CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: In Edward O. Wilson's office
at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, bugs - and other diminutive
creatures - are a big theme.
Artwork depicting ants and other insects adorns the walls,
alongside a photograph of a snail endangered in the southern
Appalachians. Size has never mattered to this champion of biodiversity,
who says his weakness is that "every endangered species that
I encounter, I fall in love with." One of his two Pulitzer prizes
was for his seminal work, "The Ants."
But Wilson looks to larger species, too - he considers the
Sumatran rhino a "kind of talisman" - and his work has extended
to philosophy, sociobiology, humanity's debt to nature, and
the connections between different branches of knowledge. An
activist as well as a scientist, he sits on the boards of several
international conservation organizations.
In his latest book "The Future of Life" (Knopf), he not only
gives a vivid picture of the bounty of species - and their rapid
disappearance - but an impassioned call to action and a blueprint
for saving the earth's biodiversity.
Calling himself a "cautious optimist," he points to several
positive signs in biodiversity conservation, and also insists
that, with targeted efforts and a moderate financial commitment,
it is possible to save many of the world's disappearing species.
While global warming, ozone depletion, and cleaner air and
water frequently attract news coverage and public attention,
the issue of disappearing species and ecosystems sometimes fades
to the background. According to Wilson, it's a critical issue
to address for several reasons. First, unlike physical degradation
of the environment, species extinction is irreversible. Second,
it makes economic sense. Wilson points to a group of biologists
and economists who in 1997 estimated that the services the natural
world provides - things like clean air, clean water, and arable
soil - amounted to about $33 trillion a year.
Perhaps most important, says Wilson, saving species and ecosystems
is a moral issue. Not to do so, in his opinion, would be a supreme
ethical failure in terms of our debt to the world, to future
generations, to the very sanctity of creation. He wrote "The
Future of Life" - which he begins with an open letter to Henry
David Thoreau and peppers with his own sense of wonder - hoping
that more people would feel the imperative he does to change
humanity's destructive trajectory.
In an interview at his Harvard lab, he discussed his ideas
On people's awareness:
One hundred and fifty years ago, humanity was essentially unaware
and unconcerned about extinction of species. Very few people
put up a squawk when a couple of egg collectors deliberately
destroyed the last two great auks. There was scarcely a tear
shed when the last passenger pigeon died. We were on the verge
of just driving the American bison - the most abundant big mammal
in North America - to zero. Finally, in the late 1800s and early
1900s, we began to care about a very small number of species.
It became part of our culture to care about the American eagle
and the bison and so on. And that's gradually spread.... You
have people [in the southern Appalachians] who care about these
endangered little mollusks that are in the streams, whereas
previously you would have been thought nuts if you'd said they're
On arguments against conservation efforts:
People are in denial... When someone comes along and says -
whether it's Rush Limbaugh, or [author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist"]
Bjorn Lomborg, or a petroleum industry spokesman - and says,
'Well, you know, we just don't believe these figures ...," that's
The other denial is to say, 'Wait, aren't human beings just
part of nature? Aren't they just another extinction element?...
The answer is really very simple: Before humanity came along,
species were dying at a rate of about 1 per million, per year,
and they were being born 1 per million per year. So, through
time immemorial, things have been pretty much in balance.
Now we're speeding up the death rate of the species 1,000 times
and we're lowering the birthrate. The cradles are being destroyed.
When you say humanity is a part of nature, so we're just an
extinction agent... it's like saying the giant meteorite is
part of nature. We don't want to be a force of mass destruction.
On scientists as activists:
Scientists in many disciplines have a dual responsibility.
They have to continue functioning as scientists, and that means
that when they present evidence in the scientific journals they
have to subject what they are claiming to peer review, and have
all of the protocols of scientific research....
The second role is that of activist. And I believe that most
scientists should be activists at least to the extent of making
the work in their field more transparent, and the willingness
to speak to an issue with the backup of the information that
they obtain as scientists. And that's true all the way from
global warming, which has drawn some of our finest scientists,
to cloning, to genetically modified organisms. In fact, noting
that half the legislation coming before Congress contains in
it issues of importance from science, this is not an inconsiderable
role to play.
On plans to inventory the world's species:
We agreed at the [biodiversity] summit meeting at Harvard [last
October] that it was plausible to try for a complete inventory
of the world's species in 25 years. A lot of people think that's
impossible, because in the last 250 years scientists have managed
to catalog 1.8 million [species], maybe. And many scientists
now estimate there are [around] 10 million species out there,
or as [many] as 100 million.
So how are we going to do this? As in the human genome project,
where the cost per base pair in getting the human genetic code
kept dropping rapidly as technology advanced and more and more
talented people got concentrated on it - in the same manner
I'm convinced that the cost per species will drop, drop, drop,
and more and more scientists will focus on it.
On the role of ecological "hot spots":
One by one - and this is what comes from science - we're identifying
the most critical areas. The 25 [hot spots] the National Geographic
is going to be covering [in an ongoing series] only cover about
1.4 percent of the land surface of the world. But if you save
that 1.4 percent, we actually can save a large minority of the
endangered species. And it's not that expensive.
The Defying Nature's End conference a year and a half ago at
Cal Tech estimated that it would cost about $28 billion.
On the role of education:
Once people see these creatures, and learn about them - wolves,
African wild dogs, and you can go on down a long list - they
become very [interested]. Kids love them. That's one of the
great advantages we have in this whole field of biodiversity
and conservation - namely that young people are biophilic. They
really are attracted to larger creatures and nature.
My hope is that the more people hear and learn, the more they
have a strong background in why it matters. They don't have
to have a strong background in the science. But [understanding]
why it matters, why certain parts of the world are these hot
spots, and what's happening to the world, and that it's a creation,
and that it's disappearing and we can save it for twice the
cost of [Boston's] Big Dig - I think they'll get involved.
Printed in the May/June 2002 Newsletter