Out of Eden An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion

Alan Burdick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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National Book Award Finalist
Winner of the Whitman Bassow Award
Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award

Now as never before, exotic animals and plants are crossing the globe, borne on the swelling tide of human traffic to places where nature never intended them to be. Bird-eating snakes hitchhike to Hawaii in the landing gear of airliners; pernicious European zebra mussels, riding in ships' ballast water, disrupt aquatic ecosystems across the United States; feral camels plague Australia, as do poisonous foreign toads; giant Indonesian pythons lurk beneath homes in suburban Miami. As alien species jump from place to place and increasingly crowd native and endangered species out of existence, biologists speak fearfully of "the homogenization of the world." The fastest-growing threat to biological diversity, they contend, may be nature itself.
Out of Eden is a dazzling personal journey through this strange and shifting landscape. Alan Burdick tours the front lines of ecological invasion: in Hawaii, Tasmania, Guam, San Francisco; in lush rain forests, through underground lava tubes, aboard an Alaska-bound oil tanker, inside a spacecraft-assembly facility at NASA. He follows world-class scientists—invasion biologists, "mix-o-ecologists"—and a global cast of alien species to ask: What exactly is nature? What is natural?
Lyrical, intimate, and provocative, Out of Eden is a search both for scientific answers and for ecological authenticity, from a writer of remarkable range and talent.


Praise for Out of Eden

"One of the most comprehensive and readable accounts of [this] phenomenon . . . For people trying to figure out how our species fits, or doesn't, into the natural order, there is no more interesting subject than the blending of the native and the exotic. And no more interesting an introduction than this fine book."—Bill McKibben, The Boston Globe
"A wonderful book for anyone interested in the least about the mysteries of ecological dynamism, our considerable role in shaping it and often lame attempts to control it . . . [Alan Burdick] writes with graceful somplicity."—Richard Seven, The Seattle Times
"[An] intelligent and though-provoking book . . . A captivating odyssey, a physical and intellectual journey."—Alcestic "Cooky" Oberg, Houston Chronicle 
"Each chapter of this book is a story unto itself, a great read while traveling. It is also a cumulative lesson in the adaptability of life and that introduced species may or may not decrease the diversity of a given environment. Burdick and the scientists he quotes take a balanced view. This book provides much food for thought and would be an excellent book to supplement a study of ecology at the high school level."—Bruce Cottingham, Athens Banner-Herald
"His tour through the burgeoning discipline of invasion ecology is nuanced, judicious and often delightful; in the finest tradition of science writing."—Andrew O’hehir, Salon
"Surprising, delightful, and sobering—it will take your breath away."—Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink

"Combining personal meditation, travel narrative, and excellent reportage, Out of Eden creates a rich and panoramic view of life on our planet."—Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams
"A terrific piece of ecological reporting."—Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post Book World
"An expertly reported and deftly detailed field trip . . . Reads like a mystery you can't put down."—Robert Sullivan, author of Rats

"Burdick is my new favorite writer. I love the quiet poetry of his prose; his pitch-perfect wit; and his calm, potent mastery of the facts. I actually stop and think, 'Wow!' as I'm reading."—Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

"An effect of global transportation is the global migration of species—alarming when noticed, but inuring over time (few today object to the English sparrow, an invasive bird). 'Invasion biology' inspired science-journalist Burdick to accompany biologists on their rounds as they assess the problem. Pausing to consider how we view new arrivals, Burdick describes in fine detail the scientists' field and lab work in the places he visited: Guam, the Hawaiian Islands, San Francisco Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and Tasmania. Interspersing biographical sketches of his guides, Burdick's narrative balances the particular problems posed by invading organisms with scientific theories about their ecology. Theory, Burdick finds, is still under construction because so much of the biologists' energy goes to collecting raw data. That process is the backbone of this book, as Burdick tramps through forests and even voyages on an oil tanker to participate in a study of how ballast water carries creatures hither and yon. A sober report, Burdick's work still sounds an alarm for readers concerned with the way humans alter nature."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"A silkily written excursion into the evolution of ecosystems and the possible threats to biodiversity from newcomers. What are the implications—biological, economical, psychological—when new plant and animal types start to bully established indigenous species out of existence? Plant and animal species, as we know, have been roaming the globe from the start. Consider 'the burr stowed in the down of a roving bird,' suggests Discover magazine editor Burdick, or the spider billowing for miles and miles on its strand. Species have been colonizing and re-colonizing forever, taking part in the Darwinian struggle, finding niches, being ousted. But what are we to think when a species simply begins to take over, reducing the biodiversity by half, homogenizing the bio-scape, reducing the crop to rot? This is not simply a case of human aesthetics or economic concerns, like, say, a distaste for a swarm of spiders crawling up your pants or the sound or feral pigs crunching on Norway rats. No, these are questions of extinction: of 'eco-imperialism' when conservation agencies seek to eradicate culturally significant populations; of the geography of pandemics; of the interplay of disease, host, and vector; of what happens when introduced species encourage native species to go hog wild; of the very notion of what constitutes a weed. Invasion biology (studying how ecosystems work by watching them fall apart) is in its infancy, but to Burdick it's fairly clear that biodiversity is crucial in the thwarting of species homogenization: the more there are, the more resistant the system is to a species' invasion. Even if ecological communities were coincidences to start with, they become all the more vulnerable to wasteland when reduced to just a few species. In addition to his philosophical-scientific probings, Burdick provides elegant travel narratives to Guam and Hawaii. An open and broad survey successfully designed to make readers think hard about the Mobius strip of exotic and native, and of the human agency in extinction."—Kirkus Reviews

"To be human is to change our habitat; this is one of the many insights in this thought-provoking account on the ecology of invasions, a hot new science in which new discoveries swiftly overturn old theories. Now that our habitat is global, creatures emigrate with us at an ever-accelerating pace, carried in ship ballast (a bivalve mollusk from England to Massachusetts), imported by nostalgic birders (once native birds returning from disappearance), or crawling into airplanes on their own (the brown tree snake from Australia to Hawaii). Even NASA's space probes carry potential invaders. If these creatures make new homes for themselves, they may eat other species into extinction, infect them with new diseases, even reconfigure an entire ecosystem. Burdick's fascination with the science is contagious, and he does a superior job of conveying the salient points of classic experiments. The Discover senior editor is at his best following invasion ecologists—a lively bunch—as they do their gritty, often ambiguous research in Guam and Hawaii, along the margins of the San Francisco Bay and on the deck of an oil tanker. His vivid descriptions add the pleasure of travelogue to the intellectual satisfactions of science: 'Travel is a weekend away, a reward upon retirement, a chance gift won in a game show or a sweepstakes. Honey, we're going to Hawaii! Applied by biologists to nonhuman organisms, the phenomenon is known as the ecological sweepstakes, and it explains how life arrives at a place like Hawaii to begin with.' This is a captivating book with wide-ranging appeal."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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Alan Burdick’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Best American Science and Nature Writing, Harper’s, GQ, Natural History, and Discover, where he is a senior editor. He lives with his wife in New York City.
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  • Alan Burdick

  • Alan Burdick’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Best American Science and Nature Writing, Harper’s, GQ, Natural History, and Discover, where he is a senior editor. He lives with his wife in New York City.  
  • Alan Burdick Copyright Sigrid Estrada