We may care about biodiversity, but does Nature?

I recently read The Future of Life by respected biologist, environmentalist, and Pulitzer prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson, who is not only the world’s foremost expert in myrmecology (study of ants) but also one of the most vocal crusaders for biodiversity.  And he’s not just a scientist, he’s a great lover of nature.  Early in the book he recounts one of the “most memorable events” of his life, when in 1994, in a back room of the Cincinnati Zoo, he encountered a four-year-old Sumatran rhinoceros named Emi.  He gazed into her “lugubrious face,” placed a hand on her flank, and communed with the solitary animal, as he pondered the critically endangered status of her species.

His love for nature leads Wilson to issue a harsh indictment:  “Humanity has so far played the role of planetary killer, concerned only with its own short-term survival,” he warns.  “We have cut much of the heart out of biodiversity.”  By this he means, we are responsible for a rise in the rate of extinctions and a decline in the remaining number of species.  The causes are well known:  hunting and poaching, loss of habitat, spread of invasive species, and now global warming.  Wilson states that by 2030, the species count for plants and animals could be down by 20%, and if we freeze conservation efforts at current levels, he claims that 1/2 of plant and animal species could be gone by 2100.

An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. But it is not the cosmic war and fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.

— Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life

After finishing the book, I reflected on this warning.  I’m in favor of preserving wilderness, and I too would like to see the Sumatran rhinoceros flourishing again in the jungles of southeast Asia.  But for Wilson, biodiversity means more than protecting Emi, it means maximizing the total worldwide species count.  And here, his logic left me unpersuaded.  There are better metrics for measuring biodiversity, it seems to me, and stronger arguments for conservation.

What I most appreciated about the book was Wilson’s emotional connection with nature, and on the very last page, I thought his comments were spot on….

Edward O. Wilson.  Photograph: Frans Lanting/Corbis

Continue reading “We may care about biodiversity, but does Nature?”

We may care about biodiversity, but does Nature?