Science: Save the Earth - eat a turtle

Edward O Wilson is not your usual scientist. On the question of biodiversity, he's more pragmatist than preacher. Hugh Aldersley-Williams explains

There might be many reasons to save the Amazon river turtle. But the one Professor Edward O Wilson gives is unexpected: it tastes delicious.

Through his 1993 book The Diversity of Life, Wilson has probably done more to state the importance of biological diversity than any other scientist. Biodiversity, he has written, "is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it".

Tonight at the Natural History Museum, Wilson will describe how that biodiversity has been tipped into sharp decline by the ignorance and foolishness of just one very familiar species. However, he is not one of those conservationists who wishes to fence nature off from human contact. Biodiversity should be cherished for our sake, not its own.

Which is where the turtle comes in. If farmed in the flood plains where it occurs naturally, it would yield 400 times the amount of meat produced by cattle raised in the same area of cleared forest. Wilson sees Earth's biodiversity as a vast potential resource - for food, medicines, education, entertainment, even mental health.

More than 40 years of field work has taken Wilson everywhere from Cuba to Fiji. His pioneering work on the biogeography of islands showed how diversity is related to the area of an ecosystem. Today this knowledge tells us what we can expect when habitats are eroded. It is not good.

The picture is made bleaker by recent reassessments of data on endangered species populations. A fortnight ago the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published new "red lists" that count 25 per cent of all mammals as "vulnerable" or "endangered" - up from 18 per cent two years ago. The US Nature Conservancy has raised the number of species at risk in the dozen groups that it focuses on (including mammals, birds, flowering plants and butterflies) from 33 to 44 per cent. In the past 100 years, 1.5 per cent have become extinct.

Yet life on Earth is more diverse than at any time in its 600-million- year history. Naturalists have identified only a fraction of all species. Estimates of the number once ranged from 5 to 100 million, but are gradually converging to a figure of about 10 million species. Estimates of rates of extinction vary too. Methods based on island biogeography produce high figures. Recent analysis of the drift of species across IUCN categories, from "vulnerable" to "endangered" to "critically endangered" is more optimistic.

But the extinction of an individual species is almost bound to pass unnoticed. Only rarely do we know how a species met its end. Two cases: in 1844, two Icelandic fishermen clubbed the last pair of great auks to death. And 20 years ago, a lorry driver shot the last imperial woodpecker, in Mexico. "It was a great piece of meat," he said afterwards.

Biodiversity is under attack even where species should be safest. Wilson cites a recent study by William Newmark of the Utah University of Natural History of the situation in American and Canadian national parks. "You can witness the decline of mammal species park by park. They are disappearing exactly as predicted, namely the smaller the park the faster they are disappearing. No park is big enough."

Global extinction rates are perhaps thousands of times higher than before the coming of man. But we have been here before - or rather, our planet has. There have been five waves of extinction, each of which wiped out between 10 and 40 per cent of animal and plant families. "Our" extinction, the sixth, is projected to eliminate up to 20 per cent of species. But then, most species that have ever lived are now extinct. And aren't we a species too? Anything we do is still done within our ecosystem.

"Why should we care?" Wilson asks. "What difference does it make if some species are extinguished, if even half of all the species on Earth disappear?" There are three main arguments. First and most venal, there is the potential benefit to humanity from chemical and genetic "prospecting" of little- known species which might yield new crops or medicines. "I live in the real world. I have discovered, talking to national leaders from Newt Gingrich to business groups across the country, that you have to start there. People do not immediately understand the other arguments. I think the utilitarian argument is valid; in fact, it's exciting. There are so many beneficial effects that are possible."

Wilson describes a collaboration between the pharmaceuticals company Merck and Costa Rica's National Institute of Biodiversity to collect and assay samples of flora and fauna. A share of royalties from the sales of any commercial products derived from these organisms goes back to fund local conservation programmes. Others are following. Brazil is currently drafting legislation which would regulate land use along these lines. "It's a movement that's beginning to spread around the world, but not fast enough to suit me."

Second is the aesthetic argument - that biodiversity should be preserved for our pleasure. If we grow to love our ecosystems, that very familiarity will help to save them. Some say ecotourism merely brings pollution and disruption, but Wilson disagrees.

"This is a startling misconception. The way I see it, it's vastly better to have some trails and a couple of camps in a rainforest than no rainforest. That's what it comes down to in a lot of cases."

Third, Wilson believes there is a deeper reason for preserving biodiversity and for guaranteeing human access to it. "This is part of my conception of 'biophilia', admittedly a subject not yet studied in any depth by psychologists. But there's some evidence that humanity responds in a positive way, and in fact enjoys better mental health, with access to natural environments. Our spirit needs the feeling that there are untamed regions" n

'The Diversity of Life' lecture is a 7.30pm tonight at the Natural History Museum, London. For tickets contact Amanda de la Rosa at the museum's Development Trust on 0171 938 8975.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...


£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice