Life on Earth is in the early stages of the worst mass extinction since the end of the Cretaceous. Many species are likely go extinct before they are even discovered and named by biologists. Of the estimated 10 to 20 million species living on Earth, only 10 percent have been described in the past 250 years. Dr. Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, proposes that the remaining 90 percent must be described in one-tenth that time to save millions of species from extinction.
Earthwatch spoke to Dr. Wilson, a world-renowned expert on biodiversity, in his Harvard office about the future of life and how people can work together to ward off imminent mass extinction.
Earthwatch: If we could transport ourselves to the end of the Cretaceous or the Permian, how would the mass extinctions occurring then be different from the current one?
E.O. Wilson: I think we get a little feel for what the end of the Cretaceous was like in the wake of the Sumatran tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, what it's like to get whole areas wiped out by gigantic waves and major storms and so on. But events of this kind are not the main, or as far as we know, an important source of extinction. What makes modern extinctions different is that they are caused by human activity.
Today's extinction spasm is not easy to see. You have to know a lot of what's out there in the world and what's happening to species individually and to the different ecosystems that contain the largest number of species. The comparison I make between these big extinction events, prehistoric meteorite-caused or natural event-caused extinctions and the present one, is parallel to the difference between a heart attack and cancer. We understand that what we are doing is a slow but insidious, and only can be seen when you lay it out over the whole world over a period of decades. The hopeful thing about it is that this cancer can be treated. A lot of damage has been done, and it can be dangerous to us if we really just go on until half the species of organisms are extinct forever. Or we can halt the hemorrhaging.
In terms of scale, it's hard to put a figure on it. We're in a pronounced early stage of an extinction event that would probably be, by the end of this century if human activities continue unabated, right up to the Cretaceous level. We're part way there. Whether you can say its 10 percent there or 25 percent there, a lot of it depends on the organisms you're talking about. One estimate has it that, particularly when you throw in the mass extinction of the Pacific Island birds, which are the most vulnerable on Earth, something like 20 percent of bird species has been extinguished by human activities. In fact most of those we won't even know about until we do archaeological studies, which are being done in places like Tonga and Hawaii. We know that the Hawaiian birds have gone from something like 125 species to present day 25 or 30 species through human activities.
Earthwatch: There are many environmental challenges facing the world today. How significant is species extinction in the face of these other issues?
E.O. Wilson: The answer to that depends on the scale. It depends on whether you are George Bush or John Muir. In other words, if you're thinking ten years into the future, then clearly climate warming is more urgent, even though President Bush doesn't think so yet. Climate warming, and the depletion of fossil water reserves, are critical for the next decade or so. If you're thinking for 50 years, 100 years, and for all time species extinction is, like I like to say, " the folly our descendents will least forgive us." That's irreparable. Climate warming can be reversed by 70 percent reduction in the effluent output from fossil fuel use. It can be halted and reversed. Virtually every other environmental change can be reversed. You just can't reverse mass extinction. In the short term, it's not pressing in terms of our survival and immediate comfort. In the long term, it's the most important.
The environmental damage we're doing, such as the climate change and water shortage we can feel right now, also happens to have collateral effects on species. Unless we're wise enough to look a little into the future, that's not going to have an immediate impact. You won't see it if you just live from presidential election to presidential election.
Earthwatch: Why is it important to conserve biodiversity? What are the consequences if we don't?
E.O. Wilson: We will see diminishment in ecosystem services, which have been estimated to be equivalent to the world gross domestic product, roughly $30 trillion. We get these services scot-free. We'll see a reduction over time, so that we'll have to invest more and more of our gross domestic product into replacing those services. The classic example is a choice that was made by New York City between a billion-dollar-level filtration plant to keep water it was getting from the Catskills pure, versus a much smaller amount of money put into preserving the Catskills watershed. They wisely chose the latter. So we will see a lot of that going on. Choices made, and bad choices taken, that will diminish what we are already getting scot-free.
There will also be opportunity costs: so many species we can learn from, new products derived, wisdom obtained through scientific study, will be lost forever. That's a huge opportunity cost that's beyond measure.
Finally, there's the ethical approach. There's just something fundamentally wrong, that people of every religious or secular ethical persuasion can agree on is wrong, to dump the rest of life. Particularly when we don't have to.
Earthwatch: Are some species more critical to conserve than others, and how can we make those decisions?
E.O. Wilson: I've become an extremist in this regard. I say, don't listen to economists. There have been economists who have actually said, "we'll apply our great analytic skills to helping you chose how to get the most from your money in terms of saving species. You have to have a triage, and there are some you can't save, and so on." And I just say, save them all. Count each one as you would a patient in an emergency room. That's ethical absolutism, and I think it's justified. Don't ever let any species disappear.
But my priority would be to concentrate on the ones that are on the brink. There is now a zero extinction movement, which takes that ethic as their means to justify making a special effort for those species that are right on the brink, wherever they are. These will be mostly mammals and birds and mollusks, and a few other creatures, because we know enough about them and we know which animals belong to what I call the 100 heartbeat club: there are 100 or fewer individuals left in the world, thus we're 100 heartbeats from losing a million-year-old species. In the case of plants, there are at least a half dozen flowering plant species, including trees and shrubs, that are down to one individual. That's obviously where we should give top priority, wherever they are.
Then we go to where we're putting our money right up front, whatever's there, thinking about the hottest of the hotspots. Here, we're not talking about individual species. We're talking about areas that have to be saved in order to save large numbers of species. This is something Earthwatch is intimately familiar with.
All other things being equal, we should also go for the megafauna. Often megafauna are coincident with that first critically endangered group. But megafaunas in general, I think, are very important for aesthetic and spiritual reasons as well. It would be very depressing to lose the Sumatran rhino. It would be a wake-up call, and it would be something to literally weep over.
Finally, I would save unique members of high taxanomic rank, meaning the only species found in the genus, sometimes the only species found in an entire family or even order. In other words, they are the last of their kind. For many invertebrates and some of the cold-blooded vertebrates, they have lasted since the Mesozoic and they're down to one endangered species. The tuatara, the lizard-like reptile on New Zealand and the kagu of New Caledonia are examples. The national bird of New Caledonia, an island in the south Pacific, the kagu is a magnificent, crane-like bird with a big plume of feathers. These are things we should go for, the species that represent unique groups. The Sumatran rhino is my favorite, one I'm trying to push for. It's down to about 300 individuals, and that is the last of the one of the oldest groups of mammals on Earth. It has the longest relatively unchanged lineage, going back to the early Tertiary. There was one other species that was closely related, and that was the hairy rhinoceros of Europe. We wiped that out before we even had a conscience.
When I say save them all, this is not just rhetoric. When you have enough citizen scientists, enough Earthwatch-like projects going, then you actually will have enough people to assign all the key species. You could make a list of maybe the 500 critically endangered ones, and beyond that you go to another 500 megafauna species that need special attention, like the Abyssinian wolf and so on. And pretty soon, I would expect there'd be enough volunteers to actually have people who are devoted to the project, and are engaged. I imagine that once they get out there, they start to care.
Earthwatch: Why aren't people aware of the gravity of species extinctions?
E.O. Wilson: In my upcoming book, The Creation, I've addressed these particular issues. What's gone wrong, why aren't people aware, and why is "citizen science" is the answer? What I've done is made the following argument. There are three great problems that are overlapping and interlocked. One of them is that we haven't caught on about the environment. We still lack concern about the environment. It's only when you suddenly run out of water or you're in danger of being killed by an earthquake. People don't care. They certainly don't care about the living environment. That's one problem.
The second overlapping problem is the failure of science education. Even well-meaning television can't do the job of raising people's awareness. People want a really quick feedback. When they're watching a movie or television special on nature they're going to reach for the remote unless they get to see the animal quickly. What they don't have is an Earthwatch experience, which means that they get feedback all the time. And there's a combination, I would think, of adventure and quietude for the soul. But how do you bring it to them? How do you get them? Well, I know that's what you're trying to do.
The third problem is the explosive growth of biology as a science. Most of all the key issues are biological that we're talking about. Biological information is increasing so fast, and with deepening technical difficulty, that even biologists themselves don't know what's going on. They can specialize on one thing and get to master that but they don't understand most of what's going on. This has created chaos in terms of teaching biology. And it's also created new ethical problems that people can't handle. So it's not surprising that some of our political leaders want to go back to the Middle Ages. They resort to ideology because they can't understand what evolution is and what the meaning of life is. They'd rather just go back to church, and get it from the pastor. Anyway, those three problems overlap, and if we can attack them as one problem we can start to approach the issue of awareness.
Earthwatch: How does the current hot issue of teaching evolution in schools tie into the issue of science education?
E.O. Wilson: There's no way of avoiding the science-religion issue in evolution and so here's what I believe about intelligent design. In my book, The Creation, I'm addressing a southern Baptist minister. I'm one of the few people that can do this without seeming hypocritical, and I'm not hypocritical, as I was raised a southern Baptist. So I'm speaking to him as a friend. I say, we have a similar background, I know what you believe, and I want you to know what I believe. And I want you to think about joining me in addressing this problem that means so much to all of us.
He reads an excerpt: I see no hope for compromise on the idea of intelligent design Simply put, this proposal agrees that evolution occurs, but it argues that evolution is guided by a supernatural intelligence. The evidence for intelligent design solely by itself is the presentation of a default argument. It says that biologists have not yet explained how complex systems such as the eye could evolve by themselves, therefore a higher intelligence must guide the evolution. No positive evidence exists for intelligent design. No way has been proposed to test it, nor any theory to explain the transcription from supernatural force to organic reality. Some have suggested that scientists have formed a conspiracy to halt the search for intelligent design. There is no such conspiracy. There is only agreement among experts that the hypothesis of intelligent design has none of the characteristics of science. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the culture of science.
Discoveries and the testing of discoveries are the currency of science, the silver and the gold of science. What makes a scientist successful? To be able to say he or she has "discovered." Challenges to prevailing theory on the basis of new evidence are the hallmark. If positive and respectable evidence were adduced for a supernatural force, it would deservedly rank as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. It would transform philosophy and change the course of history. Scientists dream of making such a discovery. However, without such an event, it would be a dangerous step for theologians to summon the default argument of intelligent design as scientific support for religious belief.
Biologists are solving the seemingly insoluble, providing evolutionary steps for the autonomous origin of ever more complex systems at an accelerating pace. What is to become of the hypothesis of intelligent design as the remaining unsolved systems decline toward the vanishing point? The hypothesis will be dismissed. And what will that do the idea of science-based theology? The odds powerfully favor such an outcome. In science, and in logic, a default argument can never replace positive evidence. But positive evidence could easily replace a default argument.
The main thing is to call on religious leaders, and religious people in general, saying, "what are you waiting for?" The Creation is going down the drain, so stop fussing about evolution. We need to be working together, science and religion. I'm taking a point of departure from the traditional writing and appeal of the environmental scientists, which tend to look on religious people as the enemy. One of the reasons I think you'll like it is that I touch on citizen science. I talk about engaging the broader public, what we must do to improve education. Earthwatch falls in there quite nicely.
Earthwatch: Do you think our world leaders are prepared to deal with the challenges in conserving biodiversity?
E.O. Wilson: When you change people the leaders follow, on big issues like this. In the United States we have unfortunately right now a paucity of genuine leaders: people with the intelligence and the foresight and the rhetorical ability to summon the best in people.
Earthwatch: Can we turn this global challenge into opportunity?
E.O. Wilson: Yes. If you just take what we're losing by our destruction of nature and put it upside down, then that gives you a description of what we gain.
Earthwatch: There are many parallels between biodiversity and cultural diversity. Both of them are threatened, but is this more than coincidence?
E.O. Wilson: We are wiping out ancient cultures and languages by the same processes that we are wiping out species. And we really ought to take both of those into our fold and join them. In places ancient cultures are threatened at the same time as are their local habitats. There are lots of cultures, like the Yanomamo of Brazil and many other Amerindian tribes, or African cultures like the Bambuti Pygmies of the Congo, where this is the case. The Bambuti culture is threatened by the expansion of development into the Congo forest and an increasing dependence on Bantu peoples and economies. So the forest goes and their culture goes. There are so many cases like that. Earthwatch can make a major contribution here. You ought to use the military strategy of starting where the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor, where you know that something can be done. There are other cases where that process is going on where you will just get eaten up in terms of funding and everything else. But there are probably a lot of local situations in South America and maybe Central America where you could make a difference.
Earthwatch: Much of the greatest tropical biodiversity is in developing countries, many of them economically challenged and with burgeoning populations. Will these countries be able to grow without sacrificing their biological wealth?
E.O. Wilson: The best way to stunt their growth is by sacrificing their biological wealth. There are so many countries now that are beginning to profit from nature and do much better about conserving their natural resources, designing their agriculture and industry accordingly and when they can tapping into ecotourism. It should be kept in mind that tourism is the biggest industry in the world, a trillion dollar industry, and a larger and larger portion of it is ecotourism. A trillion dollars is nothing to be sneezed at. I would think that Venetian Palaces would hold less interest for people than the Brazilian rainforest. If you're lucky enough to have wild environments, you can build them into ecotourism attractions. You don't necessarily even need antelopes and tigers. You can have all sorts of attractions people will like, small animals, fish, and so on, coral reefs. I'll bet there aren't too many places in the world where you can't find some ecotourism potential.
Earthwatch: What do you see as the role of "citizen scientists," such as Earthwatch volunteers, in the future of conservation?
E.O. Wilson:You know there are only two fields of science in which we can have genuine citizen scientists, I mean where people get out and do things as amateurs and get involved and after a while are getting to be considerably more than amateur level. Those fields are astronomy and biodiversity, or conservation. That's worth thinking about. Only 10 percent of different kinds of organisms on Earth are known. We need help not just to discover, but to build information on each one: We can build an electronic library I like to call the "encyclopedia of life." That's the idea, and the emphasis is on citizen science. That is why we know so much about birds: the work of citizens, about 200 years of amateur science of very good quality, and it's made its way into the literature. The result is that birds, above all, and to some extent flowing plants, are so well known. The database is so big you are really able to draw a lot of important conclusions.
The most significant thing a layperson can do to turn around the loss of biodiversity is to become part of the citizen scientist movement. By actually putting people on the ground, where problems are, people that are willing to be engaged and they bring money with them, they get involved and help promote the right course for these environments, in the U.S. as well as abroad. You're organization is a big part of the future.
Earthwatch: Many people view science as an "ivory tower," but we know from the Earthwatch experience that scientists are concerned people dealing with real-world issues. How can we help shatter this stereotype?
E.O. Wilson: Mapping global biodiversity is not only a major area of biology now, but this is going to be a very important part of the future of the science of biology. Its not just a way of bringing young people into biology, it's going to be a major part. The way I see it, there are three dimensions to biology. One of them is the workings of a few model species that are studied from a molecular level up to an ecosystem level. We have about 20 of those: E. coli, the nematodes, humans, and so on. Of those 20 species, very little is known at the organism up to the ecosystem level; most research is focused at the molecular and cell level. Molecular and cell biology are sort of at the natural history phase. Everything they're doing is treated sort of like a rainforest. They're using all this high tech equipment mostly to find and describe protein molecules. Molecular and cell biologists are the Darwins and the Humboldts of the cell. That's just one dimension. The second dimension is the diversity of life on this planet. Understanding it and how it all fits together, biogeographically. That's going to be a major part of the fundamental science of biology. We should never slide into the misconception that just because the technology is more difficult to understand, and is more expensive, that molecular and cell biology is the real core of the science. They get all their money because they have a rich partner; they're married to medicine. Molecular and cell biology are looked on as directly essential to private health, but what Earthwatch is doing, exploring biodiversity, is essential to public health: the welfare of people, based in their health and the quality of their lives. Therefore, we are coming out of the ivory tower. The third dimension is the Darwinian: the origin and meaning of life. Where did it come from?
Earthwatch: Are you hopeful about the future of biodiversity?
E.O. Wilson: Cautiously optimistic. You will have to agree that consciousness is rising. I mean, Earthwatch is nearly 35 years old, but I really think you have large growth stock for the indefinite future. After all, think of how things were 40 or 50 years ago, before you were born. You've no idea what an absence there was of any conservation ethic. There were a few hardcore people in the Sierra Club and a very small number of scientists and bird watchers, also in the Audubon Society. There were arguments going on about whether we really need the Everglades. It was dismal. So there's been a huge change in this country, and all the trends landmarked by the 1992 Earth Summit have been positive. I think we're at or close to the tipping point. That's real optimism, in terms of public consciousness turned into political action. Right now I see progress in terms of awareness and action than we've had in the last two years. Unfortunately the problems, global warming, species extinction, the coming water crisis, the depletion of fossil fuels, are rising at an even steeper curve than awareness and action. So I'm, in two words, cautiously optimistic.