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


‘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.

He stresses that he is not against the concept of the Anthropocene as such. “It’s a sound thing to talk about. A geologist in the far future, excavating, would find that in this century Earth was radically different.

“But what I mean by the ‘end of the Anthropocene’ is that we have got to stop ruining the planet with such brilliant efficiency, and we should definitely stop talking about the surrender of the rest of life on the planet.

“I debated with Marris at a symposium in Aspen,” he says with some relish, “and in the end I asked her this: ‘Just where, exactly, would you plant the white flag of surrender?’ She did not seem to know what I was talking about.”

As it happens, Wilson and I are talking in a vast and biodiverse landscape that was very nearly surrendered to irrevocable degradation only 10 years ago but now appears to be in the process of a remarkable recovery. Gorongosa National Park, in Mozambique, once an icon for large-scale conservation, has seen its big game devastated by the country’s civil war and subsequent poaching.

But a partnership between the philanthropist Greg Carr’s Carr Foundation and the Mozambique government has seen elephants, hippos and, especially, antelope make a significant recovery.

Wilson has written a book, A Window on Eternity, about the park and recently inaugurated a laboratory there that bears his name. This institution is bringing top scientists from Harvard (his alma mater), Princeton, and Coimbra, in Portugal (and probably, very soon, from Trinity College Dublin) to this remote part of Africa.

But while Wilson celebrates the species richness of Gorongosa, he repeatedly points out that we still know the names of only a fraction of its inhabitants.

Before a brief survey he led in May 2012, only 50 ant species were known to exist in the whole of Mozambique. By now his colleagues have found more than 200 in the park alone.

How much does this kind of biodiversity matter, to those of us who are not fascinated by insects? Wilson says it should matter a great deal. He likes to call invertebrates the “little things that run the world”, and he points out that they make up 93 per cent of the animal tissue in the Amazon rainforest. Collectively, all life depends on them, for example for their huge part in recycling dead and waste organic matter.

But Wilson thinks we should value them not only for utilitarian reasons but also for the breathtaking beauty and drama that exist in their microworlds. For an online illustration of this, he recommends the remarkable photo blog by his colleague Piotr Naskrecki (who took the photographs with this article),

‘Rest of life’

It is easy to see how a man with this sensibility loathes what he sees as the “malignity and ugliness of destroying the rest of life”.

Ultimately, he says, the “Anthropocene ideology” will lead to “artificial ecosystems, designed for our pleasure – you know, like a good swimming pool. That’s essentially what’s on their mind: we can do almost anything, and we don’t need old-fashioned nature or the pain and expense of trying to retain and restore it.”

His counterargument is that we have only begun to lift the corner of a magic carpet of biodiversity. We have identified only two million species out of, he reckons very roughly, eight million that may currently exist on Earth. And we have very little idea of the full ecological roles of the vast majority of the species that we have managed to identify.

To those who now say that we should give up the struggle against invasive alien species, and learn to live with “novel” ecosystems, he asks why we should accept any avoidable reduction in the species, processes and functions that enrich our lives.

He tells one particularly scary story, warning that even apparently pristine environments can be very vulnerable to “one bad actor”. The little fire ant, hitch-hiking with humans into the alien habitat in New Caledonia where it has no predators, has expanded to a point where it appears to be exterminating all other insects.

In west Africa the same ant has been found to blind elephants. But in its native habitat, in South America, it is kept in check by other species. We cannot afford, Wilson says, to give up the battle to restore degraded ecosystems towards their natural integrity.

Wonder, he has long argued, is the spark that ignites scientific investigation. It is, he says simply, what keeps him going today. “Our sense of wonder grows exponentially,” he wrote in Biophilia. “The greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery, and the more we seek new knowledge to create new mystery.”

He believes that we are often failing to foster that spark of wonder in our education systems. Just as a good music teacher will let children experiment with different instruments until they find one that is congenial, he believes we should offer them direct encounters with birds, reptiles, mammals, plants and, of course, insects until they find a group they love.

He remembers that an enlightened teacher told his parents: “Ed writes well, and he is fascinated by ants. These two things could combine into something good.”

That fascination remains. Much as he enjoys human company, he never seems more himself than when he is striding off into the bush with his net and his eyeglass, still full of boyish enthusiasm in his 85th year, still searching for new knowledge, new mysteries.

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