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The Future of Life
You'd Know a Lot If You Knew All the Dirt

By Rich McManus

Photos by Bill Branson

On the Front Page...

On a day of agonizing remembrances, it was a mercy on 9/11 of 2002 to hear a talk on "The Future of Life," by renowned Harvard professor emeritus Dr. Edward O. Wilson, a man whose soft, Alabama accent took a packed Masur Auditorium on a world tour of conservation hot spots in desperate need of preservation, but who also was so down to earth that he could marvel at the biotic worlds in just a few inches of topsoil. He spoke almost longingly of the biological riches strewn like jewels amid the eastern hardwoods that he admired along the drive into Bethesda from National Airport, and declared at one point that a scientist "could spend a lifetime in a Magellanic voyage around a single rotting beech tree stump and never classify" all the lifeforms to be found therein.


He was here to sound a warning, too. The great biological diversity that has arisen in the past 3 billion years is eroding at an accelerating rate, he said, exacting a great cost on our natural endowment, and exacerbating political instability. But there is still time to save our legacy, he declared. About $28 billion, rightly spent worldwide, could preserve countless species and free us from a "bottleneck phenomenon" — man-made environmental depredations that are consuming prime habitats at an alarming rate.

"The biosphere is far richer than anyone ever imagined," he said. "It's time to think about the rest of life (besides mankind) more seriously...the 21st century will be called the century of biology and of the environment." He faulted man's "paleolithic obstinacy," including overpopulation, inequitably distributed per capita consumption, recklessness with fire (according to NASA space imagery, 5 percent of Earth's land surface is burned annually, mostly by human beings, he said), and disregard for the riches of the world's rain forests (home to more than half of Earth's species, these forests constitute only 6 percent of the terrestrial surface, half of which has already been ruined by man). "We have need for an enlightened ethics."

Like a Biblical prophet, Wilson underscored the axiom that the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. The gap between the richest fifth of the world's population and its poorest fifth was 30 to 1 in 1960, 60 to 1 in 1990, and 74 to 1 today. "Eight hundred million people are living in absolute poverty," he said, citing United Nations figures. "This is a security issue," he warned, "and a dangerous setting for resentment and fanaticism."

NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein presents Dr. Edward O. Wilson with a commemorative plaque.

The damage already done to the natural world cannot be repaired "in any era of time that has meaning to the modern mind," he said. "We must stop needlessly extinguishing other species." Bio-diversity, which he defined as the totality of all heritable variation in the world, needs rescue. He estimated that there are perhaps 1.5 million to 1.8 million total species on Earth known to science, and many times that number remaining to be discovered. "But we know less about the surface of the Earth than about the surface of all the other planets combined, except maybe Pluto. There's more complexity in a handful of dirt than there is on all of Mars."

Insects dominate the diversity of the terrestrial environment. There are probably 20,000 species of ants alone, he said, 341 of which he has discovered only recently. Science has identified some 60,000 kinds of fungi, but he guesses the total is probably around 1.5 million. And bacteria? "An unimaginable number." Wilson envisioned a "great new burst of exploration" if science simply focused on the life to be found in simple drops of rain forest rainwater. Water holds an astonishing quantity of the planet's biodiversity, he said.

Two miles below Earth's surface reside entirely new bacteria and microscopic fungi and slimes that would inevitably inherit the planet if we were unwise enough to incinerate its surface, Wilson observed.

He called the rain forest Earth's "biological treasure house," because it boasts so many species. "The garden lofts that you find in the treetops are very dense and difficult to get through," he said. "They are filled with stinging bees and wasps — Tarzan wouldn't last 15 minutes there. But our athletic young men and women graduate students have climbed up on ropes that were shot into the treetops by bow and arrow," he related. Cargo nets lowered from hovering blimps, and construction cranes with swinging booms have also offered access to a heretofore forbidden world.

"It sounds dangerous," Wilson chortled, "but that's what graduate students are for." Quickly adding that he knows of not a single fatality in such field work, he said the diversity his students find in the canopy is legendary. "We're living on an unexplored planet," he said.

A simple cross-section of some backyard soil would reveal, if studied at each millimeter of its depth, "great changes as you go down," Wilson said. With variations in the amount of sunlight, humidity, pH, nutrients and space at different depths, even humble dirt would reveal "an enormous array of riches for the creatures who live and feed there. The soil is alive and the diversity is enormous. One square foot of soil has an array of small invertebrates, mites, arachnids...hundreds, or even thousands of species, many of which are still unknown to science. The creatures themselves are very strange to nonentomologists — those not familiar with what teems in the soil. But their names will become familiar once their importance is known," he predicted.

Wilson is especially concerned about loss of rain forest, which is disappearing at the rate of .5 percent to 1 percent a year, or an area from about half the size of Florida to the full state per year. The Philippines, he pointed out, was mostly forested in 1900, but was only 22 percent forest in 1998. Interestingly, about half the species in a given habitat can survive, even if you reduce the habitat by 90 percent, Wilson has found; so the remaining 10 percent is both very easy — and very dear — to lose.

Wilson admires the poster created to publicize his lecture. Looking on are Dr. Joseph Fraumeni of NCI and Kirschstein.

The acronym HIPPO describes how we're losing our biodiversity: Habitat destruction, invasion of alien species into nonnative habitats (witness the depredations of snakehead fish in a Crofton, Md., pond this past summer), pollution, population expansion, and overharvesting. The imported fire ant is overrunning the American south, the brown tree snake has claimed all of the native songbirds of Guam, and the Filipinos almost never see a cerulean paradise flycatcher. The velocity of extinction is 100 to 1,000 times faster in habitats where humanity has arrived, Wilson reported.

But there's a way out of the bottleneck, he said. "You can preserve even large blocks of wilderness at surprisingly low cost." Conservation groups can buy logging rights in some countries, such as Bolivia, for as little as $1 per acre. "If we focus on 25 hot spots around the globe, a great deal can be done at relatively little expense," Wilson said, calling on governments to ally with private efforts to conserve. "Twenty-eight billion dollars, wisely invested, could save the 25 most endangered hot spots plus the rain forests of the Amazon, Congo and New Guinea — that's one-tenth of 1 percent of the world's gross national product." Wilson labeled the $6 billion currently spent on conservation worldwide, "a heck of a paltry investment."

A central goal of global conservation is to raise the poor to an endurable standard of living as well as to preserve habitat, but also to complete the exploration of global biodiversity. "We need to reinaugurate the exploration of planet Earth...It's taken us 250 years to learn 10 percent of what there is to know about our planet. Some people estimate that we could learn the other 90 percent within the next 20 years." Such an effort would "transform much of the nature of biology," he forecast.

"It's an ethical decision, finally," Wilson concluded. He quoted the late John Sawhill, who was president of the Nature Conservancy: "Society is defined not only by what it creates, but also by what it refuses to destroy."

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