As well as his scientific contributions, Edward Wilson is probably the most eloquent advocate of the importance of biodiversity. When I wrote a futures book a few years ago, that was the topic it was hardest to find anything optimistic to say about. When this version of Wilson’s argument for protecting biodiversity came out – he’s produced several more since – I was a little more optimistic. But not that much… As a resolutely urban creature, I am also sceptical about his biophilia hypothesis, which has gained some traction since but still seems unconvincing in its strong form, I reckon.
Humanity, you might say, is a dominant species, but the term hardly covers it. Never before has one kind of creature influenced the fate of so many others, mostly for the worse. True, our powers are limited. We are not about to eliminate life on Earth. But we could make it whole lot less interesting. If we do, our descendents will abhor us for our heedless, needless folly.
But there is still time to avoid a crash in the variety of species more abrupt than any previous mass extinction. E. O. Wilson is an optimist, and his book is a call to arms. We in the affluent West do not just have to agree that the global elimination of countless other species is a bad thing. We have to care enough to do something about it. He thinks we will, that we can mend our ways. More thought, more science, and right choices will save the day.
Those choices will be hard to make, he argues, because we also need to reduce global inequality while coping with an expanding population. The population curve is slowly levelling off, but not fast enough. But with luck, smarter technology, and political skill, we might just achieve a tolerable life for all. He sums up the situation with two metaphors.
“The race is now on between the technoscientific and scientific forces that are destroying the living environment and those that can be harnessed to save it. We are inside a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption. If the race is won, humanity can emerge in far better condition than when it entered, and with most of the diversity of life still intact.” (pxxi).
Wilson’s mission to persuade draws on all three of his life’s great projects. One of these is his science. The second is to sketch a map of knowledge in which all the disciplines are unified on the basis of a scientific understanding of human nature. The other is, as he has put it, “to wring literature from science”.
Here, traditional biology is still the foundation. Wilson writes with the casual authority of one who “while recently conducting a study of Pheidole, one of the world’s two largest ant genera, … uncovered 335 new species, more than doubling the number in the genus and increasing the entire known fauna of ants in the Western hemisphere by 10 per cent”. (p16)
The literary project, on this evidence, is also in good shape, from the opening letter to Thoreau to the evocation of a more prosperous, but biologically bleak future. The science of human nature, though, is still a little shaky. It figures less here than in his last book, Consilience. But it is a problem, because Wilson’s conviction that there is a unitary human nature can translate into a too simple view of what that nature is. He would like to believe that everyone else is rather like him, and never happier than when heading off into some remote wilderness to commune with nature’s bounty. He calls this by a scientific-sounding name, biophilia; “the innate tendency to focus upon life and lifelike forms, and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally” (p131). It also means that we need contact with other creatures, and views of pleasing landscapes, for our mental health. And we need the idea of true wilderness for spiritual nourishment.
This is interesting, if true. But is it enough to make us do the right thing by the biosphere? Humans have many different ways of leading satisfying lives, and genuinely universal needs are hard to find. No culture is without music, for example, yet the tone deaf seem to get along just fine. Perhaps the deep love and interest in every creeping and crawling thing which drives Wilson to creative heights is one of those perpetual minority sports, like jazz or opera.
Even if you buy biophilia, it is not entirely clear what it has to do with biodiversity. Can the affluent urban masses, whose main contact with the fruits of biodiversity is a weekly trip to the supermarket, love every one of those 335 species of ants? How many species would a person need to satisfy their biophilic instinct, anway? Not the teeming mass in the rain forest, for sure.
In fact Wilson himself argues that humans have an evolved preference for open savannah. The deep dark wood is not where we want to be, as any fairy story will tell you. Lead us to a new tract of savannah, though, and the first thing that happens is that we eliminate most of the large mammals. The fossil and archaeological records together depict a species without scruple, whose instinct when it encounters new territory is to kill anything large enough to eat and slow enough to catch. We are, as Wilson says when chronicling this history of slaughter, “Homo Sapiens, serial killer of the biosphere” (p91).
Best assume, then, that our evolved natures are flexible enough to relinquish such habits. What other arguments can an artful writer offer to bring this about? One is to show how the damage has moved onto a new scale by comparing past and present extinction rates. This is fraught because estimates of both are widely varied and based on poor data. Serious attempts to put a figure on the number of species now living on Earth vary by a factor of nearly 100. Even so, there is good reason to believe that present-day extinction rates are alarmingly high.
A second argument is for insurance. On the smallest scale, this is about unknown new foods and medicines which may still be recovered from the recesses of the rainforest. But our increasing virtuosity in designing our own makes the loss of natural biomolecules less of a risk than it used to be. On the larger scale, there is the suggestion that, if we continue to deplete biodiversity and eradicate ecosystems which do not meet our immediate requirements, we could provoke some kind of total system collapse in the biosphere. The arguments here are still pretty-much handwaving, but it is certainly true that the more we understand what the biosphere does for us, in soil, oceans and atmosphere, the more it makes sense to look after it.
Finally, and to my mind most persuasive, there is the argument that we have some duty of stewardship to the web of life from which we emerged. As latecomers to an evolutionary party which has been running riot for billion years, do we really want to be the species which turns it into a wake?
If the answer is no, there are a host of things which can be done, from the rich simply buying tracts of land from the poor in the name of conservation to international treaties and new technology. Protest movements can help, too, though just now they may risk being branded as terrorists. Wilson’s book is not really engaged with post 9/ 11 global politics. Or maybe it is. For a real optimist, there could even be encouragement in the scale of resources lately mobilised to carry out a moral mission with a global reach.
For all the uncertainties, Wilson’s book eloquently makes one thing clear about the difference between the actions of present-day homo sapiens and the carefree slaughter typically pursued by our ancestors. Within broad limits, we know what we do. And we have a choice. (2001)