Saturday, June 30, 2007

Biological Diversity

During Charlie Rose's conversation with Paul Simon on PBS they talked about E. O. Wilson. If anyone does not know, Wilson is a world expert on ants, the controversial author of the theory of sociobiology, and a double Pulitzer Prize winner. He is also perhaps the smartest person I have ever met, and I have met some very smart people, including about a dozen Nobel Prize winning scientists. However, I think of Professor Wilson first as probably the world's most influential advocate for the preservation of biodiversity. It occurred to me that I should write to support him in that effort. Among his other works, Wilson has published these on biodiversity:
We don't really know much about biodiversity. We have a pretty good count on the number of species of animals, but we find new species even of primates from time to time. We can estimate the number of plant species and are moving toward an inventory of those species. Estimates of the numbers of insect species on earth are quite rough, and there is a long way to go to identify and describe all those species. As far as I can see, we can make only the crudest estimates of the number of microbial species, and we can not culture most of them, much less describe them adequately.

New techniques in genetics are improving our understanding of the diversity of life. We are learning, for example, that scientists had in the past misidentified similar appearing species as one because their appearance belied their underlying genetic differences which would prevent interbreeding. The new techniques offer the possibility of understanding within species genetic diversity. Indeed, it is the new techniques which are for the first time allowing us to estimate the diversity of microbial species.

Evolution tells us that species come and go. There are always new species coming into existence and species going extinct. Mankind has, especially in recent history, changed the rate of extinction of species. Once, say before Columbus, of species plants and animals evolved separately on the different continents, and in "island ecosystems" so separated as to prevent migration among enclaves with similar ecological conditions. Mankind changed that situation, moving species from area to area, often inadverantly. More importantly, we have modified ecologies to meet the needs of our own, planting huge areas with monocultures of useful crops. We have allowed huge areas that we could not use or could no longer use to degrade environmentally. Global climate change will exacerbate the situation, and almost certainly the growing human population and the growing footprint of the average human being will lead to further, faster environmental degradation.

As a result, species are going extinct at a very high rate and that rate can be expected to increase during this century. Unless mankind acts force to preserve biodiversity, we can expect to see a considerable reduction in the number of species of animals, plants and insects in the next hundred year.

Why is this important? First the wanton destruction of biodiversity is wildly imprudent. We don't understand ecology well enough to predict the impact of the radical simplification of the biosphere on human wellbeing. We have only this one earth on which to live, and if we screw it up......

It has been said that world history is written in shifting sands. Civilization after civilization has fallen when its environment could no longer sustain its population with the technology it had in hand. The tipping point may be a climatological anomaly -- e.g. persistent drought or a little ice age -- but the problem comes from over use of the environment. The ruins of the civilization found in the desert which it helped to create. Now that we are developing a global civilization, we will have nowhere to move if we destroy the environment on which it depends.

I think we are about to see a biological revolution. Evolution has stocked the world with an enormous wealth of genetic diversity. Mankind is just beginning to unlock the keys to understanding that diversity, and will surely make enormous strides in learning how to utilize genes to benefit humans. Each species is like an encyclopedia of genetic information, created through eons of time. Each species lost is lost forever, and all that information is never to be regained. The rapid extinction of species will limit the scientific knowledge we can produce, and it will limit the ways in which we can exploit genes for man's benefit. The ramifications will be felt in medicine, agriculture (including forestry and aquaculture), and industrial processing.

There is also what might be termed an aesthetic reason to maintain biodiversity. People like having the ecosystems that we are losing. We find them beautiful. We enjoy the diversity of life. We mourn not only the loss of "charismatic mega-species" when they are reduced in numbers or go extinct, but also individuals of those species. Think of the efforts to save whales that find themselves in dangerous human dominated waters, or the sadness when a favored zoo animal passes away. We enjoy seeing a beautiful specimen tree, a flock of birds, or a butterfly.

Ultimately, it seems morally wrong to wantonly destroy the diversity of life on earth. By what right does man do so? How we will be judged by future generations if we leave them a denuded world bereft of biodiversity?

What are we to do to protect biodiversity. Certainly science is a priority. We have to devote the resources to understand biodiversity and how it can be managed and protected. Certainly too, we have to develop public policies at national and international levels to stop environmental degradation and protect biodiversity. We must protect immediately those biodiversity hot spots that are endangered. (Tropical areas have more diversity than areas further from the equator, and some areas for geographical and ecological regions have very high numbers of species found no where else in the world. Unfortunately, some of these areas are gravely threatened by encroaching human use or environmental destruction. This combination of threat and diversity calls out for an emergency response.) More fundamentally, we must move towards policies that provide long-term protection for the environment and biodiversity.

The failures of the United States government to do so are especially sad, given that as the world's most wasteful nation we cause a disproportionate part of the problem, and as the world's greatest economic and military power, this nation could -- were it to choose to -- provide global leadership in this good cause.

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