Hakai Magazine

Cover image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books. Background photo by 167/Paul Nicklen/Ocean/Corbis

Book Review: The Real Thing

A new biography explores the life of the great Canadian ecologist, Ian McTaggart Cowan.

Authored by

by Darcy Dobell

Article body copy

In spring 2015, news outlets in British Columbia and Washington State broadcast photographs of a new calf born to the southern resident killer whale population. Behind the snapshots are narratives that have unfolded over the past six decades: the overturning of a predator management policy that aimed to exterminate orcas altogether; the revolutionary discovery that killer whales could be identified as individuals, which in turn transformed our understanding of their biology and behavior; and a dawning understanding of the cumulative environmental threats to these populations. The enthusiastic news coverage itself reflects growing public attention to and concern for the well-being of killer whales. Each of these narratives can be traced to and through the work of scientist, naturalist, and environmental educator Ian McTaggart Cowan.

In the course of a career that spanned most of the 20th century, Cowan profoundly shaped the science, policy, and public perception of ecology and wildlife management. He pioneered explorations of biodiversity, ecological footprints, traditional ecological knowledge, natural capital, and climate change long before any of these terms had been coined. He also belonged to a tradition of teaching, networking, and mentorship that extended his influence across generations and around the world.

Given the scope and scale of Cowan’s accomplishments, which continued up to the months before his death (just shy of his 100th birthday) in 2010, his biography is no small undertaking. Author Briony Penn—herself a noted Canadian naturalist, conservation advocate, and environmental educator—proves up to the task. The Real Thing is simultaneously a comprehensive overview of the evolution of the ecological sciences, an encyclopedic account of British Columbia’s natural history, and a multilayered portrait of a fascinating man.

The meticulously researched text sometimes struggles under its own weight, as major themes are occasionally buried in a rush of names and dates or lost in confused timelines. Penn’s self-declared effort to employ the lens and vocabulary of natural history to study Cowan himself is also unfortunate, resulting more often in strained analogies and awkward transitions than in new insights. Even so, The Real Thing deserves a place on the bookshelves of scientists and amateur naturalists alike.

Those familiar with the history of ecosystem science and environmental advocacy in North America will enjoy tracing the intellectual lineage of generations of North American scientists, including Aldo Leopold, Joseph Grinnell, David Suzuki, Mike Bigg, and Chris Darimont. Readers from British Columbia will appreciate the historic accounts of places and wildlife—some lost forever, others recovering from management failures of the past. Many readers will be fascinated by Penn’s account of shifts in scientific thought through several centuries of social and technological change.

The broader contribution of The Real Thing, however, is its illumination of a conservation philosophy that meshes intellectual inquiry with direct engagement and a fierce love of place. Cowan clearly valued his intellectual heritage, his legacies, and his information-sharing networks—whether the subtle correspondence of a secret society, the formalities of an international policy council, or the exchange of tales around a campfire. Equally clearly, he viewed conservation as the work of individuals, not institutions. Readers everywhere who aim to be part of this living body of work, whether they’re studying landscapes or protecting whales, will find Penn’s biography of Cowan to be informative, inspiring, and empowering.

The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan
By Briony Penn
640 pp. Rocky Mountain Books