November 21, 2003

World-renown biologist discusses ‘The Future of Life’

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E.O. Wilson, left, talks with Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, center, dean of the School of Medicine, and Richard C. McCarty, dean of the College of Arts and Science. Neil Brake

World-renown biologist discusses ‘The Future of Life’

First the bad news: the world’s natural habitats and its species are being extinguished at such a rapid rate that human security and economic welfare will soon begin to deteriorate.

Now the good news: life on Earth can be saved for a mere $28 billion — less than a third of the aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan just appropriated by Congress.

So says Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D., internationally known biologist, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Medal of Science, and staunch advocate for the preservation of “biodiversity,” a term he popularized in the 1980s.

“It’s chump change,” Wilson said Wednesday during a lecture at Vanderbilt University. “And it is doable … Resources to do it exist … The technology exists. The long-term benefits are beyond calculation.”

More than 1,000 people crowded into the University’s Langford Auditorium to hear Wilson’s speech, “The Future of Life,” part of the Chancellor’s Lecture series.

Wilson, a long-time Harvard professor and entomologist whose books include On Human Nature, The Naturalist and Consilience, also participated in a celebration of the recently opened Biological Sciences-Medical Research Building III, which was designed to encourage collaboration between biology and the medical sciences.

“We believe that scientific discovery today, more than ever, is far more likely to occur at the intersection of disciplines, where the methodology of one discipline informs the examination of another,” said Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs.

To that end, the 350,000-square-foot, $95 million facility, which was completed last year, now houses eight floors of research labs in biology, neuroscience, developmental biology, structural biology and proteomics, the study of proteins, and an 8,650-square-foot greenhouse for research and teaching.

Teaching the next generation of scientists is a major priority for the new building. “It is designed to bring together the best research scientists and the brightest most promising undergraduates and graduate students,” said Chancellor Gordon Gee. “It manifests an energy and an excitement that is absolutely palpable.”

Solving biological, medical and public health problems is important, Wilson said in his speech. But so is preserving the health of the planet.

For the loss of biodiversity that took three billion years to evolve “will inflict a heavy price in human security, wealth and also in spirit,” he said.

The engines of economic production and consumption may be humming, he said, but the key elements of “natural capital,” including arable land, fresh water and marine fisheries, are finite – and they are diminishing.

That price will be disproportionately borne by the 5 billion of the world’s 6 billion people who live in developing countries, and the 800 million who live in “absolute poverty, with no clean water, rampant disease and periodic starvation,” he said.

Without help, those desperately poor, land-hungry people will have no choice but to plunder the rain forests, leaving economic devastation that will only worsen their plight. An area equivalent to one half of the state of Florida is being lost every year, Wilson said.

“The central problem of the new century in my opinion is how to raise the poor to an endurable quality of life, while preserving as much of the natural world as possible,” he said. “Both the poor and biological diversity are concentrated in developing countries. The solution to the problem must flow from the recognition that each depends on the other.”

Saving biodiversity also must be a scientific priority, since only a fraction of the species of life on earth has been identified. “We know more about the farthest galaxies of space than we know about the world at our feet,” said Wilson, whose discoveries underlie current understanding of the behavior of ants and other social insects.

“At the end of the day … a civilization able to envision God and an afterlife, that thinks about colonizing space maybe to relieve us of our problems here, will surely find a way to save the integrity of this magnificent planet … because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s an ennobling task for our species.”