptarmigan's Dilemma Sept. 16 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
(Though I'm no expert), I believe that this book is somewhat long in words - but it has an interesting insight. It is a bit on the preachy side, referring to human corruption of environment. But I sympathize with the authors' point of view. The book has a message, and an interesting view of evolution. AA
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes Answers are in Plain Sight Dec 25 2010
By David B Richman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A number of years ago I read Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene". I was impressed by his arguments, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked his deterministic views. I am a field biologist and all of the various creatures (mostly arthropods) with which I dealt were not easily described as blundering robots driven by mechanistic gene systems parasitized by large amounts of "selfish"junk DNA (although certainly some DNA could be just debris from past events). The world did not look all that super ordered to me in my examination of ecosystems of desert and grassland, let alone the tropical forest.

John and Mary Theberge have, in their new book "The Ptarmigan's Dilemma" answered at least some of my questions about the essential messiness of life. The "Nature versus Nurture" debate is in many ways fraudulent because, as they point out, the question simply cannot be resolved. No gene exists separate from the environment! It is now known that environmental influences can effect genes and even permanently alter them, not just by raw natural selection (although this remains a potent force), but by turning off active genes or turning on hidden genes - in short epigenetic effects! This sounds very Lamarkian, but it is more subtle that hacking off a limb or blinding a member of a previous generation leading to a population of halt or blind organisms. The natural world seem to have just gotten more complicated and John and Mary Theberge, field biologists themselves, explain these "new" developments quite well and to a degree based on their own field work. They show, for example, that ptarmigans develop gallbladders in captivity when fed on egg, whereas wild ptarmigan don't have a gallbladder. The gene for gallbladder production must have been hidden in wild birds and the gene or genes associated with production of the organ turned on by environmental change! They go on to explore other researchers work showing similar developments.

Thus at least some "junk" DNA could well be the raw material on which selection operates. This might just solve some problems that we have had with mutation theory, although mutation probably has some role to play. The concept has been staring at us all the time and until recently few saw it. I look forward to even more interesting discoveries as epigenetic effects and hidden genes become more obvious.

A few weeks ago I was talking with another scientist about quantum physics and he stated that there had to be a mathematically beautiful unified theory that would reveal the precision of the mechanistic universe. I argued that our vision of beauty may not be accurate and that in many ways, because we build machines, we tend to define the universe and subsequently living things as machines. In reality we have built machines in mimicry of nature rather than the other way around- nature built as a machine. The analogy between machine and the natural world is not, in my opinion (for what it is worth), an accurate picture of reality, if indeed we jumped up apes can ever define objective reality.

Read this book if you would try to understand the arguments in modern biological theory!
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great information March 11 2013
By Kansas Wolf watcher - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is full of great information on the ptarmigan! Yes I would recommend this book to any wildlife enthusiast.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More biology than prose. Dec 21 2010
By S.L.H. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read this book to research my sequel to Blue in the Moonlight. There are several brief moments of wonderful prose for the environment these scientists are studying. However, most the book describes the research process and study results - it's interesting and educational and kind of depressing to learn how quickly our planet is losing species.
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