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Review: A Window on Eternity, by E. O. Wilson

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Edward O. Wilson is the world's most distinguished living biologist. From a professional standpoint, he is acknowledged as the foremost authority on the subject of ants, of which there are thousands of species, each with its own complex form of social organization. From a broader point of view, he is recognized as a champion of the importance of biodiversity, as well as the originator of the concept of sociobiology, which addresses the somewhat obvious (albeit controversial) reality that human nature and behavior are shaped in part by Darwinian, evolutionary imperatives.

In his most recent book, due to be released on Earth Day, April 22, Wilson describes in language that is both poetic and scientific a kind of parable of what is possible in the realm of environmental protection. A Window on Eternity, replete with copious color photographs, chronicles the restoration of an important environmental reserve in Mozambique. The reserve is now called the Gorongosa National Park, named after the Gorgongosa mountain at its center.

During the years 1980-1992, Mozambique was the site of a vicious civil war, with victims, both fatalities and countless others forced to flee, numbering in the millions. Among the many casualties of this war were most of the larger animals in Gorongosa National Park -- among the megafauna, only the crocodiles survived. After the war, however, a concerted effort was undertaken to restore the original wildlife and the rich mixture of species that were once a part of the park.

Wilson describes in fascinating detail the manner in which all the elements of the Gorongosa ecosystem interact. At one end of the spectrum are the forests that cover the mountain, which are crucial for ensuring a steady flow of water to the surrounding countryside throughout the year. At the other end of the spectrum is the importance of dung, produced in large quantities by the major herbivores, such as hippos and elephants, which is highly attractive to many species of flies, wasps, beetles, and other insects. These insects are preyed upon in turn by other insects and by birds, and so on up the food chain. Nothing goes to waste.

Notwithstanding his erudition, Wilson approaches his work with the unbridled, unpretentious enthusiasm of a schoolboy. He is thrilled to have the opportunity to discover new ant species on the unexplored regions of Mount Gorongosa. Nor is he above more ordinary, human responses to certain aspects of the natural environment. He confesses that he suffers from a "mild arachnophobia" -- so much so that he was unable to cope with and preserve a large and colorful orb spider that he had acquired with some difficulty, and instead simply opened the plastic bag and released it back into the wild.

Wilson's concluding chapter is, inevitably, a plea to humanity to preserve and protect what remains of the world's diversity of species. Each one is unique and precious, and yet they are going extinct today at a pace unprecedented since the asteroid event that destroyed the dinosaurs and many other species some 65 million years ago. The reasons for protecting all species are almost too obvious to describe. The intrinsic value and beauty of each one should be reason enough, but evidently it is not. What remains, therefore, is the stark reality that human beings, however exalted we may consider ourselves to be, are part and parcel of nature, and cannot exist without it. By destroying the natural world, we are destroying ourselves.

Our blindness to this reality is the most crucial and fundamental fact of the world today. A Window on Eternity brings this reality into focus in a lucid and disarmingly gentle manner. It is a fitting capstone to Wilson's exceptional career.

 
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