The modern Darwin

In the 1980s, EO Wilson was the first writer to use the word ‘biodiversity’. Today, he believes the environmental crusade has taken a wrong turn. We need to rediscover our sense of wonder about nature

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

‘Stamp on it before it reproduces!” is a catchphrase that the veteran biologist Edward Osborne Wilson remembers well from his boyhood in Mobile, Alabama.

The phrase was not applied, as you might be forgiven for thinking, to one of the ants he was already collecting at the start of a lifelong fascination with small creatures. Instead it was used to respond to any novel but obnoxious fad that any of his friends came up with.

He recalls it now with wry satisfaction as he discusses the theme of one of his forthcoming books, which he describes as “a full-dress assault on those who believe we should give up on trying to save the planet. That argument is ignorant, arrogant and extremely damaging to the whole world if allowed to prevail. We need to stamp on it before it reproduces.”

Wilson, who has been dubbed Darwin II by the writer Tom Wolfe, has never shied from controversy. Today, at 84, he is as feisty a campaigner as ever, although he remains the unfailingly courteous Southern gentleman he was brought up to be.

Nor has he ever been afraid to move beyond his core area of study, the evolutionary biology and social behaviour of ants. In the 1970s he explored the influence of evolutionary biology on human societies, effectively creating the field of sociobiology, with arguments that remain contentious.

Wilson later coined the word “biophilia” to describe an inbuilt bond between humans and other forms of life, and first used the term “biodiversity” in print to capture the immense variety of those life forms. He is now incensed to find that some conservationist scientists and policymakers are coming to accept, and even celebrate, a world in which that diversity is rapidly diminishing.

He quotes with particular vehemence an article in Wired by the ecologist Erle Ellis, entitled “Stop Trying to Save the Planet”.

“Nature is gone,” writes Ellis. “You are living on a used planet. If that bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.”

Ellis is not alone. One group of eminent restoration ecologists, who until quite recently worked to enable degraded ecosystems to recover, have concluded that this enterprise is increasingly impracticable, a nostalgic fantasy. Instead, they argue, we should often be prepared to accept “novel ecosystems”.

Radically degraded

This is a deceptively attractive description for landscapes that have been radically degraded by, for example, alien invasive plants, such as the rhododendrons that are destroying Irish oak forests. The new trend is to give up the undoubtedly tough struggle against such pests, and manage them for whatever goods and services they can still supply us with.

Such ideas have been popularised by writers such as Emma Marris, whose high-profile Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World is one of the books that Wilson says he intends to “vivisect publicly” in own new work, which will be titled, not without irony, The End of the Anthropocene.

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