Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Future of life by E.O.Wilson

“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting”
– Henry David Thoreau (1817- 1862)

E.O.Wilson starts with a fascinating letter to the Poet, Henry David Thoreau (the above quote is not from the book!). He explains to the Poet how the Walden woods (one of Thoreau’s master pieces) have changed or not changed. Authenticity, rigor and the manner of delivery - I enjoyed every line
Wilson is a prolific writer and has authored many books. Surprisingly, I think this book is the least controversial and also a very passionate one.

Initially, he talks about various organisms that live on the edge of extremes (like ultra low or high temperatures or pressures, radiation etc).

As a thinker, he is very keen on the concept of “bio-diversity”. He explains with solid examples, how some of the living beings have become extinct because of our indiscriminate utilization of resources.

His point is that, humans just like other species evolved in this planet, we also exist as an organic miracle. We are all intimately inter-connected and we would better take care of other species. Each species’ disappearance from the face of earth makes the earth poorer.

From a grading point, he classifies the world outlook into three views:
1. Anthropocentricism: only the things which affects humanity matters.
2. Pathocentricism : intrinsic rights to be extended to dogs, chimps etc and finally
3. Bio-centralism : all living things.
He goes on to add they are NOT mutually exclusive.

He gives a serious warning: “After evolving for 3billion years, she gave birth to us a mere million years ago - An eye blink in the evolutionary clock. Nature will not tolerate undisciplined appetite of her gargantuan infant much longer”.

Let us look at some examples as to how bio-diversity helps…….

Serendipity is the hallmark of Pharmacological research. Routine screening for example, revealed that an obscure fungus growing in the mountains of interior Norway produces a powerful suppressor of the human immune system. When the molecule was isolated from the fungal tissue and identified, it proved to be complex molecule that is not encountered by organic chemists. Nor could its effect be explained by contemporary principles of modern molecular biology. But its relevance to medicine was obvious. When an organ is transplanted from one person to another, the immune system of the host must be prevented from rejecting the alien tissue. Thus, the new agent Cyclosporine became an essential part of organ transplant industry.

Another one which got my attention: Poison dart frogs in south and Central America belonging to the genre of Dendrobates. They are tiny enough to perch on the human finger nail. They are adored for their beautiful colors. They hop about very slowly unmindful of any potential predators. Wilson confesses that, as a trained naturalist, it triggers an alarm in him. If a small and otherwise unknown animal encountered in the wild, is strikingly beautiful, then it is probably poisonous – if it easy to catch, then it is deadly. As it turns out, it carries enough poison to kill 10 people. As a side story, Red Indian tribes rub the tip of their blowgun darts over the back of the frogs very carefully then release it unharmed. See, in those days, we have been more eco-friendly!

He also talks about HIPPO effect on bio-diversity. H (Habitat destruction). I (Invasive species – Ants and other species which are alien displacing the natives). P (Pollution).P (Population). O (Over harvesting – Hunting to extinction)

Another problem he states is that, we don’t even have a remote idea till date about how many species we have in this planet. Hence, we cannot properly fathom the loss we are incurring in terms of diversity. He narrates a touching incident of a last minute rescue operation of a snail species (Partulina turgida) which ceased to exist even as captive at London’s zoo. The memorial of it at the London Zoo reads thus: “1.5 Million Years B.C to January 1996”. Only Mother Nature would have a clear idea as to how many species we have decimated without even such memorials.

A myth he busts is that, endangered species is not like a dying patient whose care is too expensive and prolonging the life is futile. He argues that the opposite is true. They die young and healthy. They just need room to survive and goes on to give California condor bird as an example. They came to the brink of extinction because their habitats were destroyed and they were indiscriminately poisoned. Thankfully, the last 25 were held in captive in a colony in Sandeigo, given protection with uncontaminated food and now the candor population is bouncing back again.

Another point he makes is that, area of the habitat is very critical. When it is small it can hold lesser number of species that can live sustainably within it. For example in Montana, which has large chunk of habitat, did not lose a single species.

We also have be to be very careful about new species introduction (plants or animals) in a new area.For example, in 1890-91, about 100 euro starlings were introduced in New York. The goal was to establish in USA the birds that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. He laments that, “now the plague USA”. The reason is that, immigrants are held in check by natural enemies and population controls and when these constraints no longer exists, the population explode in the new environment.

Conservation biology is described as discipline-with-a-deadline. Each imperiled species is a master piece of evolution. You and I would be forgotten 1000 years from now. But, black footed ferret or snow leopards which are flirting with extinction because of us will not be forgotten – not while there is a civilization. Our conservation success is truly the enduring part of us, which will live in their survival.

To conclude, to conserve biological diversity, is to invest in immortality!
If you take this book seriously, just like Henry David Thoreau says, one would automatically start living on this book’s hint. It should be there in your book shelf and you should keep visiting it for the hints as often as you can.

Thanks for reading this far……



Z said...

Interestingly a species of jellyfish uses transdifferentiation to become younger after sexual reproduction and remain biologically immortal.

Source Wikipedia - Biological immortality

ESR said...

An interesting book that will supplement this one with a dash of humor is " The Last Chance to See" by Douglas Adams. Of course, I will go for this one too.

Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Quite an interesting read.. Some of the topics like the area required for a species to survive are also explained in a little more detail in his other book on Biodiversity. I forgot the relationship, but from what I remember many larger species especially need a good amount of space to thrive and below a threshold they can rapidly decline. Of course the microbial ones or even very small insects survive in extreme niches. He talks of one species that only exists in the rain water collected on a particular tree's large leaves in South America (Amazon rain forest I think). Looks like I should get hold of this and read it when I can..

Keep Posting!!

Suresh S said...

Supplementing the book would be some travels into the forest areas in India, which will give you a clear idea of what is present and what we are trying to destroy!!

Nice post Madhu.

Mohanakrishnan said...

Interesting one, Madhu. Millions of years of evolution wiped out in a thousand years of greed.

A naughty question: If we try to preserve these species, will that be against natural selection?


Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hi Mohan,
It is a tricky question :-)
In any event, I don't think it is against "natural selection". In fact, in one of his other works he argues that, by pushing many species to the brink-of-extinction or making them vanish,in some sense we have the suicidal tendency. That is, being too selfish for near term would have long term serious consequences - the worst case being "humans" ceasing to exsist.


பகலவன் கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி said...


Interesting topic that brigs out many thoughtful questions. Such as the one asked on "anti-natural selection theory" and so on. While the message is clear for the human race as a whole to preserve many of the species from extiction, I wonder, what we can contribute as individuals in this symbiotically complicated human society. (I am sure, there will be many things though)


Me said...

I guess human beings are contributing to the 'survival of fittest' theory.. Nature will take care of the human destructions with appropriate mutations to genes of living and nonliving things!.

Smitha said...

Great post Madhu-san, and I like the diversity of the books you are reviewing here.

If you don't mind, I had a suggestion about your blog layout. The left bar is too wide and is dominating the main page, wondering if you could shrink it down a bit to make it easy on the eye.

prataprc said...

Somewhere I read,

"Nature tries to understand herself by selecting her crusaders".

Darwin could have missed the words in between and simplified it as "Natural Selection", starting a proloooonged argument with weighed words like "Preservation, Selection, Suicidal, Natural, Anti-Natural, Create, Destroy ...". I hope Mother Nature is listening.

Somewhere, it must be written,

"Where the sea meets the land
the cycle of floods and ebbs are
eternal, for Gods live there."

jaga said...


I had gone thru the book and blogged on our intranet site some time back. While the concern Wilson expresses is valid and his background in microbiology stands out the solution part was not very convincing to me. The dominant message seemed to be ”science & technology created this problem, science & technology should solve this problem” which was kind of limited in scope.