BOOK REVIEW / The inestimable value of life on Earth: 'The Diversity of Life' - Edward O Wilson: Allen Lane, 22.50 pounds

Share
Related Topics
TOLD he had shot one of the world's last two Imperial woodpeckers - the largest woodpecker of all - a Mexican truck driver said it was 'un gran pedazo de carne (a great piece of meat)'. There you have the simplest explanation of why life on Earth is passing through its most violent mass extinction spasm since the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Short-term, short-sighted human desires.

There is, mind you, rather more worth saying on the subject, as Professor Wilson demonstrates in this fine, fat book on biodiversity, the buzz word at last year's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The first two- thirds are an explanation and celebration of the abundance, variety and weirdness of living things. The remainder sets out why a quarter or more of all species may become extinct in the next 30 years and how this slaughter might be slowed.

We do not know exactly how many animal and plant species are known to humanity, in the sense that they have been described and named, because nobody is keeping proper count. This Harvard professor, whose own speciality is ants, puts the number at about 1.4 million. As for how many as yet undiscovered types are out there in places like tropical rainforests, the deep ocean floor and coral reefs, his estimate is between 10 and 100 million.

Yet nature appears to be utterly callous and careless. Half of its creations spend their time trying to eat or become parasitic on other living things. Extinction is commonplace; 99 out of every 100 species that have ever existed have vanished, according to Wilson. Every 50 million years or so something comes along - a giant meteorite, a change in sea levels and climate, volcanic eruptions - that wipes millions out at a stroke. .

Clearly, nature is profligate in creating and eliminating species - so why all the fuss about us destroying them? Because their uniqueness is not trivial, like the inanimate, boring uniqueness of every grain of sand and pebble on the beach. As a product of evolution, each species has its own complex, ordered way of being different, of grabbing a toehold in its niche. On our foreheads alone live two different kinds of mite, one in the hair follicles and one in the sebaceous glands.

So although it could be seen as merely sad that a quarter of all contemporary species will be rubbed out in a couple of generations as a by-product of the human population explosion, Wilson argues that it is much worse than that. He tells of the many useful chemicals and genes that have been found in wild plants and animals. A quarter of all prescriptions dispensed in the United States are based on substances extracted from plants. There are myriad undiscovered species out there that we might one day be able to use to grow new foods, make new drugs and give our crop plants resistance to pests and disease, if only we would let them live.

Alas, that argument is unlikely to wash with the people who decide the fate of ecosystems. How do you value possible future use, compared with the immediate gain from exploiting a forest for timber and farmland right now? And even if the spread of humanity wipes out a quarter of all species, a huge number remain to be investigated and perhaps exploited one day.

He has other arguments that serve biodiversity better. Damage to some 'keystone' species and ecosystems may have large unforeseen consequences. Rainforests, for example, are known to have a powerful influence on local climate and rainfall.

Finally, there is his simple, emotional belief that killing entire species is ugly and wrong, even if we have not yet even discovered what we are destroying. In this, Wilson, whose genius for popularising biology has already won him two Pulitzer prizes, should win many converts. You put down this book appreciating the centrality of species' diversity in the confusion and grandeur of life on Earth.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas