Edward O. Wilson and the Diversity of Life
Air Date: Week of October 9, 1992
Steve talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson about his new book The Diversity of Life. The book documents the human impact on other life forms, which he calls the "sixth great extinction," and lays out an ambitious plan to study, catalogue and preserve every species on Earth.
CURWOOD: It takes millions of years for species to evolve, but in less than a few decades, perhaps a quarter of all the life forms on Earth will be gone, and with them, much of humanity's ability to sustain itself. One of the most important and passionate scientific voices on this subject is Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson has already won two Pulitzer prizes for earlier works, and his new book, called The Diversity of Life, is already a bestseller. We spoke with Professor Wilson in his office laboratory at Harvard.
WILSON: A new cataclysmic force has arrived. There've been five great extinction spasms during the past half-billion years. Now, humanity arrives on the scene as the causative agent of this sixth great extinction spasm of all time, and we are eliminating species at a rate comparable to that which ended the age of dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
CURWOOD: Now, some would say that species come, species go; yes, the impact of humans is perhaps as great as what happened at the end of dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous Era --- but that things do change. What's your worry?
WILSON: In other words, nature gives and nature takes away. Well, the answer to that has to be that in those last extinction spasms, the first five, it took about ten million years for nature, that is, evolution, to completely restore the level of biodiversity that was lost. So if we were to tell our descendants that they must wait ten million years for nature to restore what we are mindlessly eliminating in a few decades, I think that they would be very peeved.
CURWOOD: Well, tell me -- by nature are people hostile to nature?
WILSON: In one sense, human beings are fearful of nature and exploitative of nature under some circumstances. It's always been a human tendency to drive back nature, because through most of human history the wilderness was a formidable force to overcome, and cultivate. But now that's all changed. Through our modern technology, and our huge populations, we've broken nature, and we're ravelling it up at a fast rate. And we're coming to understand the great value of preserving what is left of biological diversity in nature. We can provide many, many examples of products that have been forthcoming just in recent times, and the likelihood of vast, new important products -- drugs, new kinds of crops, fibers, petroleum substitutes, restorers of exhausted soil, and on and on.
CURWOOD: I want to ask you -- is it necessary for an organism to be useful for us to want to preserve it?
WILSON: No one who seriously thinks about this problem at any length believes that that's enough. We have to have a deeper and more ethical argument for considering the value of biodiversity.
CURWOOD: And what is that argument?
WILSON: I like to think, and I think there's some evidence for it, that not only do we continue to depend upon nature in that sense, but also that every species is a great treasure for humanity to enjoy and use for centuries, for thousands of years to come, and that in saving them, we should not only regard them as having this enormous, virtually limitless potential for our childrens' future, but also as part of our deep history -- literally the cradle in which the human spirit was born.
CURWOOD: Is it necessary for humanity's survival that we save the rest of life?
WILSON: We have intimations that if we reduce biodiversity from one ecosystem to the next and then globally, that at some point we may see catastrophic collapses. There are such things as keystone species --- that is, species that, when you pull them out, they are like pulling out the keystone -- the entire arch can collapse. So we know these exist, and I think we're taking a pretty desperate gamble if we keep reducing biodiversity here and there and everywhere.
CURWOOD: Where are the hot spots that we should be worried about right here in the United States?
WILSON: They include the Mediterranean-type heathland of Southern California, which is being rapidly overrun by development. A major hot spot of the world is Hawaii: the few remaining native forests of Hawaii, which are being still cut back and overrun by exotic species which are pushing to the brink of extinction increasing numbers of plants and mollusks and other animals. And Puerto Rico is another area where the plants especially are under siege. In the water, we find the freshwater systems, we find a lot of hot spots. In fact I would say that most of our river systems, especially river systems in the United States, are hot spots, where pollution and the introduction of exotic species are endangering large numbers of fish species and snail and other mollusk species.
CURWOOD: When you read your book, it's hard to escape a feeling of sadness that so much is being lost so quickly, so suddenly. Does it affect you the same way?
WILSON: My emotions are very mixed on this. I guess I could describe them as a mixture of anxiety, sadness, militancy and bright hope.
CURWOOD: That's quite a range. (Both laugh) You're anxious because ---
WILSON: Anxious because we have not to this point seemed to have developed the will to bring the hemorrhaging of biodiversity to a halt almost anywhere in the world. Sadness for what we've already lost; even now we've destroyed twenty, thirty percent of all the bird species that were alive before humanity came along, a comparable or even greater number of large mammals, and who knows how many of the smaller creatures on Earth. And as we proceed with the damage to habitats around the world, it's inevitable a lot of species are going to soon become extinct as a result of that, almost no matter what we do about it. Militancy, because I feel that even scientists who would love to spend the rest of their lives pondering a group of organisms or visiting the last remnants of the rainforest, that somehow we have to step forward and speak up. Hope, because I guess I'm an optimist, and I've seen how human opinion, public opinion can turn around very swiftly, when it becomes clear that a change in behavior, a change in attitude, is in the self-interest of the people. And so I think that if we were to continue allowing the rich habitats of the world to disappear at the rate they are now, including the tropical rainforest, the richest of them all, we could expect to lose at least twenty percent of all the species on Earth in the next thirty years; if we take action and treasure biodiversity and begin to use it to our benefit in the way we should, we may reduce that loss --- just to take a figure, I admit it's fully speculative whereas the first one is based on estimates --- we might reduce that loss from here on out to ten percent of the remaining biodiversity.
CURWOOD: You recommend that we catalog every living thing on Earth. How would knowing all these species from the hot spots down to every last little species --- how would that help us preserve what's left?
WILSON: I think that the mission of the combined scientist and educator in this particular domain is summarized by a statement ascribed to the Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."
CURWOOD: Edward O. Wilson is the author of The Diversity of Life , published by the Harvard University Press.
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