The Ptarmigan's Dilemma: An Ecological Exploration into the Mysteries of Life Paperback – Apr 5 2011
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"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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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!
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