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Science for Parks conference, part 5

5. Conference Keynoter E. O. Wilson

A great many people in the Wheeler Hall crowd on March 26, 2015, had the same feeling: We are in the presence of the world’s foremost living biologist, a man who has made a big difference in many fields of endeavor. We were not disappointed in his address.

Born in 1929 and raised in Alabama, Edward Osborne Wilson became the world’s leading expert on ants, but he has studied and written on numerous subjects relating to the natural world. The prizes awarded him are amazingly numerous and include the 2012 International Cosmos Prize and two Pulitzer Nonfiction prizes, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991, with Bert Hölldobler). Berkeley Professor Steve Beissinger, who introduced Wilson, said his own favorite book by the speaker is his autobiography, The Naturalist (2006).

E. O. Wilson lord of the ants keynoter
Picture source: PBS
Dr. Wilson is now a Harvard emeritus professor and a special lecturer at Duke University, where he located his E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The goal of this foundation is to forward stewardship of the world through biodiversity and education. Another center established in his name is the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center near Freeport, Florida, whose mission is “making naturalists in an outdoor extension of the science classroom.”

Wilson calls his religious position “provisional deism” and feels that religious leaders and scientists should build an alliance. But his human sociobiology ideas (the study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in both animals and man) have met with opposition.

Of course, it will be impossible to sum up what E. O. Wilson said in a few paragraphs, but I will pass on some high points for readers who do not plan to listen to the entire talk (starting at 2:30 in the video).

Beginning with what scientists have learned in the field of biodiversity in the past twenty years, Wilson defined it as the “collectivity of all inherited variation in any given place.” It can be divided into three levels: ecosystems, such as ponds or forest patches; the species in an ecosystem; and the genes in each species. Only about one-fifth of all the probable species in the world have been discovered and named as yet. This census needs to be sped up; among the national parks Great Smoky National Park has so far the most complete U.S. census, and about 18,000 species are known to live there. “We live on a little-known planet,” he says.

Moving on to the subjects of species extinction and efforts to preserve species, Wilson told us that the global extinction rate is some one thousand times greater now than before the coming of humans to the planet. “Prospects for the rest of this century are grim,” and “loss of natural habitat is the primary cause of biodiversity extinction.” Can we believe, he asks, that future humans can manage life in a system devoid of all or most of the species that took three-and-one-half billion years to put together?

As of 2015 about 15% of land surfaces and 3% of oceans are protected from exploitation. Wilson believes, however, that a world population of ten billion people could live on earth if 50% of land and sea areas were protected. “We can achieve this with four unintended consequences of human behavior.” These are (in brief):
1. A dramatic drop in the fertility rate, achievable “whenever women attain a modicum of social and economic independence.”
2. More population living in cities and the land thus gained utilizing improved agricultural methods: “Present day agriculture [in much of the world] is Neolithic.”
3. Reduction of the ecological footprint, the space each person needs, becoming less as the global economy evolves, creating products using less material and less energy.
4. “Easing of demand on the natural environment inherent in the evolutionary shift from an extensive economy to an intensive economy.” Most of the National Academies of Science, he says, recommend “focusing on quality of life instead of capital and economic power as the premier measures of success.”

Dr. Wilson ended his remarks by stating that “national parks and reserves are going to be logical centers for fundamental research.” This is already true for the geosciences; soon, he predicts, it will be comparable for original studies of the living environment.

During the question and answer session, Wilson recommended that places such as national parks and reserves be connected in corridors, such as is already being set aside in the Yellowstone–to–Yukon (Y2Y) initiative. And replying to “What is the role of the U.S. national parks in all this?” he went out on a limb: “More, bigger!” he said; “take a central place in America’s strategic planning alongside defense.”

Wilson would like to see more science schools include departments of herpetology, entomology, and the like, where students can study biodiversity and “bring in the armamentarium of modern biology to enrich their studies.” His reply to a question about triage for endangered species was, “Save them all!”

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