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The Diversity of Life.

E. O. Wilson thinks it's okay to mess with Mother Nature

Some of my best friends are humans. They are the damnedest, most contradictory creatures you ever saw--big-brained but unwise, resourceful but self-destructive, kind-hearted but slightly homicidal. Figure this: Throughout the history of planet Earth there have been many kinds of plants and animals that have dramatically altered the environment around them, but is has taken a species that's extraordinarily intelligent, reflective, emotionally complex, and technologically adept to screw up the situation so badly that there are doubts about the future of life itself.

The biological history of the Earth is marked by five major extinction spasms, the official names of which you no doubt have memorized as you would the names of your brothers and cousins: the Ordovician, the Devonian, the Permian, the Triassic, and the Cretaceous.

We are living in the sixth extinction spasm. And we are the spasm-inducers. That, at least, is the central thesis of Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson's scary, enlightening, delicious new book(*), a treatise on the importance of "biodiversity." Wilson argues that the planet is in the midst of the greatest extinction spasm since the last of the dinosaurs disappeared about 66 million years ago. The dinosaurs were probably doomed by the climatic aftereffects of an asteroid impact; today it is the human race that has slammed into the planet with a lethal force, appropriating or altering 90 percent of the earth's land environment. At the end of Wilson's opening chapter, he asks a chilling question: "How much force does it take to break the crucible of life?"

The good news is that the Earth has recovered from these extinction spasms before. Life, post-cataclysm, tends to diversify anew. The bad news is that it takes at least 10 million years.

Yet don't mistake Wilson's book as another screed on how mankind is ruining the planet. Some of the greener environmentalists will see red when they read the fine print of his book. One of the reasons Wilson wants to maintain the earth's dizzyingly rich crowd of plants and animals is that is is profitable to keep all that nature around. To him, biodiversity is a resource for economic exploitation-nature, after all, has spent millions of years synthesizing chemicals that give plants and animals immunity against predators and disease. He goes so far as to say that some habitats can be destroyed if they are judged without significant value. (But who will tell the alligators?) Rather than lament the existence of the logging industry, he argues in favor of "strip logging," which limits soil erosion and allows natural regeneration of forests.

Tough stuff. But Wilson is used to being ideologically unfashionable. In fact, he's best known as the originator of "sociobiology," the controversial theory that certain social behaviors, whether they be of insects or of humans, are rooted in biological drives and shaped by natural selection. (You know: Men watch ESPN because a million years ago it was the man's job to figure out which of the wildebeests was the slowest.) In the mid-seventies, sociobiology flew in the face of the orthodoxy within the academy, which had rejected all notion of "human nature" and embraced an almost exclusively environmental view of human behavior. Wilson was practically called a Nazi by many of his peers (some of his Harvard colleagues formed a committee to attack sociobiology, and students were known to interrupt him in mid-lecture to accuse him of racism), but Wilson marched on, winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 1979 book On Human Nature (from the title, you can tell he was giving his critics the finger). He won his second Pulitzer a couple of years ago for the coffee table book, The Ants.

Today, Wilson has moved on to the somewhat more politically correct turf of biodiversity, although some will certainly dispute his thesis, or even the basic scientific assumptions that underlie it, such as the notion that species are the fundamental units by which the biological word should be measured. (Wilson spends much time defending the species concept.) But no one can challenge Wilson's credentials; he is one of the premier biologists on the planet (an entomologist, to be precise), not to mention an eloquent writer who is not afraid to digress into his personal philosophy or toss off an anecdote about wandering through some distant jungle

Animal house

Mercifully, Wilson has written this book for everyone, including those of use whose knowledge of biology is limited to the idea that everything on earth is divided into the categories of Animal, Vegetable and Mineral. So Wilson takes things fairly slowly; he walks us through the general rules and theories. (For the record, there are actually five kingdoms of life, according to one current scheme: plants, fungi, animals, protozoans, and bacteria. Though it does seem awfully unfair that protozoans and bacteria get to be part of entirely separate biological kingdoms given that I'm lumped into the same one as Pat Buchanan.)

By Wilson's best guess, if all the species on the planet could be identified, they would number about 100 million. Biodiversity is even greater than that, of course, because there is the diversity within species, an almost infinite number of ways that genes can arrange themselves. A few months ago, faced with an impending deadline for one of my columns, I called Wilson and asked him why we needed so many species. Why, I asked, couldn't we just settle for some pigs, cows, chickens, and other useful critters? Why do we need so many kinds of trees when pines and oaks ought to be good enough? Why can't the planet survive as a kind of farm?

Some scientists would have been silent for a moment and then said, "Uh, who is this calling again?" Wilson didn't flinch. He explained--as he does more fully in this book--that complex ecosystems are much more stable than simple ecosystems. In the Arctic, where there are not many species, there are constant population explosions (lemmings, for example); in the tropics, where there are thousands of species of plants and animals in and around a single tree, the environment is far more stable. Remove a single "keystone" species from an ecosystem and it
could be radically changed. If you eliminate the few
cougars and pumas from a certain ecosystem you

will see an explosion of small mammals, who then will eat all the seeds of various trees, which then won"t be able to reproduce, and soon an entire forest will be in upheaval. There's no way to be sure which species is the "keystone." Sure, said Wilson, it's theoretically possible to turn the planet into a much simpler ecosystem, to just have pigs and chickens and whatnot, but it would be almost impossible to keep things under control, to manage it. Let down your guard, and suddenly you'd be knee-deep in pig poop.

Wilson's book is at times so simple, so basic, that you can imagine it being read by junior high students--no insult intended. He patiently tells the story of how humans evolved. He talks about how zookeepers can mate a tiger with a lion and get a little baby tigon (or is it a liger?). He explains things we take for granted, such as: Why are there so many species in the tropics? (Answer: The Energy-Stability-Area Theory of Biodiversity. Sorry to have ruined the suspense.)

The book is also loaded with fun facts. Like: There are probably still some species of deep sea sharks yet to be discovered. I don't think that's necessarily good news, but it's interesting. And it was news to me that the sky is full of "aeolian plankton," which is why those volcanic islands that are totally scorched and sterilized by an eruption don't remain barren for long. Tiny spiders, fungus spores, seeds, and bacteria literally rain from the heavens all over the planet. The "plankton" that isn't lucky enough to drift down on the volcanic soil will land in the ocean and die--which just goes to show that for most species, life isn't just a struggle, it's a gamble. It's like trying to shoot-the-moon in a game of hearts. (And by the way, if you go to one of those newly reforested volcanic islands and suddenly discover a 25-foot reticulated python wrapping itself around your neck, don't be confused: It did not rain from the sky like the spiders. Those bad boys can swim for miles and miles across the open sea.)

At no time, though, does Wilson seem like a scientist straining to communicate with a lay audience; the reason most scientific writing is impenetrable or detail-heavy is that it's difficult to master the information well enough to make clear communication possible. Wilson seems to understand that the simplest questions--like, why are there so many species?-are neither childish nor particularly easy to answer.

Nor is there a hint in this book of the anti-modernism of Wendell Berry or the New Age spiritualism of the Gaia crowd. Wilson sounds like your basic Al Gore ecologist, grounding his appeal for the preservation of biodiversity on economic and scientific reasons. He does not completely ignore the aesthetic and moral components of the crisis. "Signals abound that the loss of life's diversity endangers not just the body but the spirit," he writes.

Nevertheless, Wilson thinks biodiversity can be preserved even as standards of living are improved for the people who live in the developing world, where many of the most valued and endangered ecosystems exist. Though only 6 percent of the world's land mass, the tropical rain forests may contain half the species of organisms on the planet. Wilson writes:

The rural poor of the Third World are locked

onto a downward spiral of poverty and the

destruction of diversity. Lacking access to

markets, hammered by exploding populations, they

turn increasingly to the last of the wild

biological resources. They hunt out the animals within

walking distance, cut forests that cannot be

regrown, put their herds on any land from which

they cannot be driven by force. They use

domestic crops ill-suited to their environment, for

too many years, because they know no

alternative.... Using an accountant's trick, they record

the sale of forests and other irreplaceable natural

resources as national income without computing

the permanent environmental losses as


So the issue, says Wilson, is this: "How can people in developing countries achieve a decent living from the land without destroying it?" The cynical reader is tempted to answer: They can't. Nor can the affluent northern hemisphere continue to chew through the world's resources with so ravenous an appetite. The idea of "sustainable development" might be appealing to those who reside in the nexus of environmentalism and progressive capitalism, and it's almost certainly the only path that the leaders of industrial nations will be willing to take. But I've never seen a convincing explanation of how 10 billion people, or 15 billion people, or whatever the ultimate population will be before it levels off, could possibility live comfortably and indefinitely on this planet with an ever-increasing standard of living.

Global warning

If there's one major disappointment in this book, it's that after Wilson delivers his devastating global forecast, after he gets all in a lather about the destruction of life on earth, his prescriptions for turning things around seem rather tame. He suggests, for instance, that we need more research. More studies! He V thinks that it would be wise to launch a massive effort to catalogue all the species on the planet, so we would know what we're dealing with. He suggests that 25,000 scientists could devote their lifetimes to research and classification, at a rate, he estimates, of 10 species per scientist per year. Don't everyone step forward at once! ("Honey, my boss says if I work really hard on the beetles for the net three years, he'll let me switch to nematodes.")

He also says that it is time for every nation to have a population policy. It's a sensible idea, but he doesn't delve into the painful political reality: The intelligentsia of the developing world thinks this is a racists, blame-shifting attitude, the paranoid fetish of rich white guys in suburban America who can't sleep at night because of all the dark-skinned babies out there. At the Earth Summit in Rio a few months ago, there was almost no official discussion of population pressures (instead of "birth control," one official document referred to "appropriate technology dissemination"); among non-governmental activists, the tension between northern and southern environmentalists prevented any meaningful agreement on what to do about overpopulation. The final "treaty" on population never even hinted that there might be too many people on the planet. (What did it actually say? I read it several times, and the only thing I learned is that free trade is bad. If you want clear writing, don't get a bunch of contentious people together and ask them to reach a consensus.)

Maybe it's wise that Wilson chose not to attend the Earth Summit. I spent a week there and hardly ever saw an actual book. Books represent too deep a well of thought; the Earth Summit was an event designed for the position paper, the press conference, the seminar, the discussion in the circle. (There was so much talk that after a while I began to pray that Greenpeace would take the Rainbow Warrior II and just start ramming.)

It is perhaps cowardly and unconstructive to react to the environmental crisis with mere despair, but it is not an irrational position. Cassandra was right, after all. These may not be the last days, but you can build a strong argument that the penultimate days are upon us. I choose to be an optimist, out of faith in human adaptability and my general suspicion that, despite all appearances, "progress" still describes the general direction of human history--but there's not denying that we are already living in an age of environmental catastrophe.

Wilson's book makes all this agonizingly clear. It is a siren call, a warning for the lay public. The future we had feared has become the present. (*)The Diversity of Life. Edward O. Wilson. Harvard, $29.95. Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Style section of The Washington Post. He writes the syndicated column "Why Things Are."
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Author:Achenbach, Joel
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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