Bare Bones Biology 047 – E O Wilson

You know what folks, I have not won the Nobel Peace Prize. I wrote a book once, but I’m not all that famous, nevertheless, and sometimes I get the idea that people think my opinions about the functions and future of the ecosystem are just opinions – no more knowledgeable than anybody else’s. And, yes, they’re opinions all right, but just to point out that there isn’t all that much controversy in the scientific community, and that really, really famous people have the same opinions that I do, I will give you a quote from E O Wilson (ref):

“The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes. Cut to pieces, mowed down, plowed under, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts. Little more than a billion people were alive in the 1840’s. They were overwhelmingly agricultural, and few families needed more than 2 or 3 acres to survive. The American frontier was still wide open, and far away on continents to the south, up great rivers, beyond unclimbed mountains, stretched unspoiled equatorial forests, brimming with a maximum diversity of life. These wildernesses seemed as unattainable and timeless as the planets and stars. That could not last because the mood of American colonists was Abrahamic. The explorers and colonists were guided by a Biblical prayer. May we take possession of this land that God has provided and let it drip milk and honey into our mouths forever.

“Now, more than six billion people fill the world. The great majority are very poor. Nearly one billion exist on the edge of starvation. All are struggling to raise the quality of their lives any way they can. That unfortunately includes the conversion of the surviving remnants of the natural environment. Half of the great tropical forests have been cleared. The last frontiers of the world are effectively gone. Species of plants and animals are disappearing at a hundred times faster than before the coming of humanity, and as many as half may be gone by the end of this century.

“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. The race is now on between the techno-scientific and scientific forces that are destroying the living environment, and those that can be harnessed to save it. We are inside a bottleneck(1) of overpopulation and waste consumption. If the race is won, humanity can emerge in far better condition than it entered, and with most of the diversity of life still intact.

“The situation is desperate, but there are encouraging signs that it can be won. Population growth has slowed, and if the present trajectory holds is likely to peak between 8 and 10 billion people by century’s end. That many people, experts tell us, can be accommodated with a decent standard of living, but just barely. The amount of arable land and water available per person globally is already declining. In solving the problem, other experts tell us, it should also be possible to shelter most of the vulnerable plant and animal species. In order to pass through the bottleneck, a global land ethic is urgently needed. Not just any global land ethic that might happen to enjoy agreeable sentiment, but one based on the best understanding of ourselves and the world around us that science and technology can provide.

“Surely, the rest of life matters. Surely our stewardship is its only hope. We will be wise to listen carefully to the heart, then act with rational intention with all the tools we can gather and bring to bear. The living world is dying; the natural economy is crumbling beneath our busy feet. We have been too self-absorbed to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions, and we will suffer a terrible loss unless we shake off our delusions and move quickly to a solution. Science and technology led us into this bottleneck. Now science and technology must help us find our way through and out.“

Bare Bones Biology 047 – E O Wilson
KEOS Radio, 89.1, Bryan TX
For an audiocast of this program click here

Additional notes and recommended reading:

This quote is from The Future of Life, by E. O. Wilson, read by Ed Begley Jr., Pub. 2002 by New Millenium Audio.
Dr. Wilson’s book heavily stresses species survival, but he doesn’t clearly explain why the ecosystem needs all those species in order for itself to survive. The ecosystem is a living thing, with parts, similar to us as living things, with parts. We can assume that all the parts have functions that are useful in keeping the thing alive, or they probably wouldn’t be there. It reminds me of the Biblical verse: “I am the vine, you are the branches (etc.)” All the parts contribute to the whole and we aren’t knowledgeable enough to know exactly how they contribute, so we are just flailing around when we permit parts of the ecosystem to be removed. The term for this is resilience (, which is a major component of sustainable balance

A more readable book that describes our history from a somewhat different perspective is Collapse, 2005, by Jared Diamond.

See also the population articles in National Geographic, January 2011 and March 2011

(1) A “bottleneck” in biology, is an event during which the population of a species collapses, leaving only a relatively few members of the species to re-establish its presence in the ecosystem. It is too late to avoid the bottleneck. So our goal, of course, is to come out of it with a more positive and sustainable culture to pass on to the next millenium. I believe this will require that we merge our factual understandings of biology with our innate human compassion. Dr. Wilson seems to believe our innate human compassion will be automatic, but looking at Libya and other atrocities of recent years, I think we will have to work hard and intentionally to sustain and grow a compassionate culture. First, we need to understand that the disasters will become worse before they become better. Next we understand that compassion is far more than that “fuzzy bunny” feel-good that we enjoy in old-fashioned Disney make-believe, and learn how to make it real. More next time.

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