From one of the world's most influential scientists (and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author) comes his most timely and important book yet: an impassioned call for quick and decisive action to save Earth's biological heritage, and a plan to achieve that rescue. Today we understand that our world is infinitely richer than was ever previously guessed. Yet it is so ravaged by human activity that half its species could be gone by the end of the present century. These two contrasting truths-unexpected magnificence and underestimated peril-have become compellingly clear during the past two decades of research on biological diversity. In this dazzlingly intelligent and ultimately hopeful book, Wilson describes what treasures of the natural world we are about to lose forever-in many cases animals, insects, and plants we have only just discovered, and whose potential to nourish us, protect us, and cure our illnesses is immeasurable-and what we can do to save them. In the process, he explores the ethical and religious bases of the conservation movement and deflates the myth that environmental policy is antithetical to economic growth by illustrating how new methods of conservation can ensure long-term economic well-being.
Legendary Harvard biologist Wilson (On Human Nature; The Ants; etc.) founded sociobiology, the controversial branch of evolutionary biology, and won the Pulitzer Prize twice. This volume, his manifesto to the public at large, is a meditation on the splendor of our biosphere and the dangers we pose to it. In graceful, expressive and vigorous prose, Wilson argues that the challenge of the new century will be "to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible." For as America consumes and the Third World tries to keep up, we lose biological diversity at an alarming rate. But the "trajectory" of species loss depends on human choice. If current levels of consumption continue, half the planet's remaining species will be gone by mid-century. Wilson argues that the "great dilemma of environmental reasoning" stems from the conflict between environmentalism and economics, between long-term and short-term values. Conservation, he writes, is necessary for our long-term health and prosperity. Loss of biodiversity translates into economic losses to agriculture, medicine and the biotech industries. But the "bottleneck" of overpopulation and overconsumption can be safely navigated: adequate resources exist, and in the end, success or failure depends upon an ethical decision. Global conservation will succeed or fail depending on the cooperation between government, science and the private sector, and on the interplay of biology, economics and diplomacy. "A civilization able to envision God and to embark on the colonization of space," Wilson concludes, "will surely find the way to save the integrity of this planet and the magnificent life it harbors." (Jan. 15) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
March 10, 2003
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson
TO THE ENDS OF EARTH
The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered. The membrane is seamless. From Everest's peak to the floor of the Mariana Trench, creatures of one kind or another inhabit virtually every square inch of the planetary surface. They obey the fundamental principle of biological geography, that wherever there is liquid water, organic molecules, and an energy source, there is life. Given the near-universality of organic materials and energy of some kind or other, water is the deciding element on planet Earth. It may be no more than a transient film on grains of sand, it may never see sunlight, it may be boiling hot or supercooled, but there will be some kind of organism living in or upon it. Even if nothing alive is visible to the naked eye, single cells of microorganisms will be growing and reproducing there, or at least dormant and awaiting the arrival of liquid water to kick them back into activity.
An extreme example is the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, whose soils are the coldest, driest, and most nutritionally deficient in the world. On first inspection the habitat seems as sterile as a cabinet of autoclaved glassware. In 1903, Robert F. Scott, the first to explore the region, wrote, "We have seen no living thing, not even a moss or lichen; all that we did find, far inland among the moraine heaps, was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing." On all of Earth the McMurdo Dry Valleys most resemble the rubbled plains of Mars.
But the trained eye, aided by a microscope, sees otherwise. In the parched streambeds live twenty species of photosynthetic bacteria, a comparable variety of mostly single-celled algae, and an array of microscopic invertebrate animals that feed on these primary producers. All depend on the summer flow of glacial and icefield meltwater for their annual spurts of growth. Because the paths of the streams change over time, some of the populations are stranded and forced to wait for years, perhaps centuries, for the renewed flush of meltwater. In the even more brutal conditions on bare land away from the stream channels live sparse assemblages of microbes and fungi together with rotifers, bear animalcules, mites, and springtails feeding on them. At the top of this rarefied food web are four species of nematode worms, each specialized to consume different species in the rest of the flora and fauna. With the mites and springtails they are also the largest of the animals, McMurdo's equivalent of elephants and tigers, yet all but invisible to the naked eye.
The McMurdo Dry Valleys's organisms are what scientists call extremophiles, species adapted to live at the edge of biological tolerance. Many populate the environmental ends of Earth, in places that seem uninhabitable to gigantic, fragile animals like ourselves. They constitute, to take a second example, the "gardens" of the Antarctic sea ice. The thick floes, which blanket millions of square miles of ocean water around the continent much of the year, seem forbiddingly hostile to life. But they are riddled with channels of slushy brine in which single-celled algae flourish year-round, assimilating the carbon dioxide, phosphates, and other nutrients that work up from the ocean below. The garden photosynthesis is driven by energy from sunlight penetrating the translucent matrix. As the ice melts and erodes during the polar summer, the algae sink into the water below, where they are consumed by copepods and krill. These tiny crustaceans in turn are the prey of fish whose blood is kept liquid by biochemical antifreezes.