"It's EASY TO CONNECT people to the Panda or the American Eagle. The important thing is that we expand our circle of awareness and affection and love for the rest of organisms. We're beginning to have some affection for and concern for the fate of frog species and salamander species. In Europe already, the public is increasingly concerned about butterflies, beetles and the like. I don't mean to say that one will ever consider the giant American Burying beetle, which lives on the decaying corpses of rats and mice, as a cuddly organism like the panda. Nonetheless, there is a magnificence to these creatures that needs to be cultivated by one or the other appeal to deep human emotions."
At the same time though, "You can't create a whole new kind of emotion and you can't make ridiculous connections like feeling affectionate for a bacterium. What you have to do is show how the rest of life, which is threatened with irreversible extinction, can enhance and expand human feeling and involvement and welfare in ways that people haven't yet understood but are there and can be explained. That is really, I think, a large part of the basis for a coming environmental ethic" E.O. Wilson, 16 October 1992
On the wall outside E.O. Wilson's office, on the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Labs, the covers of his books, each displaying a lifeform he has studied, are tacked up--a tribute to science as natural wonder, science as art. If Professor Wilson's outlook were this simple--that the natural world should stand for itself and anyone who cannot see its grandiosity is insensitive and probably a Republican--then he would be a wonderful explicator, but not a pioneer. What Wilson does, though, in The Diversity of Life, is to create an argument for the preservation of biodiversity that recognizes the gravity of the threat to diversity but allows for human progress and growth.
Humans are just now becoming conscious of their profound effect on the earth's environment--the world which provides humankind with its power. Much has been made of greenhouse effects and depleting ozone layers, but a compelling argument for conservation and preservation--which has not been emphasized until recently--is the importance of biodiversity.
Wilson's new book, The Diversity of Life, has made headlines, not just because this is a major work from atwo-time Pulitzer Prize winner and holder of aNational Medal of Science, but also because he hashit upon an environmental issue which can appealto everyone.
The term "biodiversity" refers to the variouslyconceived and adapted forms of life which inhabitthe earth, and recognizes the lengthy,unrepeatable process that has led to today'sdelicate ecological balance. The word is alsosupposed to embody, Wilson told me, a sense ofwonder, a sense of respect, and a sense ofgratitude. "The most despised organisms from theburying beetles to ants that are scurrying awaycarrying dead insects, down to the bacteria whichactually bring the soil to life," he says, "arethe reasons that we are able to carry on from oneday to the next."
Humans are on the verge of forever upsetting,as far as our lifetimes or any of our descendants'lifetimes are concerned, the very ecosystems whichprovide us with the riches we often take forgranted. Only a forward-looking agenda, such asthe one E.O. Wilson crafts, can direct ourenergies toward more sustainable goals.
Wilson doesn't base his argument on a simplemessage of species appreciation. After all, thebeetles and bees and bacteria will be fine in ahundred million years. Humans, however, may not bearound to enjoy them. Wilson argues in his bookthat there is a limited amount of usable matter inthe world and humans are consuming an amazingamount of it in a very inefficient and destructivemanner. We are destroying the very ecosystemswhich are vital to our survival and overpopulatingan earth whose resources are already strained. Thespecific answers Wilson provides may require us torelate the wonders of our childhoods to modern daychallenges.
When Wilson speaks of his boyhoodexplorations, his easy Southern manner andspeech--which have been somewhat softened by 30some-odd years of Yankee life--become slightlymore prominent. His work has left him passionedand troubled, yet hopeful.
Wilson's life as a child and student isinstructive for the very reason that it wasunspectacular. He was not a child prodigy; hisfather was not a scientist. He was a veryinterested, very keen young man who always tookadvantage of the wonders around him. Of coursemost little kids aren't this interested inorganisms. He believes, though, that people can,at an early age, become more aware of theirsurroundings and more appreciative of theirenvironment.
"I grew up in Alabama and northern Florida as akid in small towns mostly, and had close contactwith nature. One of the defining experiences of mylife, though, was to live in Washington, D.C., in1939-1940 when I was just about nine or ten yearsold. I had, believe it or not, quite an experiencefor a kid. I was within walking distance of thenational zoo and a short bus ride from the UnitedStates national museum near Rock Creek park. Atthat time it was safe, so I had the combination inthis sensitive period of my boyhood of having thewonders of the zoo to visit at my leisure and theSmithsonian as well as a park where I could go andcatch butterflies. It makes me wonder why morekids don't become biologists who live in thevicinity of zoos and national museums inWashington and other great cities.
"I didn't know how far this would go. I thoughtthe greatest thing in the world would be to be amuseum curator, to be one of those men that I sawin Alabama riding around in green trucks with theU.S. department of agriculture collecting insects.Every kid has a bug period, I just didn't grow outof mine--it got imprinted."
Wilson notes that the opportunity for manyAmerican kids to experience nature--either outsideor in a museum--is one of the great advantages ofthe United States. "Not everyone has equal income.My father was a government accountant and we weredefinitely working class or close to it. Wecouldn't afford many amenities. If we cannot haveequality in wealth and success in life, we canhave civic equality through our greatinstitutions. This can provide the kind ofeducational opportunities and vision for childrenof all classes, particularly in the city. Perhapswe should be paying more attention to institutionslike our museums, art galleries and public parks."
Wilson channeled his love for bugs into thescientific profession when he arrived at collegeand found that natural history was part of abigger puzzle, one which he seems happy to neverquite solve.
"The epiphanous experience was when I was about17 or 18. I arrived at the University of Alabamaand my intention was then to train to become aprofessional anthropologist. But I discoveredevolution in the writings of Ernst Mayr, who'sstill around--he's a professor emeritus here atHarvard. It was such an enchanting,all-encompassing idea and gave such legitimacy tothe study of natural history, that I was totallypersuaded by its power and thus became far moreinterested in science as a profession as opposedto just the study of bugs."
At Alabama, Wilson encountered an academicenvironment well-suited to his interests. Inaddition to studying under an influentialprofessor who served as his early mentor, Wilson"had the good fortune of becoming buddies with asmall gang of other budding entomologists." Hereceived a good education at Alabama--"evenwithout Nobel Laureates teaching me. We didn'thave a giant accelerator or a great laboratory ofbiochemistry, but we had the Alabama naturalenvironment and that was as good as anylaboratory."
I asked Wilson to trace the developmentof his concern with diversity hoping to discoverwhy he had taken up this battle when others hadnot. For Wilson, The Diversity of Life isthe culmination of many years of increasingconcern with the fate of biodiversity, a subjectthat has only recently creeped into the nationalpress.
"As I roamed the red eroded gullies and toxicstreams of Alabama (which were in abundance inthose days), looking for patches of naturalenvironment, (which weren't easy to find inthose days), I said to myself that it's betterelsewhere in the world and when I am able to maketrips to the serious tropics, like Cuba, theAmazon and New Guinea, that's when I'll find thewildernesses and the great environments.