Commentary Magazine


The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

The Future of Life
by Edward O. Wilson
Knopf. 256 pp. $22.00

One of the stranger phenomena in the recent history of science is the brilliant researcher who, at the end of a productive career in one field, moves on to another, embracing sometimes far-fetched projects. The physicist Murray Gell-Mann, for example, has helped to pioneer an abstruse discipline called complexity theory, which aims to explain everything from weather patterns to the evolution of life. James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA and for several years the director of the Human Genome Project, has turned to investigating the genetic roots of happiness, and was last heard lecturing an audience at Berkeley on the connection between skin color and sex drive. And of course there is the case of the chemist Linus Pauling, whose last years were devoted to extolling the supposedly miraculous medicinal virtues of Vitamin C. It does these great scientists no disservice to say that these ventures have been speculative at best, bizarre at worst, curious footnotes to otherwise profound legacies.

Some have wondered of late whether we are witnessing a similar phase in the career of Edward O. Wilson, our foremost evolutionary biologist. Wilson achieved fame—and notoriety—in the mid-1970’s with the publication of Sociobiology, in which he argued that the process of natural selection is the key to understanding the social behavior of both animals and, by extension, human beings. He elaborated on the last part of this proposition in On Human Nature (1978), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Both books gained him the undying enmity of the academic Left, which (correctly) saw his work as an assault on the view that human behavior is infinitely plastic and unconstrained by biology.

Recently, however, Wilson’s work has taken an unexpectedly grandiose turn. In his self-described magnum opus, Consilience—published in 1998, shortly after his formal retirement from teaching at Harvard—he offered an outline of how the humanities and the natural and social sciences might one day be unified within a sufficiently comprehensive understanding of the laws of physics. Though well-received in some quarters, the book drew scathing criticism from a number of commentators, who dismissed it as an intellectual fantasy.

In his latest book, an environmentalist tract immodestly titled The Future of Life, Wilson argues that we must work to preserve as many of the earth’s species as possible. Here, of course, he is much closer to his area of expertise, having long been occupied with the study of biodiversity. (He is the author of an influential theory linking the area of an island’s ecosystem to the number of species that can survive within it.) But his argument ranges across a panoply of other disciplines as well, from astronomy to psychology. It also corresponds in important respects to the dire and highly questionable pronouncements of the radical environmental Left. A reader could be forgiven for wondering, once again, if Wilson knows what he is talking about.

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Much of The Future of Life is given over to reciting a litany of disasters—the same ones that the environmental movement has been predicting, in one form or another, for the past three decades. Wilson warns us not only about alarming rates of species extinction and habitat loss, but also about imminent shortages of food and water, the specter of global warming, and sundry other ecological catastrophes destined to come upon us if we persist in destroying the earth’s remaining wilderness.

What Wilson adds to this familiar indictment is an explanation—based, characteristically, on evolutionary theory—for our conflicting attitudes toward the environment. On the one hand, he points out, almost everybody is “pro-environment” to some extent. As animals whose ancestors lived in the wild not so long ago, we are inclined by instinct to “biophilia”: we are attracted to natural environments, take satisfaction in biological novelty and diversity, and in general feel an affinity for other living things.

Why, then, have we gone so far down the path of ecological destruction? Because, Wilson believes, our biological history has made us deeply parochial creatures. Homo sapiens emerged in the open spaces of the African savanna, our evolutionary home. As our ancestors spread around the world, they sought to re-create this terrain, making ersatz savannas by clearing forests and other alien wildernesses.

In the process, human beings wiped out a large proportion of the indigenous animal and plant species that they encountered, either directly (by hunting and clearcutting) or indirectly (by introducing new species that killed or crowded out indigenous ones). Recorded history has been an unmitigated disaster for the biosphere, and it will continue to be a disaster, Wilson argues, so long as our quest for material comfort and security takes precedence over our sense of kinship with the natural world.

Wilson remains optimistic, however, about the possibility of establishing a balance between humankind and the environment. He strongly believes that conservation can be compatible with progress and prosperity, and makes a number of practical proposals toward this end. The most ambitious would involve the establishment of a vast worldwide nature preserve. The project should begin, he suggests, with the immediate protection of the world’s environmental hot spots, which he estimates can be saved with a single investment of roughly $30 billion.

More generally, Wilson hopes that we can nourish our innate biophilia into a lasting ecological ethic, coming to see ourselves as nature’s stewards and beneficiaries. A one-time Southern Baptist, he cites God’s injunction in Genesis 1:28 to “fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the birds of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.” Despite our long history of ravaging the natural world, he concludes, humankind may yet come to understand that all organisms have an “intrinsic right at least to exist.”

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Wilson’s book is at once an eloquent summary of the earth’s biological riches and an impassioned plea for their preservation. Like much of his popular writing, it sparkles with intelligence and idealism.

Wilson also deserves credit for rejecting the anti-capitalist biases of the radical environmental Left even while accepting its predictions. He sees the value in technologies like genetic engineering, with its potential both for conserving endangered species and for alleviating human suffering, and shows a basic appreciation of the importance of economic development. Nor does he dismiss those who disagree with him as evil plutocrats and redneck frontiersmen. In his eyes, those whom he amiably calls “cornucopian economists” simply fail to see the necessary tension between capitalism and environmental well-being. Their intentions are good, he believes; it is their reasoning and evidence that are faulty.

Unfortunately, this is far truer of Wilson himself. There is no denying that, wherever human beings have settled, they have brought ecological disruption to a greater or lesser degree. One can even grant that Wilson’s speculations about the evolutionary source of this tendency, like his other work in this area, are ingenious and plausible, if not entirely persuasive. But it is another question altogether whether our success at populating the globe will prove to be the downfall of our species and the planet.

Wilson and other environmentalists, taking their cue from Malthus, assume that we will at some point reach the limit of natural resources like water, oil, and arable land, and that in the process we will strip the planet bare, destroying its potential for further growth or even for the basic maintenance of life. But the Malthusian premise is simply wrong. As the Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg has recently and convincingly demonstrated in The Skeptical Environmentalist,1 there is no reason to believe that we will ever run out of these essential resources, or that standards of living will decline as the human population increases. Although as a species we have wreaked considerable havoc on the environment, all signs indicate that things are getting better, not worse, and that the state of the biosphere will continue to improve in the foreseeable future.

Wilson is right, of course, that some of the damage is irreparable; barring a spectacular feat of genetic engineering, the world will never again see woolly mammoths, flightless moas, or Malagasy aardvarks. This is a great loss, but it is hardly true that, without drastic and immediate action, the earth is on its way to becoming a monotonous scrubland. Indeed, Lomborg specifically criticizes Wilson himself for alarmism (and arrogance) on the subject of biodiversity, showing that he has used estimates of the rate of species extinction that are inflated, unaccountably, by a factor of about 70.

None of this is to say that The Future of Life is without value. On the contrary: if one strips away the admittedly ample environmentalist boilerplate, the book’s message can be seen to be deeply conservative, in the strictest and best sense of the word. The environment is a treasure, and we are responsible for its safekeeping—not only for nature’s sake, but also to preserve and refine the values that make us human.

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Footnotes

1 My review of this book appeared in the November 2001 COMMENTARY.

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About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.




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