Life has a future; Naturalist E.O. Wilson is optimistic

June 15, 2006
Life has a future; Naturalist E.O. Wilson is optimistic
E.O. Wilson sees the 21st century as the 'century of the environment,' a time when humans will celebrate and preserve biodiversity, or wreck life on Earth. (Staff file photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

Despite all the destruction of forests, pollution, overpopulation, and overfishing, Edward O. Wilson is optimistic about the future of life on Earth. Science, prudent actions, and moral courage are showing some signs of making a difference, says one of the world's most influential naturalists, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard.

Wilson cited one encouraging sign. "In 1960, women on the planet gave birth to an average of six children each," he told a group of Harvard alums celebrating their 50th reunion during the University's June 8 Commencement celebration. "That number is down to three children today, and the trend is likely to accelerate."

He sees the 21st century as "the century of the environment," a time when humans will celebrate and preserve biodiversity, or wreck life on Earth.

Wilson is working on recruiting another great force into the battle for life - religion. In a forthcoming book ("The Creation," September 2006), he suggests that scientists "offer the hand of friendship" to religious leaders and build an alliance with them. "Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth and they should come together to save the creation," believes Wilson, who was raised as a Baptist in Florida and Alabama. In November, scientists and evangelists will hold a conference that may start them across the existing cultural gap on a bridge of biodiversity.

How much life is there?

One of the first steps to protecting life and biodiversity is to find out just how much life there is on Earth. Wilson admits, "We don't have the faintest idea."

In the 1980s, the best evidence produced an estimate of 1.4 million species of animals and plants. Most of the animals were insects. Now, thanks to an increase in the technology of searching, Wilson puts the number at 1.8 million, a jump of 400,000 species in a couple of decades. Bugs still dominate.

Those who have been exploring the deepest, darkest corners of the planet have found living things in boiling hot springs thousands of feet below the ocean surface, miles under the surface of land, and nestled under thousands of feet of ice near the South Pole. Throw in more accessible but incompletely explored places like tropical forests, and, Wilson says, the number could rise to 10 million. Add in bacteria, fungi, and other microbes, and the number of species may soar to 100 million.

Scoop up a handful of soil in a place like Franklin Park in Boston and, Wilson assures us, you could be holding 10 billion bacteria, representing 5,000-6,000 different species. Scoop up a ton of soil and the number of varieties of bacteria could jump to 4 million, considerably more than the number of animals and plants now known. The proportion of these bacteria and other microbes that contain biochemicals that could lead to beneficial new drugs is unguessable at this time.

To emphasize such biodiversity, later this year Wilson plans to lead a group from the Explorers Club in New York City on a biotour of Central Park, a well-trodden area in the center of Manhattan. They are going to see how many species they can unearth in one hour. It's the kind of lesson that could be taught all over the world, he says.

When Wilson was a skinny 13-year-old, growing up in Mobile, Ala., he discovered the first colony of imported fire ants in the United States. The bugs had traveled from South America on a freighter. Poking through empty lots and cracks in the hot sidewalks, Wilson was the first naturalist to record their arrival. Now 77, he still can't resist checking sidewalks, empty lots, and parks for ants and other insects. Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for "The Ants," a book written with Bert Holldobler that describes the life and societies of these omnipresent insects. He had already won a Pulitzer in 1979 for another book, "On Human Nature."

What you can do

Wilson now takes part in much larger search efforts. He serves on the scientific board of Conservation International, a nonprofit organization with the optimistic goal of saving all species of life on Earth.

He also champions efforts by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which uses skyscraper-tall cranes and cable cars to survey trees that are difficult to reach in dense rain forests. Lots of other organizations exist, from The Nature Conservatory and World Wildlife Fund to local groups dedicated to protecting and counting. People who are interested in the future of life can get involved with such organizations by donating their dollars and their hands and knees.

Wilson is optimistic that such efforts will eventually win out over logging, fishing, and development efforts that threaten a 21st century human extinction of life comparable to the natural extinctions that came before. He thinks that such optimism will be particularly justified if religion joins science in this effort.

In thinking about the outcome, Wilson likes to quote John Sawhill, the late president of The Nature Conservatory, who said, "A society is defined, not only by what it creates, but by what it chooses not to destroy."

Source: By William J. Cromie, Harvard University

Explore further: What we know so far about where humans come from

Related Stories

25 species revealed for 25 Genomes Project

December 8, 2017

To commemorate the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute turning 25 in 2018, the Institute and its collaborators are sequencing 25 new genomes of species in the UK. The final five species have now been chosen by thousands of school ...

25 new genomes to celebrate 25 years of the Sanger Institute

November 6, 2017

To commemorate the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute turning 25 in 2018, the Institute and its collaborators are sequencing 25 new genomes. From the blackberry to the robin, bush cricket to brown trout, the 25 species all reside ...

Genes don't always dictate that 'boys will be boys'

November 9, 2017

As an evolutionary biologist focusing on animal behaviour, I'm sometimes asked what relevance our research has for human behaviour. Years ago, I would duck the question because it was such a passionately polarising, political ...

Recommended for you

Cells lacking nuclei struggle to move in 3-D environments

January 20, 2018

University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers have revealed new details of how the physical properties of the nucleus influence how cells can move around different environments - such as ...

Information engine operates with nearly perfect efficiency

January 19, 2018

Physicists have experimentally demonstrated an information engine—a device that converts information into work—with an efficiency that exceeds the conventional second law of thermodynamics. Instead, the engine's efficiency ...

Team takes a deep look at memristors

January 19, 2018

In the race to build a computer that mimics the massive computational power of the human brain, researchers are increasingly turning to memristors, which can vary their electrical resistance based on the memory of past activity. ...

Fast computer control for molecular machines

January 19, 2018

Scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed a novel electric propulsion technology for nanorobots. It allows molecular machines to move a hundred thousand times faster than with the biochemical processes ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.