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Taking a Stroll With E.O. Wilson

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Illuminating the eternal through nature, and the humanity of an icon of science.

To say that E.O. Wilson, arguably the greatest living biologist, is prolific is a bit of an understatement. At 84, Wilson continues to churn out books at a rate of one to two each year. Yesterday, Earth Day 2014, marks the release of his latest book, A Window on Eternity: A Biologist's Walk Through Gorongosa National Park (Simon and Schuster), along with a DVD companion titled “The Guide.”

The book is ostensibly a travelogue of Wilson's visits to Gorongosa National Park, a 4,000-square-mile, protected reserve situated along the Great Rift Valley in Mozambique that was decimated by a 16-year civil war and rampant poaching. Brought back to life through enlightened stewardship, the park’s rebirth is a fascinating story and well worth the read. But for me the real delight of the book was the feeling after I finished it that I had spent a couple of days strolling and chatting with Wilson as he pointed out the sites and waxed nostalgic about his own life and philosophical about the planet's.

Big Picture and Little Picture

Many of Wilson's books are works that look at the big picture, works that advance broad and often revolutionary concepts about nature and humanity. His The Social Conquest of Earth, which proposed a new, highly controversial theory of human evolution based on group selection, is but one example of these "big picture" books. Others tend to be of a class I'd call anecdotal, books that use narrative and a focus on setting to entertain and charm while also instructing. For example, consider Why We Are Here, an ode by Wilson and co-author Alex Harris to Wilson's childhood home of Mobile, Alabama -- a book that gently and subtly reminds us of our profound connection to the land.

Oblivion and Eternity

Wilson's new book does not fit neatly into either category alone but rather belongs to both. With "A Window on Eternity" as a title it seems a pretty safe bet that Wilson has some very "big picture" issues in store for us readers. Indeed, the opening chapter, "The Search For Eternity," does not disappoint. It begins:

“Oblivion, absolute oblivion, is the one image the human mind cannot accept or even fully conceive. Deeper than despair, more terrifying than death, is the thought that everything in time will disappear.”

How then to avoid the "dismal thought," he asks rhetorically. In these genomic-centric times, we often think that the propagation of our DNA is the key, that we assure our "place" on the planet past our own demise by passing the bits of our own DNA code to succeeding progeny.

Not really, Wilson argues. Within a few centuries the DNA carried in our progeny will have been diluted by the codes of thousands of others, and in any event, like all other earthly species, extinction of Homo sapiens is inevitable.

Instead, Wilson argues the answer lies in nature.

"It resides in the remnants of the natural world we have not yet destroyed. The rest of life is a parallel world. It could exist and continue evolving for what to the human mind is an eternity."

It's a heady thought: for our window on eternity, to find our shelter against the horror of oblivion, we need look no further than the natural world -- the life that surrounds us. As long as the planet's natural life system continues to operate, Wilson argues, we all in some sense continue to exist.

And even if you're into propagating your DNA, Wilson's idea is not all that far fetched. When it comes to genes and DNA, scientists are finding that humans have more in common with other species than we had ever imagined. The DNA from a lion or a fly or even a bacterium carries with it some of the same coding that is contained in our DNA.

If we're looking for eternity, look to nature. And with that stirring, "big picture" introduction, Wilson turns to narrative -- the story of his "walk” through Gorongosa National Park.

Gorongosa National Park

The Gorongosa National Park, as we now know it, was set aside in 1920 as the Gorongosa Hunting Reserve by a private business called the Mozambique Company. The region was officially designated a national park in 1960. In the 1970s, shortly after Mozambique got its independence, surveys revealed that the park was a treasure of biodiversity with huge populations of lions, elephants and hippos.

The 16 years of civil war that followed, marked by largely unrestricted poaching that lasted even longer, led to a hollowed-out park left almost completely devoid of the large mammals that had graced it. Gone was the once-magnificent natural treasure, and the place came to be known as "Africa's Lost Eden."

In 2004 the Carr Foundation partnered with the government of Mozambique to bring Gorongosa back from the brink. It is the restored Gorongosa National Park that we visit through the eyes of Wilson in A Window on Eternity. Among the characters we meet is Greg Carr, the American businessman and philanthropist to whom the book is dedicated and who is probably more responsible than anyone else for the park's renaissance. We visit with elephants and "elephant whisperer" Joyce Poole. We spend some time in a house full of spiders and we meet a one-eyed, “snaggle-toothed" crocodile.

Ever the entomologist, Wilson features insects in a central role in the park's story. He writes that they are the

"animals to watch ... the little things abounding on twigs and leaves, and running about in the leaf litter and humus. They live more harried lives in a very different scale of space and time than you and I."

Wilson relates an especially riveting story of how he and his party stumble upon an ant migration with dense columns of Matebele ants crossing a road -- carrying "grublike larvae and cocoons containing pupae." Wilson reports that those Matebele ants are "ferocious in battle" with a sting that "[o]n a pain index I would rank just below a hornet."

In a sense insects are the heroes of Wilson's Gorongosa story. His own surveys lead him to conclude that while the park's large mammals were slaughtered during the decades of neglect, much of the insect world remained intact. And it was the ecological foundation provided by the insects that made the return of the large mammals possible.

Off the Beaten Track

Wilson's guided tour of Gorongosa is entertaining and full of insight and discovery. But the real joy for me are the book's many detours and side excursions -- stories about his childhood, the fascinating minutiae about the park's and the planet's flora and fauna.

For example, who would have thought that the world's greatest entomologist would have a fear of spiders? In the course of his discourse about Gorongosa we learn he has a phobia borne of a close encounter with an orb-weaving spider at age 8.

Another especially memorable section dealt with the ecology of dung.

"Those untrained in such matters … think of animal dung, if we think about any of it all (as when scraping it off our shoes), as just a smelly mess to be avoided. But for countless small animals a scat is a treasure, a source of life."

A marvelous description of butterflies fluttering around a velvetberry bush at Chitengo Camp captures their precarious existence, each striving to get its share of nectar from the flowers and in constant danger of being snatched up by a predator.

“The … bush was not a thing of beauty for the butterflies; it was an arena of life-and-death competition."

Avoiding Oblivion

After entertaining us for eight chapters with a delightful visit to Gorongosa National Park, Wilson returns to the "big picture" subject of oblivion and eternity that marked the book's opening. In the last two chapters, "The Struggle for Existence" and "The Conservation of Eternity," Wilson turns to the core issue that has consumed much of his professional life: the preservation of our planet's biodiversity. He points out that 80-90 percent of the world's most biodiverse habitats are already gone and that the remaining 10 to 20 percent

"provide hope for the immortality of life as a whole, freed of human cares and intervention and allowed to evolve as it did before we arose in Africa.”

But he warns "[i]t would require only a single careless (and uncaring) step to remove the remaining 10 to 20 percent" and that these reserves of biodiversity cannot be maintained if "people are given free access to them," as they are with our national park system. Instead, these "precious gardens" must be true wildlife sanctuaries with human visits restricted to specific areas and times. And to allow seasonal migration and adaptation to climate change, these sanctuaries must be connected with "wildland corridors."

In short, Wilson argues for divvying up the world into two parallel worlds -- one for humans and the other for wildlife sanctuaries like Gorongosa National Park. By doing so, he concludes, "humanity will ensure the survival and continued advance of life, and of ourselves."

Sounds good to me.

More Reading

“Review: A Window on Eternity, by E. O. Wilson,” David Edmund Moody, The Huffington Post, (14 April 2014)

“Ecology: Wilson in Africa,” Stuart Pimm, Nature, 508, pp. 178-179 (10 April 2014)

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