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Demons in Eden

The Paradox of Plant Diversity

At the heart of evolution lies a bewildering paradox. Natural selection favors above all the individual that leaves the most offspring—a superorganism of sorts that Jonathan Silvertown here calls the "Darwinian demon." But if such a demon existed, this highly successful organism would populate the entire world with its own kind, beating out other species and eventually extinguishing biodiversity as we know it. Why then, if evolution favors this demon, is the world filled with so many different life forms? What keeps this Darwinian demon in check? If humankind is now the greatest threat to biodiversity on the planet, have we become the Darwinian demon?

Demons in Eden considers these questions using the latest scientific discoveries from the plant world. Readers join Silvertown as he explores the astonishing diversity of plant life in regions as spectacular as the verdant climes of Japan, the lush grounds of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, the shallow wetlands and teeming freshwaters of Florida, the tropical rainforests of southeast Mexico, and the Canary Islands archipelago, whose evolutionary novelties—and exotic plant life—have earned it the sobriquet "the Galapagos of botany." Along the way, Silvertown looks closely at the evolution of plant diversity in these locales and explains why such variety persists in light of ecological patterns and evolutionary processes. In novel and useful ways, he also investigates the current state of plant diversity on the planet to show the ever-challenging threats posed by invasive species and humans.

Bringing the secret life of plants into more colorful and vivid focus than ever before, Demons in Eden is an empathic and impassioned exploration of modern plant ecology that unlocks evolutionary mysteries of the natural world.

Read an excerpt.
See the author’s website.

192 pages | 8 color plates | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2005

Biological Sciences: Botany, Conservation, Ecology, Natural History


“In this highly readable and pleasantly anecdotal account of the dynamics of the plant world, Silvertown suggests that tasting the fruit of evolutionary knowledge may provide us with a ticket for readmission to the Garden of Eden, where we can exercise the privilege by ensuring that biodiversity is conserved. Let us hope that he is right.”

Peter D. Moore | Nature

“Silvertown’s enthusiasm for scientific sleuthing is infectious.”

Sara Alexander | Science

“Silvertown has a knack for explaining complex biological concepts in an accessible and engaging way. He deftly uses analogy and example to illustrate his discussions, and often waxes lyrical in his descriptions.”

Viveka Neveln | American Gardener

"Silvertown leads the reader on a fascinating tour of the evolutionary and ecological research of the recent past that has addressed the nature of plant diversity, its origins and its maintenance. . . . This book is a quick read and Silvertown’s style is engaging. I highly recommend it for biologists looking for a way to better comprehend the alien invasion happening all around us."

Richard G. Olmstead | American Journal of Botany

"A delightful series of vignettes about plant diversity and evolutionary biology. . . . It is evident that Silvertown is a scientist who can communicate complex scientific ideas to the general public. . . . Highly recommended."


"Such an interesting, enjoyable, and educational read! . . . An approporiate read for college freshman. I will use it as one of my text-substitute readings the next time I teach honors biology. It would also be a good outline for an upper division/graduate seminar in plant ecology or evolutionary biology. . . . This slim volume should be in every biologist’s library!"

Marshall D. Sundberg | Plant Science Bulletin

"The clarity of ecological analysis within this novella-length book is an enviable accomplishment. . . . Ultimately, Demons in Eden is a perceptive ecological narrative, a contemporary and evocative fugue of botanical exploration, evolutionary ecological theory . . . and insight into the very tenuous relationship between ecological robustness and global human impacts. Overall, it is the writer’s ability to interweave a succinct analysis of plant evolutionary ecology, his engaging enthusiasm for scientific research and the intrinsic marvel of plant life that furnishes the enduring impressions of this book."

Caroline Chong | Austral Ecology

"This book deserves to be taken seriously. It is written so that the non-expert can get a sound understanding of difficult ecological and evolutionary principles. It is not beyond the grasp of policy makers and politicians, and might be described as required reading by people who will shape the future of our planet."

David F. Cutler | Annals of Botany

“A fascinating journey with an affable host. . . . we get to the heart of so many issues relating to why plants are the way they are, and we are the richer for it.”

Jonathan Ingram | Garden Design Journal

"[Silvertown] writes in a style which is both engaging and entertaining, and discusses some of the most significant plant conservation issue of the day. . . . This book is a testament to the important role of English scientists in developing understanding of plant diversity and an altogether good read."

John Hopkins | English Nature Magazine

"Beautifully conceived and written, this book is highly recommended."

Biology Digest

Demons in Eden is a grand scientific narrative, full of vivid description, clear analysis, and personal warmth—an enthralling read and an important contribution to our understanding of biodiversity.”

Oliver Sacks

“An inspiring tour through the sheer wonder of plant life and the key ideas on how plant diversity came about. This book takes us inside the grand theatre of plant diversity—and also asks how we would like the current act to end.”

Peter Crane, former director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

“In a sequence of cameos each as invigorating as a stroll in a mountain meadow, with marvelous clarity and wit Jonathan Silvertown entices us on a quest. By means of fascinating insights, we explore those several paths along which scientists have deduced how plant diversity has arisen and is sustained. Hidden within these tales lies a rigorous text on evolution, the lessons from which are then compellingly applied to address those threats to diversity which we, the current demons, have created.”

Peter Ashton, Harvard University

Demons in Eden is a riveting account of the effort to understand—and to stop—the tragic loss of plant species throughout the world. A compelling journey to the very frontiers of science that hold the answer to one of the most crucial questions of our age: why is nature disappearing and what can we do about it?”

Paul Alan Cox, author of Nafanua: Saving the Samoan Rain Forest

Table of Contents

1. An Evolving Eden
2. The Tree of Trees
3. Succulent Isles
4. Demon Mountain
5. The Panama Paradox
6. Nix Nitch
7. Liebig’s Revenge
8. Florida!
9. New Demons?
10. The End of Eden?
Scientific Names of Plants Mentioned in the Text
Sources and Further Reading

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