Pages: 272
Subject: Science, Nature, Popular Science
Series: Beginner's Guides
Imprint: Oneworld


A Beginner's Guide (revised and updated edition)

John Spicer

Reveals the roots of our biodiversity crisis, why we failed to meet targets set over a decade ago, and what we must do now to protect and preserve nature's wonders

The Book

Our future is closely tied to that of the variety of life on Earth, and yet there is no greater threat to it than us. From population explosions and habitat destruction to climate change and mass extinctions, John Spicer explores the causes and consequences of our biodiversity crisis. In this revised and updated edition, he examines how grave the situation has become over the past decade and outlines what we must do now to protect and preserve not just nature's wonders but the essential services that biodiversity provides for us, seemingly for nothing.

Additional Information

Subject Science, Nature, Popular Science
Series Beginner's Guides
Pages 272
Imprint Oneworld


About the Author

John Spicer is Professor of Marine Zoology at the University of Plymouth. He is co-author of the bestselling textbooks Biodiversity: An Introduction and The Invertebrates.


‘If you have any doubts about the meaning of the term biodiversity or its importance to the world, here is a book that explains it in an interesting and accessible way and challenges us to protect it better.'

- Professor Sir Ghillean Prance FRS, FLS, FRSB, botanist and former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

‘A stimulating, authoritative and deeply rewarding read that makes you think about the natural world in a novel way.'

- Dr Ahmed Djoghlaf, former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity

‘Spicer spells out the chilling message…the findings of which have been backed by respected scientists from the United Nations, Yale University and the Eden Project.'

- Herald

‘Will appeal to intelligent non-specialists and may provide the incentive to study the subject in greater depth.'

- Journal of Biological Education

‘This is science for the general reader at its very best - clear, committed, fascinating and laser-focused on the crisis we face.'

- Randal Keynes, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin and author of Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin

‘His gift for the telling analogy and his clear, lively writing make Biodiversity a pleasure to read.'

- Stephen C. Stearns, Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University

Table of Contents

1  The pandemic of wounded biodiversity

Biodiversity - what was that again?

A long, leisurely trip to La Jolla



2  Teeming boisterous life

The big picture

The volleyball on Mission Beach

‘A rose by any other name'…what's a species?

   Morphological species

   Identifying species without ever seeing them

   Biological species

   Evolutionary species

   Naming species

How many living species…and what are they?

   1) To the nearest approximation (almost) every organism is an arthropod…?

   2) Greenery: The Plantae

   3) Fungi: Mushrooms, moulds and yeasts - The Fungi

   4) Mollusca: Shell life

   5) Chordata: Animals with backbones…mostly

   6) Protozoa or Protista?

   7) Nematoda: The roundworm that's the fly in the ointment?

   8) Bacteria and Archaea: Microbial life

   Remaining animal groupings

   Viruses: All the world's a phage… or nearly

New species

Planting and growing the ‘tree of life'

   The great chain of being

   Linnaeus's hierarchical classification

   Influence of evolutionary ideas

   Chatton's two-domain idea

   Whittaker's five-kingdom approach

   Woese and the three-domain model

   A new twist to the three-domain model

   …and when is a tree a bush?

Designs on life

   The phylum and the Bauplan

   Most phyla are not very species rich

An unequal distribution of life


3  Where on Earth is biodiversity?

From Berkeley, south to the Sea of Cortez

More is more

   Back to Bird Rock

   The species-area relationship

Those who go down to the sea in ships

Hotspots: A tale of two definitions

Big-scale biodiversity: Biogeographical and political regions

   On land


   Biodiversity by country

Latitude for life?

   The land

   The sea

   Genetic diversity and latitude

   Why is there a latitudinal gradient?


   Lessons from the tops of Scottish mountains

   Biodiversity takes the hump with altitude

   Mountains as islands?

   Aerial plankton and organisms in flight


   The short-lived azoic theory

   Out of our depth

   A journey to the centre of the Earth

Staying close to home

Congruence: The holy grail of diversity?


4  A world that was old when we came into it: Diversity, deep time and extinction

One every twenty minutes?

A life in the year of…

Precambrian - before life?

   A schoolgirl changes our understanding of life before life - but no one believes her

   The garden of Ediacara

   A world of chemical energy, not driven by sunlight?

   How familiar is the Ediacaran fauna?

Explosive Cambrian

   Cambrian forms

   Archaeocyatha: The only extinct phylum?

   Why diversify now?

   Cambrian explosion or short fuse?

Cambrian biodiversity: Good designs… or just lucky?

   How a small quarry in British Columbia changed our understanding of biodiversity

    ‘It's a Wonderful Life'

   To conclude

Post-Cambrian: Tinkering with successful designs?

   Palaeozoic - ‘first life'

   Middle and modern life

   The present - not set in stone

Beginnings of evolution: The origin of species

End of evolution: Extinction

   The ‘big five'

   Causes of extinction

   Extinctions as routine events in the history of life

   Early humans and biodiversity

   Extinctions post-1600s

   Proving extinction?

   The Red Data Book

   Other takes on extinction

   To conclude


5  Swept away and changed

Threatening behaviour

Living beyond our means

Top five direct (or proximate) causes of biodiversity loss

1) Habitat loss and degradation

2) Direct exploitation

   Home economics

   Food, glorious food

   Industrial materials

   Medicine sans frontiers


   Controlling the natural world

3) Climate change

4) Introduced species

The domino effect: Extinction cascades

Some light relief: Complete elimination of biodiversity by extraterrestrial means

The ultimate cause of biodiversity loss: You and me

   Once upon a time there were two people…now look how many

   Not just population size but where people live

   Not just population size but what people do

It's the poor that do the suffering

To conclude


6  Are the most beautiful things the most useless?

‘…and for everything else there's Mastercard'

Costing a small planet

Use now, pay when?

   What bees do for free is expensive

   Costing the Earth - literally

   How Biosphere 1 works - as one

   Earth, the Goldilocks planet - just right

   Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis

   Critiques of Gaia

How bits of Biosphere 1 work

Build your own biosphere: Not-so-silent running

   The home marine aquarium

   Mysteries and hazards

Valuable for what, and to whom?

   Keeping options open

Bequest and bequeathal

Full-on philosophers and laid-back religion?

   Value bestowed, not intrinsic

   Intrinsic value

   Valued as an object of worship or through kinship

   A creator gives biodiversity value

To conclude


7  Our greatest hazard and our only hope?

Saving private land


Oh, Rio

   Large brushstrokes

   Louder than words

   Arks in parks

   Out of place - but alive

   Buzzword for the twenty-first century

Responses to Rio

Millennium Assessment

Aichi (2010) and ‘Pathway for Humanity' (2015)

   Strategic plan for biodiversity and Aichi biodiversity targets

    ‘Pathway for Humanity': UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015)

   Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019)


   Target 11: Increasing protected areas

   Goal 16: Nagoya protocol in force

   Sustainability goals

No room for the individual?



8  No one is too small to make a difference


Going further: Suggestions for wider reading