Text by Boyce Rensberger
Thousands of species around the globe are becoming extinct, but E. O.Wilson,
the man who made biodiversity a household word, says all is not lost-yet.
If, a century from now, earthlings gaze upon their planet and wonder at its
extraordinary diversity of life, they are likely to hold in reverence the name of one
man: Edward O. Wilson. Indeed, many today who fear the rapid destruction of
biological diversity already regard Wilson as the nearest thing to a savior that
science has produced.
Earth's biodiversity has not been saved-not yet. Uncounted species are
endangered, flickering out of existence in large numbers before they can even be
named. But the man who has done more than almost anyone else to focus society's
attention on the value of biological diversity, and the threats to it, says there is
reason for hope. Though he would be the last to say so, Wilson's campaign on
behalf of the living world has helped make the conservation movement's goals
No starry-eyed radical, the Harvard University zoologist helped establish the
concept of biological diversity, or biodiversity for short, as a measure of an
ecosystem's value to the planet.
The more species of plants, animals, and other life-forms in a given region, the more
resistant that region is to destruction and the better it can perform its environmental
roles of cleansing water, enriching the soil, maintaining stable climates, even
generating the oxygen we breathe. In 1963 Wilson, along with Robert H.
MacArthur, developed the theory called "island biogeography": As the size of a
natural area shrinks, the number of species it can sustain shrinks faster. Since then
the theory has been confirmed with alarming repetition.
Now 70 and supposedly retired, Wilson is as busy as ever. He continues studying
his specialty, ants; he's working on a new classification of one major ant group. He
still writes eloquent books; 2 of his 20 titles, On Human Nature and The Ants,
have won Pulitzer Prizes. He still helps guide environmental organizations; currently,
he's on the boards of the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the
American Museum of Natural History. And he still lectures around the world to
save all living species; his Alabama-bred folksiness, combined with a sterling
scientific reputation, makes him highly persuasive.
I've followed Wilson's career since 1975, when I wrote about his controversial
book Sociobiology for The New York Times. In those days, he was often attacked
for suggesting in that book that certain human behaviors are influenced by urges or
instincts that evolved through natural selection. The attacks hurt him deeply. Today
sociobiology is widely accepted and, because of his work in biodiversity, Wilson is
lionized by many who attacked him decades earlier. "I haven't changed," he
We spoke in his cluttered office at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology,
surrounded by stacks of papers, shelves of books, and oversize models of his
Q: As you've helped teach us, we're losingbiodiversity at a rate that compares with the great mass extinctions of the prehistoric past. If nothing is done over the next century, how is the earth going to be different?
A: If we continue at the current rate of deforestation and destruction of major ecosystems like rainforests and coral reefs, where most of the biodiversity is concentrated, we will surely lose more than half of all the species of plants and animals on earth by the end of the 21st century.
Q: Is that loss going to happen in isolated patches, or will it be worldwide?
A: Most of the destruction
will be from what we today recognize as the "hot spots,"
where there already is lots of diversity and where habitats are being destroyed.
These are primarily but not entirely in the tropics.
Q: A hundred years from now, will America look much different?
A: In the United States the
trajectory is less threatening, but even here we would
see a shrinkage of fauna and flora over most of the country. And especially in our
own hot spots, such as Hawaii and California. For example, in Hawaii alone, where
species are disappearing at one of the highest rates in the world, there are more than
100 species of trees that consist of 20 individuals or fewer. So in a century,
America would still be biologically rich in most places. But without a stronger
conservation policy, it would be partly impoverished, and especially locally a lot of
individual states would lose species.
The natural-heritage program of the Nature Conservancy estimates that about 1
percent of native American species of plants and animals have become extinct
already, and another 30 percent are in some degree of vulnerability. Even in our
national parks, a substantial percentage of mammals have gone extinct-even though
they're protected-because the parks are too small.
Q: How will the loss of biodiversity affect human life?
A: On a global basis, I
have no doubt at all that there would be severe effects on
the quality of life-support systems such as watersheds and air quality and rainfall.
For example, in the Amazon rainforest, a large part of the rain that falls comes
from evaporation from the forest itself. As the forest is removed, then a major
source of rain is also removed, and substantial parts of the whole Amazon basin
could be turned into permanent grassland, with effects radiating out into the
breadbasket states of southern Brazil. They would be prone to drought if the
Amazon basin dried out.
Q: What has made you so personally interested in this issue?
A: I was a naturalist
virtually from childhood, from the age of about nine, when I
went out exploring the woods and the fields where we lived. Growing up, especially
in Alabama, I would go off on my own, exploring nature because it gave me so
much pleasure. I did this right up through my college years-at the University of
Alabama and Harvard. The same thing happened later, when I began doing
research in the tropics. Especially in the tropics, I became aware of how little of the
natural environment has survived.
And so, since my main interest has always been biodiversity, I've been keenly
aware that a large part of it was going down the drain. At times, it's made me feel
alarmed or depressed.
Q: When did you first become alarmed?
A: In the 1950s, when I was
a graduate student and going out to do field research
in the tropics. I saw the destruction even then. But I didn't become active in the
global environment movement until the late '70s. Up to that time I thought that
scientists could pretty well stand aside and let the conservation organizations take
care of the activism and building of reserves and restoration of lost habitats. But then
I came to realize-especially when others in my field were becoming active in
conservation, such as Tom Lovejoy, who is now at the World Bank, and Peter
Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden-that scientists had to cross over
and get involved because the biodiversity was just disappearing too fast.
Conservation organizations did not have the scientific know-how they needed to do
planning on a systematic and global scale. That's when I got active.
Q: So did the activist groups change for the better as a result?
A: Yes, but I wasn't solely
responsible. I did help change the policy of the World
Wildlife Fund-U.S. when I became a member of the board of directors. In the early
'80s the World Wildlife Fund changed from an emphasis on specific charismatic
species-the giant panda, the leopard, whatever it was-as targets for conservation to
biodiversity as a whole. The goal became to save the ecosystem. The effect would
be not just to protect the charismatic species but all the rest of the habitat that they
need to live. Another shift occurring at that time was also very important. The
economic and social welfare of the people who live around the protected areas
began to be taken into full account. An environmental program today involves what
saving the environment can do for the people, how it can be fitted into the local
economy and given value that people immediately understand.
Q: This brings up the
question of what individuals can do. Do you think
individuals can make choices that matter in the big picture?
A: That's something
everybody should do. I would not eat swordfish, for example.
It's one of the species driven to commercial rarity. But more important, I think we
should be more alert about not buying or using products from species that are
protected by cites [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species].
Also, there are a lot of personal habits that, if moderated only in this country, could
contribute significantly to saving endangered species.
Q: Like what?
A: Eating imported beef.
Before we realized what was happening, the importation
of beef from Costa Rica was a significant factor in removing most of its rainforest.
Costa Rica has been essentially stripped of its forest in the past 50 years.
Another good example is coffee-shade-grown versus open-field. Shade-grown
coffee is planted among the trees of the natural forest and not in cleared fields. Most
aficionados agree that it tastes better. I don't drink coffee, so I'm just quoting. When
people ask for shade-grown coffee, they're protecting the forests of Latin America,
where a large part of the biodiversity continues to be preserved. If you leave enough
of the canopy of the forest and enough of the leaf litter, it's not the same as the
original rainforest, but it still has a lot of the biodiversity in it.
Q: Do you think the public has grasped the value of whole ecosystems?
A: Apparently only a
minority understand this. The last survey that I know of shows
that roughly 20 percent of Americans understand what biodiversity is.
Q: Still, you've said you have hope?
A: I believe that the fate
of the world's flora and fauna depends on a combination of
science, education, and ethics. We have to get a much better scientific
understanding of where biodiversity is and what's happening to it and its value for
humanity. And we have to get an understanding of biodiversity into the mainstream
of public consciousness so it becomes a principal factor in economic and social
Will this happen? I believe it can, and it must happen soon. The world environment
is changing so fast that there is a window of opportunity that will close in as little
time as the next two or three decades. I've always thought that we would lose a lot
of biodiversity, but how much is hard to say. It could be something like 10 percent
of species. But that is far better than the 50 percent or more we will certainly lose if
we let things continue as they are today.
1. Mesoamerican forests 2. Caribbean 3. Tropical Andes 4. Ecuador 5. Amazonian
forest 6. Atlantic forest 7. Guinean forest 8. Cape Floristic Province 9.
Mediterranean 10. Madagascar/Indian Ocean islands 11. Western India/Sri Lanka
12. Eastern Himalayas 13. Indonesia/Malaysia 14. Philippines 15. Southwestern
Australia 16. Wallacea/Tasmania 17. New Caledonia 18. Polynesia/Micronesia
Biodiversity is not spread evenly across the planet. Some areas, particularly in the
tropics, harbor far greater concentrations of species than average. In fact, more than
half the earth's species are found in "hot spots" covering only 2 percent of land.
These areas also claim two-thirds to three-quarters of the world's most endangered
plants and animals. In the Amazonian forests of Brazil, for example, 54 percent of
the trees, 80 percent of the primates, and more than half of the other mammals live
nowhere else. Source: Conservation International
Extinctions in the United States
Scientists estimate that the current
extinction rate is approaching 1,000 times the
background rate-the rate since the last major extinction, 65 million years ago. If
trends continue, this may climb to 10,000 times in the next century. The graph
shows cumulative extinctions, broken down by animal groups. Source: Council on
Environmental Quality (The data after 1986 are estimates based on current trends.)
Illustrations by James Steinberg