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E.O. Wilson: Preserving Biodiversity Is an Ethical Imperative

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"Biodiversity is the totality of all inherited variation in the life forms of Earth, of which we are one species. We study and save it to our great benefit. We ignore and degrade it to our great peril." --E.O. Wilson (Duke Photography)

Post Updated 2/18/2014

The famed scientist is at Duke this spring, kicking off a scientific partnership between the Nicholas School and the biodiversity foundation that bears his name. His advice to young folks: "Be an 'ologist."

For the past two weeks, those of us at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment have been basking in the glow of Edward Osborne Wilson, arguably the greatest scientist of our time, a founding force in the field of sociobiology and, for many, the "father of biodiversity." As part of a new partnership between the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and the Nicholas School, and what will be an annual tradition, Wilson was on campus as a visiting professor to teach a short course in biodiversity and interact with students and faculty.

This year's course is entitled "Biodiversity and the Meaning of Human Existence," an ambitious subject to say the least, but then Wilson has never been one to shy away from the big problems.1 (See for example here.) If you're curious about how Wilson and his students approached the subject, you're in luck. With support from Apple, the course is being videotaped and will appear shortly on iTunesU. On Tuesday Wilson also gave a public lecture to a full house on "The Diversity of Life" (See video below.)

Still Going Strong

At 84 years, Wilson's tall and lanky frame is somewhat stooped, and his gait can be tentative at times. Still, there is a certain youthful boyishness about him, with a lock of his thick grey hair perpetually falling over his forehead. He remains mentally and physically engaged as a scientist (with a book in press, another in the works and a trip to Mozambique on his calendar), and his eyes carry a mischievous twinkle whenever his favorite subjects come up.

One of those subjects is Alabama. Despite having spent his entire professional career at Harvard, Wilson eschews Cambridge and Boston and proudly proclaims himself an Alabamian. Get him started and he will wax poetically about his home state and should he meet a fellow Alabamian all bets are off. (My wife, as coincidence would have it, is from Alabama, and when they get started I become in the words of Karen in All About Eve -- which took a page out of the Cole Porter songbook --  "de trop.")

But the favorite topic of all for Wilson, of course, is the natural world and biodiversity. Wilson defines biodiversity as all things living on the planet, and the rest as the physical world. He bemoans the fact that so many of us seem to put so much stock in the physical world and so much effort in obtaining physical stuff to the detriment of the living world or biodiversity. (See more on the meaning of biodiversity.)

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E.O. Wilson speaking on the diversity of life to a sold-out house at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment on February 11, 2014. (Duke Photography)

Wilson's life by contrast has been all about biodiversity. From his early years exploring the forests and marshes around Mobile, Alabama, to last week getting to know the Duke Forest.

He began his scientific career as a myrmecologist studying ants, and indeed became the world's leading expert on all things ants.2 (Watch Nova's "Lord of the Ants" for a taste of his expertise.) But he rapidly expanded his reach, first to the scientific study known as sociobiology and then to biodiversity. He recently set the world of evolutionary biology into a tizzy by proposing that multi-level (group to individual) selection rather than kinship selection explains much of human evolution. (See also here.)

Now, at the later stages of an amazing career, Wilson is on a crusade to stem the tide of extinctions that threaten to leave us with an impoverished cache of genetic information and, he fears, one unable to support human life.

Ethical Imperative

Two schools of thought -- sometimes working in unison and sometimes at odds with each other -- have driven much of the environmental movement in the United States over the past 100+ years. The conservationist school sees humanity and its needs as paramount. The imperative of environmental stewardship from the conservationists' view is simply good economics. Early conservationists included Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who was appointed by Roosevelt to be our first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. The conservationists' creed is well represented by this tract from Pinchot:

"Taking it altogether, then, it will be seen that a National Forest does not act like a wall built around the public domain, which locks up its lands and resources and stops settlement and industry. What it really does is to take the public domain ... and make sure that the best possible use is made of every bit of it." (From "The Use of the National Forests," Pinchot, USDA, 1907)

I see the current emphasis many environmentalists (myself included) place on using ecosystem services as a rationale for maintaining habitat as an argument that deeply resonates with those arguments of Roosevelt and Pinchot.

The preservationist on the hand, whose philosophy is embodied in the work of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, rejects the conservationists' notion that the natural world is the purview of humans. Preservation of the environment for these environmentalists is not an economic imperative, but a moral and ethical imperative. For example, consider this critique of the conservationists from Leopold:

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

And of the ethical imperative, this from Muir:

"The battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong."

The rewilding movement of environmentalists like Roderick Frederick Nash, with his vision of island civilizations kept apart from the rest of nature, is rooted in the ideas of early preservationists like Muir and Leopold, although perhaps taken to an extreme.

While E.O. Wilson does not reject the notion that biodiversity can be defended on the basis of its value to humans, he places himself firmly in the camp of the preservationists. The rate of extinctions on the planet, he reported in his talk, is some 100 to 1,000 times the rate from before humans came on the scene tearing and burning down forests and savannas, and farming the land -- much of the loss of biodiversity can be attributed to five human activities beginning with habitat destruction.3 In Wilson's view we have an ethical imperative to stop that destruction and put an end to what many scientists now call the sixth extinction.4 (See also here.)

Scientific Imperative

But as someone who has devoted his life to studying and understanding the natural world, the imperative as it relates to biodiversity doesn't end with preservation; scientific discovery is on the list as well. Wilson noted that currently we have discovered and documented about two million organisms, but it is estimated that there are probably a total of about eight or nine million critters hopping, flying, slithering, swimming, and otherwise hanging out on the planet.5

That leaves a lot of organisms that have yet to be discovered. And that's a problem in Wilson's view because, he argues, until we know of every creature in the biosphere and the role each plays, we have no way of knowing the consequences of extinguishing any creature from, or inserting any into, the ecosystem. Such consequences can be startling and counterintuitive. (See also here.)

But the rate of discovery of new organisms in Wilson's view is too, too low. At the current rate (somewhere around 15,000 to 18,000 described annually) it will take hundreds of years to describe all of life. And by then it may be too late. Wilson hopes we can speed things up with a new generation of young scientists -- mycologists, nematologists, bacteriologists, herpetologists, ornithologists, myrmecologists, et al. -- that take to the field and ferret out the undiscovered. "Become an 'ologist," he advised the Duke students.

At the end of his talk Wilson was asked, suppose we discover all nine million of the world's species; with that many, how could we possibly keep track of them all? No problem, he replied with a smile and that mischievous wink. With some 10 billion people predicted to be roaming our blue planet by mid-century, "we'd have 1,000 people available to be experts on each species on Earth." So, which species do you want to take?

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End Notes

1 I understand that he has a book with the same title scheduled for publication soon.

2 Wilson discovered the first colony of fire ants in the United States in Mobile, Alabama, as a 13-year-old.

3 Coincidentally, Wilson's talk coincided with the release of Elizabeth Kolbert's new book The Sixth Extinction. I have not had a chance to read it yet but am looking forward to checking it out.

4 The five activities responsible for biodiversity loss can be remembered by the acronym HIPPO, which indicates the "magnitude of impact" of each activity: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, (over-)population of humans, overharvesting by hunting and fishing.

5 Here's an interesting factoid I learned at Wilson's talk: the existence of SLiMEs, or Subsurface Lithotrophic Microbial Ecosystems, composed of organisms that live up to two kilometers below the Earth's surface.

Post updated 2/18/2014 with video of Wilson's 2/11 lecture.

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