The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Timeless meditations on Earth’s fragility, and the damage humans do

Nile perch are harvested from Lake Victoria in 2018. The perch was introduced to Africa’s largest lake in an attempt to boost the fishing industry, but it has destroyed more than 200 native species and put the local ecosystem at risk. (Photo credit should read Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

One year ago, when the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, it brought several countries to a standstill. Travel and tourism came to a halt, industrial activities waned, air and noise pollution declined. Everywhere, nature seemed more resurgent. Here was a rare opportunity, many of us hoped, for humanity to pause and redress the calamitous harm it had long inflicted upon nature. Today, however, as we rush to return to “normal,” that opportunity seems increasingly lost.

How fortunate that Library of America should now resurrect the writings of E.O. Wilson. Fortunate, because there is no writer more authoritative, nor any more eloquent, to speak about the natural world. Fortuitous, because the timing could not be more opportune as we emerge from an acute crisis to face other, more chronic ones.

The current volume brings together three of Wilson’s most celebrated books: “Biophilia,” “The Diversity of Life” and “Naturalist.” The first two are concerned with the diversity of the natural world and mankind’s place in it. The third, Wilson’s autobiography, sits somewhat awkwardly with the others but provides fascinating insight into the making of a great scientist.

Edward O. Wilson was born in 1929, in Birmingham, Ala. The first half of “Naturalist” is an exquisite portrait of a childhood in the South, full of aching loneliness, boundless curiosity and sheer ambition. The story of how Wilson became an entomologist is now something of a legend. When he was 7 and fishing on the coast of Florida, a pinfish flew into his face and pierced the pupil of his right eye, which robbed him of his vision there. Later in adolescence, he would also lose some of his hearing, perhaps because of a genetic defect. It was out of such accidents that a calling was forged. As he puts it, “I am blind in one eye and cannot hear high-frequency sounds; therefore I am an entomologist.”

From Alabama, Wilson moved to Harvard, where he earned his doctorate and would later become a tenured professor. The early part of his career was devoted to the study of the social organization of insects, particularly ants, for which he would become justly famous. Later, as the scope of his research widened, he became more and more preoccupied with the question of biodiversity on Earth and the human impact on it.

“Biophilia,” published in 1984, marks Wilson’s first tentative foray on behalf of conservation. He proposes the word “biophilia,” meaning love of life, as an umbrella term to describe what he sees as a deep and natural affinity between the human mind and the natural world. He sees it, for example, in the dominance of plant and animal forms throughout our arts and crafts, in the fact that human beings in both the tropical jungle and the urban jungle dream of snakes at night, and in the observation that, if at all possible, people will choose to live close to a green space and a body of water. He does not offer biophilia as a coherent scientific theory. His point is rather that we are not programmed — neither by evolution nor by culture — to live without the natural world. It is what made us and shaped us, and we ignore it at our own peril. As Wilson writes, “We are in the fullest sense a biological species and will find little ultimate meaning apart from the remainder of life.” It is not just that the Earth will become uninhabitable without the life-sustaining forces of rich and diverse ecosystems but that we, human beings, might not want to live on such an impoverished planet. Seen this way, conservation of the natural world is our most pressing ethical problem.

It is no surprise therefore that a greater sense of urgency, even alarm, pervades the centerpiece of the volume, “The Diversity of Life.” It is at once an accessible introduction to the origins of biodiversity on Earth and a sustained investigation into the escalating menace that human activities have posed. The question that drives the book, as Wilson puts it, is this: “How much force does it take to break the crucible of evolution?” To take on this question, Wilson needs to first establish how rare and precious life is, how long, slow and difficult the arc of evolution, and how complex and fragile the networks of ecosystems around the world. The result, in the first half of the book, is a dense but lucid guide to the history and biology of speciation on Earth.

The second half, though written almost 30 years ago, still makes for a harrowing read. Human beings, it seems, are a peculiarly bloodthirsty species. No sooner did early humans emerge out of Africa than they seemed to wipe out other species, and sometimes genera, by the dozens. Wherever they went, extinction soon followed. Within 1,000 years of their arrival in North America, all three species of mammoths, which for 2 million years had lived undisturbed, went extinct. As they spread from North America to South, human beings wiped out some three-quarters of the large genera of birds and mammals across both continents. All of this, even before the twin forces of industrialization and imperialism got to work.

Since then, we have driven species to extinction in every way imaginable. We hunt animals just for sport. In India alone, some 80,000 tigers might have been hunted down between 1875 and 1925. We destroy entire habitats and ecosystems to grow just one crop or herd one animal. Nowhere is this more true than in the cradle of biodiversity, the tropical rainforests, of which less than half remains of their prehistoric cover. We take our pets, pests and pestilence with us wherever we go, and we go everywhere. Feral cats in the United States kill some 2.4 billion birds every year. We build dams, pollute the air and water, and introduce foreign species, all for questionable and short-term profit. The introduction of Nile perch in Lake Victoria, to boost the fishing industry, has now destroyed more than 200 native species of fish and threatens the ecosystem as a whole. Worst of all, we have flooded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases to such an extent that a global shift in climate is now not only inevitable but no longer preventable. At best, we can hope to mitigate the worst.

Why should any of this matter? Might we not eventually learn to live with a diminished subset of plants and animals? Wilson anticipates this question and shows that biodiversity is indispensable to human life. He notes, for example, that biodiversity is central to the question of how we feed the world. As the global population swells toward a United Nations-projected bottleneck of 10 billion by 2050 and climate change leaves larger areas of the Earth infertile, it becomes ever more important to identify new species that will grow under drought conditions and yield better nutrition for each unit of land farmed. He also points out that many of our most useful medicines — from antibiotics to anticarcinogenic drugs — come from plant sources. The greater the biodiversity, the richer the potential sources of new medicines, the necessity for which has gained renewed attention during the pandemic.

There is, of course, a more fundamental reason we should care about biodiversity: The delicate balance of our ecosystems, and of our atmosphere, depends on it. The extinction of one species can threaten an entire ecosystem, and this in turn can have a major impact on the whole world, including us. The more we destroy the photosynthetic ecosystems of the world, for example, the worse we’ll suffer from the effects of climate change.

But how bad is the problem? It is hard to put a number on how rapid the rate of extinction is, but even the most conservative estimates suggest that we might be losing a species an hour. Wilson, 30 years ago, calculated it to be at least three species an hour. While nature did emerge more resilient and diverse after each great extinction of the past, there is no guarantee, given the scale and the swiftness of the present extinction, that it is at all reversible.

We are, in the end, the only species on Earth, so far as we know, to be aware of our own evolutionary past and of our place within the greater schemes of life and the universe. We are also, so far as we know, the only species that can tamper with the crucible of evolution. It is this awareness, and this power, that make us as a species both exceptional and ethical. If we act now and enshrine, as Wilson suggests, the preservation of biodiversity into our laws, our economies and our constitutions, we might yet protect what little we have left of the natural world and preserve it for future generations. If we don’t, we have no reason to believe that nature will save what we have destroyed.

E.O. Wilson

Biophilia, The Diversity of Life, Naturalist

By Edward O. Wilson

Library of America. 951 pp. $45