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The Moscow-based KMK Publishers brought out a manual for college and university students-Fundamentals of Biogeography (2005). The author is Prof. Vyacheslav Mordkovich of Novosibirsk. At first glance this might not look as an eventful happening, for in the past decade and a half about twenty books on the subject have come off the press. Now biogeography is concerned with the spatial distribution of life, living communities above all, on the globe... But taking a hard second look at this latest publication, we see there is something more to it after all.
Animals of the Hindu-Malayan region. From the book: W. Zedlag, ANIMAL KINGDOM OF THE EARTH, Moscow, Mir Publishers, 1975.
The best-known manual on the subject of biogeog-raphy (author, Prof. Anatoly Voronov) was first published in 1963. Subsequently it saw another five editions, the latest in 2003, revised and supplemented by Prof. Voronov's pupils. Provincial colleges come up with small handbooks every now and then, too. Now what's new about Prof. Mordkovich's book?
The author has understated his work somewhat by calling it a manual and supplying formal references: be that as it may. however, here before us is a 100 percent research monograph (as it is ranked in the imprint, by the way).
So this is a work meant for experts and advanced students. To some extent it is an out-of-the-way book that has no peer in this country, strange as it may seem. What we do have are real, hardcore manuals, text- and handbooks.
To begin with, the author did not bypass the origins of biogeography: the prefatory chapter has much to tell us about its place among other sciences and about the subject-matter in all its theoretical implications and bearings. He reviews the problem of biogeography's interaction with other related disciplines, such as ecology, the landscape science and biosciences. The book is devoid of hollow rhetoric and "verbal husks", which are pardonable in manuals but impermissible in monographs, it style is vivid and colorful-no awkward, clumsy turns of speech in imitation of the science lingo. The author injects a twist of humor in telling us about the roots of biogeography and its fathers Alexander Humboldt (1769 - 1859), Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) and Alfred Wallace (1823 - 1913); science is a merry, mosl-fun business, the author reminds us now and then.
In the second chapter Prof. Mordkovich outlines the guiding idea and leitmotif of his book-problem solving. If there are no problems, science is relegated to a routine trade, he argues. "That's the strategic point for any science."
What strikes our eye in the first place is the author's desire to overcome the statics proper to many publications of this kind, in spite of the motley pictures of the earth and its continents in different geologic epochs, animal and plant kingdoms and that sort of thing. What they fail to do, barring a few random cases, is to consider social dynamics (development of biological communities) in all its aspects. Vyacheslav Mordkovich combines the spatial (chorologicaf) and temporal (chronological) sides in studying plant and animal communities as one of the most important problems of biogeography.
The author analyzes time-related changes at the level of an area. Yet the most thrilling part of his work is one dealing with dynamic (evolutionary) biogeography. Recalling Acad. Vladimir Vernadsky (1863 - 1945) and his idea about the essential indivisibility of time and space categories, Prof. Mordkovich examines the mainstreams of present-day biogeography that take the dynamic factor for explaining the distribution pattern of
organisms on the earth's surface. Aside from the classical vicariation (substitution of closely related biological species, the vicariants, or vicariads, for their kindred in consequence of territorial settlement and colonization), the professor also looks into mobilism, or the impact of the movement of large land tracts, on the future of individual communities and species. And last, the author mentions the cladistic approach in biogeography, or the use of data on the rate and scale of evolutionary transformation, to elucidate such matters as speciation rates, routes and velocities of species migration and the like. He does not stop at these questions of theory but goes further by devoting a brief chapter to motive forces and mechanisms responsible for the evolution of plant and animal kingdoms (floras, faunas), and of biological communities of all ranks.
Yet another distinctive feature of the book under review is the author's wish to premise a set of objective criteria of biogeographic zoning. By noting that the description and comparative studies of biota's geographical communities presented in all guidebooks on biogeography are the most formidable and painful procedure (a just remark), Prof. Mordkovich will avoid giving verbal characteristics of such communities ("floro-faunis-tic regions or territories", "biotic or biophilotic kingdoms" - the very vagueness of such terminology points at this weak point of the science).
Seeking to overcome this drawback, the author has devoted one part of the book ("Floro-faunistic Biogeography") to a quest for parameters that could be employed in comparative studies of different-rank communities without lengthy and arbitrary verbal descriptions. And so the professor begins by formulating a set of principles for an objective pattern of zoning; thereafter he singles out six criteria for comparative parameters (standards)-their quantitative values are viewed as an instrument for identification of biotas (communities of organisms) of any rank. The author defines one of these parameters - the taxo-nomic (rank-related) structure-as a "correlation within a biota of taxa of different evolutionary or functional value", though such kind of interpretation can hardly be called objective. By working a good deal such notions as "ancient" and "contemporary", "archaic" and "progressive" taxa (ranks), "different value" and so forth, the author relapses into the good old track of comparative de-scriptiveness contrary to his initial intentions. Or take such a thing as "degree of endemism"-we cannot tell what kind of taxa-species, genera and families-are up for comparison. That kangaroos live in Australia and baobabs grow in Africa is known to everyone.
Anathematizing against the comparative-descriptive method ("amounting to the listing of wondrous plants and animals populating this or that climatic belt, continent or region"), Prof. Mordkovich has built a construction of seven fairly abstract biogeographical categories whose cryptic names have been borrowed for some reason from the political-historical speak: unia → empires → dominions → protectoratcs → provinces → nomes → feuds. While agreeing that novel terminology always rubs the wrong way only because it is novel, we should observe: the nub of the matter is not in the skeptical view of a meticulously elaborated and absolutely rigorous system, albeit rather arbitrary and declarative. We may question its validity even after a cursory look at the schematic maps of new zoning. The empires are bounded by the polar circles and tropics. Vyacheslav Mordkovich is not original here, not at all: Pavel Yaroshcnko, the author of the Fundamentals of Biogeography (1975) espoused likewise the selfsame principle by singling out floro-faunistic regions. And thus a part of the Antarctic coast has landed in one empire, while another one-elsewhere in a different empire; the boundaries of dominions are delimited along the borders of large tectonic blocks (cratons), and the numerous nomes are separated from one another by isolincs of equal humidity. It's anyone's guess how the categories of other levels are segregated.
These shortcomings only confirm the author's thought: a comparative analysis of biological diversity is a job of work calling for an itemizing of the global biota. In the absence of that, certain conventionalities are but inevitable.
We have already pointed to one significant merit of the book under review-an explicit, picturesque language without any rhetoric of pseudoscicncc. But the editor ought to have done a better job. Although the text has no bad errors, the artwork offers quite a few conundrums. At least in 15 figures (out of 92) literal and digital legends do not concur with captions (with captions designating what is not shown in a figure or vice versa). Somehow the Faroe Islands have traveled to the Southern Hemisphere (probably confused with the Falklands), and the names of the authors of some epigraphs are misspelled.
But such sad trifles are pardonable if we recall that we have read this country's first monograph on biogeography. Since the author seems to be fond of Kuzma Prutkov (a collective pen name of eminent Russian writers of the late 19th centur known for their wisecracks), if we might judge by some of the epigraphs, here's one wisdom from Kuzma Prutkov: "What is best?-While evaluating the past reduce it to the present."
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