Book review of Edward O. Wilson's The Future of Life, 2002.
This latest book by Wilson, in trying to make the argument that we should preserve all extant species and subspecies (which he calls races), is a continuation of the biophilia argument: that humans have emotional, religious, and ecological reasons for promoting the future existence of other organisms over the expansion and prosperity of humans. I addressed the biophilia argument earlier in my article Biophilia vs. Human Evolution: Insurmountable Constraints, available on this site, but I find it beneficial to address the issue again and contrast it to eugenics.
The book is filled
with stories about extinct and soon to be extinct species, and when stripped of
any philosophical perspective it may be of interest strictly based on a naturalist
interest in organisms. What I want to address however, are Wilson's extension from
an interest in other organisms, to the assertion that the welfare of humans and/or
the welfare of the earth itself is contingent on preserving species and races of
other organisms. His assertions are scattered
within the book almost as snippets of dogma, and I will address these as they occurred.
WILSON: The ecologist sees the whole as a network of energy and material continuously flowing into the community from the surrounding physical environment, and back out, and then on round to create the perpetual ecosystem cycles on which our own existence depends.
NUENKE: The assertion seems to be that humans are a passive species, dependent on the existing ecology, and any disruption would put us in peril. The eugenicist position would assert that we altered the ecology drastically over the last few decades, which has been merely an acceleration of our altering of the ecology as we have expanded around the world over the last 200,000 years, and we have only prospered as a result. We live longer, better and we are capable of modeling the results of our altering of the ecology far in advance of any catastrophe outside of global nuclear warfare. There just is no evidence that we are in danger of destroying the ecosystem that we depend on.
WILSON: The concept of the biosphere as Gaia [a superorganism] has two versions: strong and weak. The strong version holds that the biosphere is a true superorganism, with each of the species in it optimized to stabilize the environment and benefit from balance in the entire system, like cells of the body or workers of an ant colony. This is a lovely metaphor, with a kernel of truth, providing the idea of superorganism is broadened enough. The strong version, however, is generally rejected by biologists, including Lovelock himself, as a working principle. The weak version, on the other hand, which holds that some species exercise widespread and even global influence, is well substantiated. Its acceptance has stimulated important new programs of research.
NUENKE: I agree with Wilson that "some species exercise widespread and even [a] global influence," but what type of species would these be? The AIDS virus comes to mind and malaria is another. However, the same people who claim that we are in a delicate balance with other species in fact spend most of their time trying to preserve or save higher mammals rather than lowly parasites. Humans have slaughtered to extinction numerous species from the woolly mammoth to the saber toothed tiger, but these species had little impact on the ecology other than to extinguish a food source for humans. Large, lovable mammals as elephants, rhinoceros, whales, etc. have little impact on the ecology because they are at the top of the food chain—just like humans. If a new virus wiped out the human species, the ecology of the earth would chug along just fine, filling in the voids that we left behind. New creatures and plants would occupy the cities, and new plants would take over the once harvested fields. There is no evidence if humans exited the earth that the biosphere would suffer. Nor is there any evidence that if we continue to expand in numbers and in our dominance of the earth, including extinguishing some species, and altering others through genetic engineering, that the earth would be adversely affected. Nature after all is an unknowing, purposeless algorithm—one that is hard to define much less to declare that it can be either enhanced or extinguished. For the biosphere to be extinguished with regards to species, it would mean there would be absolutely no organisms left. Nature then is value neutral, except as it has value in relation to the species that occupy it—and to eugenicists the species with the most important values towards the biosphere are humans.
WILSON: The twentieth century was a time of exponential scientific and technical advance, the freeing of the arts by an exuberant modernism, and the spread of democracy and human rights throughout the world. It was also a dark and savage age of world wars, genocide, and totalitarian ideologies that came dangerously close to global domination. While preoccupied with all this tumult, humanity managed collaterally to decimate the natural environment and draw down the nonrenewable resources of the planet with cheerful abandon. We thereby accelerated the erasure of entire ecosystems and the extinction of thousands of million-year-old species. If Earth's ability to support our growth is finite—and it is—we were mostly too busy to notice. As a new century begins, we have begun to awaken from this delirium. Now, increasingly post-ideological in temper, we may be ready to settle down before we wreck the planet. It is time to sort out Earth and calculate what it will take to provide a satisfying and sustainable life for everyone into the indefinite future. The question of the century is: How best can we shift to a culture of permanence, both for ourselves and for the biosphere that sustains us?
NUENKE: First, I would deny that humans have decimated the natural environment and drawn down the nonrenewable resources of the planet with cheerful abandon. In the recent book by Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, all of the so-called environmental catastrophes over the past fifty years and more have been rebutted by sound statistical data. Global warming may be a problem we need to look at, but we are well within the allowable time frame to deal with it. Wilson, like so many naturalists, just wants humans OUT of nature altogether it seems, forgetting that we are as part of nature as some pesky weed. As to the question, "How best can we shift to a culture of permanence, both for ourselves and for the biosphere that sustains us?" the eugenicist would answer: "by increasing the overall intelligence of humans so that along with technology and foresight, we can improve the quality of life for all humans while living in a pleasing environment." Wilson's answer seems to ignore humanity's ability to formulate a lasting presence by improving the genetic quality of humanity for a draconian elite dictating what can and can't be done. He and his followers are the new ecological papacy, and there is no tolerance for deviation from the dogma. The eugenic religion admits, and even embraces, that there is not one way or one eugenic perspective, but that all eugenic religions should compete with each other to see which one is the most successful. We embrace the third way, by rejecting absolutism for incremental progress based on multiple programs. We are the religion of tolerant experimentation.
WILSON: If natural resources, particularly fresh water and arable land, continue to diminish at their present per-capita rate, the economic boom will lose steam, in the course of which—and this worries me even if it doesn't worry you—the effort to enlarge productive land will wipe out a large part of the world's fauna and flora.
NUENKE: The nationalist-eugenic's stance would simply close borders, restraining the flow of those population groups who fail to control their explosive reproduction. The advanced countries have sustainable food supplies, stable or falling population densities, are expanding natural habitats, and promote international protocols such as the Kyoto protocol on global warming (the United States being the exception). These same countries are the ones with a higher average intelligence (see IQ and the Wealth of Nations by Lynn and Vanhanen, 2002). That is, it is not humans in general who wreck the environment, but particular human races. Each country then should be held accountable for their actions, and if they starve to death because they did not have the wisdom to plan, then Mother Nature has done her job vis-à-vis Wilson's position.
WILSON: When we alter the biosphere in any direction, we move the environment away from the delicate dance of biology. When we destroy ecosystems and extinguish species, we degrade the greatest heritage this planet has to offer and thereby threaten our own existence.
NUENKE: Delicate balance? What delicate balance? If 3.5 billion years of evolution have taught us anything, it is that there IS no "delicate balance." When meteors extinguished the dinosaurs, life continued and new species were born. No matter what any single species does, nature still exists. If humans advanced to an evolutionary stage where they were the only species left on earth, free of parasites, plants or animals as we know them, and had instead reached out to other species on other planets, would our heritage be degraded? We don't know nor do we know how to find out. Evolution marches on and it does not have any purpose or intrinsic values. We make the value judgments that determine what is and is not important to us. As far as our heritage is concerned, it is up to each individual to decide what is and is not important. To an architect it may be a building, to and engineer a bridge, to a lawyer a legal precedent, and to a rabbi racial purity of the tribe. Many value systems exist and coexist—none more important than another.
WILSON: The great dilemma of environmental reasoning stems from this conflict between short-term and long-term values. To select values for the near future of one's own tribe or country is relatively easy. To select values for the distant future of the whole planet also is relatively easy—in theory at least. To combine the two visions to create a universal environmental ethic is, on the other hand, very difficult. But combine them we must, because a universal environmental ethic is the only guide by which humanity and the rest of life can be safely conducted through the bottleneck into which our species has foolishly blundered.
NUENKE: Wilson has everything backwards here. First, a nation-state based on close kinship is in a far better position to make collective decisions for long-term values because they are making decisions now for their children's children. On the other hand, to select universal future values for all people is impossible. Cultures, like people, vary dramatically in what they feel is important. What we need to do is break humanity down into smaller communities, where the collective is ready to work towards a collective set of values. The most dangerous path is for one totalitarian ethic to force all people to live by. Communism tried this and it doesn't work. It will never work. There is no one way or one value system that applies to all. However, with regards to the coming bottleneck, when each nation is forced to deal with their own situation of over-population, then they must be allowed to stand on their own. No immigration, no economic asylum for immigrants, no transfer of resources from the haves to the have not's. Let each nation deal head on with their ecological niche.
WILSON: The wealth of the world, if measured by domestic product and per-capita consumption, is rising. But if calculated from the condition of the biosphere, it is falling. The state of the latter, natural economy, as opposed to that of the former, market economy, is measured by the condition of the world's forest, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. When distilled from the databases of the World Bank and United Nations Development and Environment Program as a single Living Planet Index, the result forms a powerful counterweight to the more familiar GNPs and stock market indexes. From 1970 to 1995 the index, as calculated by the World Wide Fund for Nature, fell 30 percent. By the early 1990s its decline had accelerated to 3 percent per year. No leveling trend is yet in sight.
NUENKE: Again, see The Skeptical Environmentalist for an organization by organization rebuttal to the above scam. Environmental advocacy groups are no different from any corporation selling a product. In this case, they sell gloom, doom and panic. However, the numbers just don't add up. These organizations can only sustain themselves, and keep the money flowing, if they can convince people that they are in grave peril if nothing is done. But the fact is we live longer, the cities are getting cleaner, the wilderness more protected, the water more pure, and there is no reason to think this trend will not continue indefinitely as long as we control immigration. It is immigration that causes environmental degradation, because the countries where immigrants are trying to enter have reached zero population growth. Wilson never mentions this—it is not politically correct. If we want to reduce birth rates, just stop migrations of peoples from over-reproducing nations to under-reproducing nations.
Then there is the problem of why humans consume at rates above those necessary for subsistence—what drives high levels of consumption? In The Blank Slate by Pinker he writes, "Veblen wrote that the psychology of taste is driven by three 'pecuniary canons': conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, and conspicuous waste. They explain why status symbols are typically objects made by arduous and specialized labor out of rare materials, or else signs that the person is not bound to a life of manual toil, such as delicate and restrictive clothing or expensive and time-consuming hobbies. In a beautiful convergence, the biologist Amotz Zahavi used the same principle to explain the evolution of outlandish ornamentation in animals, such as the tail of the peacock. Only the healthiest peacocks can afford to divert nutrients to expensive and cumbersome plumage. The peahen sizes up mates by the splendor of their tails, and evolution selects for males who muster the best ones. Though most aficionados are aghast at the suggestion, art—especially elite art—is a textbook example of conspicuous consumption." So while Wilson may condemn human behavior, he certainly is unable to put forth an alternative for replacing it without again resorting to a totalitarian form of utopianism. Humans, as status seekers, will consume in order to compete at any level necessary to be above those around them. It is not just enough to succeed, others must fail—that is the maxim Wilson needs to contend with.
WILSON: As a result, a majority of resident land birds and nearly half of the plant species are now alien. Insects, spiders, mites, and other arthropods were unintended companions, arriving as stowaways in cargo and ballast. An average of 20 such species are detected in quarantine each year; a few slip through and succeed in establishing themselves. Among 8,790 insect and other arthropod species known to be resident in Hawaii in the late 1990s, 3,055, or 35 percent, were of alien origin. Of the grand total of 22,070 species of all kinds of organisms, plants, animals, and microbes recorded thus far on the land and in the surrounding shallow waters, 4,373 are alien. This is about half the 8,805 native species known exclusively from Hawaii. Moreover, the aliens dominate in numbers of individual organisms, especially in the disturbed environments. As a result, immigrants own the bulk of Hawaii. Most of the invaders are relatively innocuous: only a small fraction build populations large enough to become agricultural pests or harm the natural environment. But the few that do break out are capable of enormous damage. Biologists cannot yet predict which immigrants will upon arrival become "invasives," as harmful alien species are now officially called by U.S. federal agencies.
NUENKE: Isn't is ironic that Wilson believes there are good and bad immigrant species, but has no concept of good and bad human immigration. In the United States, immigration from countries where people have low innate intelligence and high reproductive rates has a harmful effect on this country, and accelerate destruction of the environment, especially the cities with higher crime, welfare, and a degrading economy. Likewise, other parasites dominate the ruling elite where a few percent of the population own almost all the wealth.
WILSON: [Wilson speculates about the world circa 2100] The causes of aging are known, and birthrates have plummeted in compensating degree, especially in the richest countries, where young people are increasingly obtained through recruitment from poorer countries. The genetic homogenization of the world population by intermarriage, already well advanced by 2000, has accelerated. There is more genetic variation within local populations but less between the populations than was the case back in 2000. Biological races grow fainter with the passage of each generation. None of these changes has altered human nature in the least. No matter how sophisticated our science and technology, advanced our culture, or powerful our robotic auxiliaries, Homo sapiens remains in 2100 a relatively unchanged biological species. Therein lies our strength, and our weakness. It is the nature of all biological species to multiply and expand heedlessly until the environment bites back. The bite consists of feedback loops—disease, famine, war, and competition for scarce resources—which intensify until pressure on the environment is eased. Add to them the one feedback loop uniquely available to Homo sapiens that can damp all the rest: conscious restraint.
NUENKE: Now I will speculate about the future based on a eugenic religion. Humans will continue to intermarry between races, but some humans will begin to practice selective breeding and will begin to differentiate from the masses. The few who take steps to breed a more intelligent race will maintain their genetic uniqueness, and many of the eugenic religious communities will start separating genetically from the underclasses. They will also take steps to form new nation-states where they are technologically self-sufficient and will not need cheap labor. As the rest of the world breeds themselves into obliteration through starvation and ethnic conflict, the new eugenic nation-states will amass sophisticated armamentaria along with closed borders to separate themselves from global overpopulation and destruction. As the rest of the world annihilates themselves, the new advanced human species will take charge of world affairs and order will be restored. One note on Wilson's lack of scientific coherency when he gets the religion of biodiversity: "It is the nature of all biological species to multiply and expand heedlessly until the environment bites back." He is mixing up proximate with ultimate evolutionary principles. Human procreation is based primarily on sexual urges, a proximate cause. However, we now have contraception. The ultimate cause has become disconnected from the proximate cause. I am surprised Wilson did not catch this faux pas in evolutionary principles.
WILSON: Such is likely to be the world of 2100—if present trends continue. The most memorable heritage of the twenty-first century will be the Age of Loneliness that lies before humanity.
NUENKE: Wilson claims that with the loss of biodiversity, humans will become lonely. I find this so absurd as to be almost offensive, especially because I have been dealing with my own loneliness over the past year. I had never felt much remorse nor have I ever felt loneliness from another creature's death. However, about a year ago one of my two dogs died, painfully in my arms after three days of trying to convalesce him after a difficult spinal chord operation that failed. I had nightmares for months, and still now, his loss hurts like nothing I have ever experienced. The question is why? Why would someone as emotionally tough and independent as I have always been, succumb to such a loss?
This beautiful creature had laid on my lap, slept in my bed, put his head on my computer keyboard, and literally purred when I petted him—all 115 pounds of him for nine years. I didn't realize that we were becoming one. No human had ever been so close to me, and now separation was tormenting me. No, I am not going to make myself whole again by getting another dog, it doesn't work like that for me. This dog was unique. So it was not animals or even dogs per se that I needed. What happened was we grew together and bonded in a way that seems to go beyond an evolutionary explanation, though I think there is one. There are mechanisms in humans and other higher mammals for bonding when organisms are together for long periods of time. In addition, I have always loved dogs, having grown up in a household that had a revolving door of animals as pets or fallen creatures in need of temporary sanctuary. But I do not buy for a minute that humans are or could be lonely in a world where there would now be 1 million species because there once was 2 million species. Humans can surround themselves with an assortment of loveable species, but the number of species is irrelevant. I think what Wilson is lonely about is the theoretical loss of his hobby—species watcher, like a bird watcher. But we all have hobbies, and no particular hobby is any better than any other.
WILSON: Why should we care about Campephilus principalis? It is, after all, only one of ten thousand bird species in the world [that has gone extinct]. Let me give a simple and I hope decisive answer: because we knew this particular species, and knew it well.
NUENKE: And I knew my dog well, I cared for my dog, and I still care for him. But he is gone, just like many species are gone. These are facts, they are not reasons for action. My dog died and I will get on with my life. Species will go extinct and humans will continue with their lives, with no indication that life will be in any way diminished or enhanced, only that it is. There is no way of knowing if on average, all of humanity is a bit more or a bit less [you fill in the blank] because a species has gone extinct. Would my life be better today if I had never grown too close to my dog? I can say yes, the pain of the loss seems greater than the joy of his companionship. Maybe that will change in time.
We can't even determine if life itself is worth living. No one has been able to make the case for existence versus non-existence, because existence includes both pain and pleasure—non-existence includes neither. Again, Wilson is pleading with the rest of humanity to accept his own personal hobby in lieu of our personally chosen hobbies, for are not hobbies just another way for humans to fill in time until they die? His special pleading is just that—special to him and nauseatingly a plea for his personal perspective. As a eugenicist, I would never plead for others to follow my hobby or religion based on rational arguments. It is meant for those who chose it voluntarily.
WILSON: "Don't mess with Mother Nature." The lady is our mother all right, and a mighty dispensational force as well. After evolving on her own for more than three billion years, she gave birth to us a mere million years ago, an eye blink in evolutionary time. Ancient and vulnerable, she will not tolerate the undisciplined appetite of her gargantuan infant much longer.
NUENKE: Oh really? Wilson seems to have reified nature herself and given her a purpose. But what if from a eugenic perspective we claim to be the only purposeful species on earth, that is one that can decide our future because we have stumbled upon language, knowledge, and technologies to change our very essence. Only humans can direct their own evolution based on preconceived plans, and that means bending Mother Nature to our will if we so desire. Wilson errors both in the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy. Pinker describes this position well, "THE FEAR OF imperfectability and the resultant embrace of the Blank Slate are rooted in a pair of fallacies. We have already met the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that whatever happens in nature is good. One might think that the belief was irreversibly tainted by Social Darwinism, but it was revived by the romanticism of the 1960s and 1970s. The environmentalist movement, in particular, often appeals to the goodness of nature to promote conservation of natural environments, despite their ubiquitous gore. For example, predators such as wolves, bears, and sharks have been given an image makeover as euthanists of the old and the lame, and thus worthy of preservation or reintroduction. It would seem to follow that anything we have inherited from this Eden is healthy and proper, so a claim that aggression or rape is 'natural,' in the sense of having been favored by evolution, is tantamount to saying that it is good. The naturalistic fallacy leads quickly to its converse, the moralistic fallacy: that if a trait is moral, it must be found in nature. That is, not only does 'is' imply 'ought,' but 'ought' implies 'is.' Nature, including human nature, is stipulated to have only virtuous traits (no needless killings, no rapacity, no exploitation), or no traits at all, because the alternative is too horrible to accept. That is why the naturalistic and moralistic fallacies are so often associated with the Noble Savage and the Blank Slate. (Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, pg. 162, 2002)
WILSON: In conserving nature, whether for practical or aesthetic reasons, diversity matters. The following rule is now widely accepted by ecologists: the more species that inhabit an ecosystem, such as a forest or lake, the more productive and stable is the ecosystem. By "production," the scientists mean the amount of plant and animal tissue created each hour or year or any other given unit of time. By "stability" they mean one or the other or both of two things: first, how narrowly the summed abundances of all species vary through time; and second, how quickly the ecosystem recovers from fire, drought, and other stresses that perturb it. Human beings understandably wish to live in the midst of diverse, productive, and stable ecosystems. Who, if given a choice, would build their home in a wheat field instead of a parkland?
NUENKE: There are several errors in this statement. The first is we need to ask what is meant by production in an ecosystem that is diverse? It seems here that ecologists have defined terms like production, aesthetic, stability as well as where humans want to live to prove a nonsensical value system. Production for humans is different from production as defined above. We don't harvest from swamps, rain forests, wetlands or remote mountains. Most of our food, minerals, timber, etc. is harvested from ecological systems that are low in diversity. From wheat fields, to timber forests, to chicken farms and coal mines—targeted products extracted from ecological systems that have high concentrations for one type of product is the norm. So clearly, an ecologist's definition of production has nothing to do with what society needs from nature for productivity. In addition, for stability, again our farms, forests, and mines are quite stable from natural disasters because they are distributed. When one area suffers a setback, the void is quickly filled by products shipped from somewhere else. Just the opposite of which would be the case if small human communities tried to live in harmony with nature without support from neighboring communities.
In addition, where do people want to live? Well, they may not prefer to live in the middle of a cornfield, but they also don't want to live in swamps, dense forests, wetlands, and near mountainous volcanoes. Actually, most humans prefer to live in large cities if numbers mean anything, where diversity approaches zero with regards to species. Most humans would have a hard time naming 100 common plants and animals that they would likely encounter in the larger cities. I live in Chicago, and the building boom in ultra high-rise condominiums is astonishing. They are sprouting up all over the central business district at prices from $300,000 to millions of dollars per unit. These people have decided that they love the urban life, with its theaters, shopping, restaurants, and urban excitement and have turned their backs on nature. Quite the opposite of what the biophilia hypothesis would have one believe.
WILSON: Homo sapiens is an ecosystems engineer too, but a bad one. Not having coevolved with the majority of life forms we now encounter around the world, we eliminate far more niches than we create. We drive species and ecosystems into extinction at a far higher rate than existed before and everywhere diminish productivity and stability.
NUENKE: Every species is in competition with ever other, species don't exist to go around and create niches for other species to thrive in. The fact that humans have completely dominated the world, and eliminated other species and other species' niches in the process of being successful, indicates to me only that we are a very successful species if expansion is the definition of success. In evolutionary terms, reproductive success determines which organisms have adapted and which ones have gone extinct. However, there is no value system in play here. It is merely an observation. There is no basis for stating that humans have been a failure or a success while dominating the world, only that we have and we will continue to do so until we cease to do so. Wilson seems to want to condemn humanity for destroying other species, but that can only be done if humans are somehow "outside" of the rules of nature, some type of "guiding hand." We are here just like any other species, no better or worse, but just being.
WILSON: Twenty species carry most of the load, of which only three—wheat, maize, and rice—stand between humanity and starvation. For the most part the premier twenty are those that happened to be present in the regions where agriculture was independently invented some ten thousand years ago, namely the Mediterranean perimeter and Near East; Central Asia; the horn of Africa; the rice belt of tropical Asia; and the uplands of Mexico, Central America, and Andean South America. Yet some thirty thousand species of wild plants, most occurring outside these regions, have edible parts consumed at one time or other by hunter-gatherers. Of these, at least ten thousand can be adapted as domestic crops. A few, including the three species of New World amaranths, the carrot-like arracacha of the Andes, and the winged bean of tropical Asia, are immediately available for commercial development. In a more general sense, all the quarter-million plant species—in fact, all species of organisms—are potential donors of genes that can be transferred by genetic engineering into crop species in order to improve their performance. With the insertion of the right snippets of DNA, new strains can be created that are variously cold-hardy, pest-proofed, perennial, fast-growing, highly nutritious, multipurpose, water-conservative, and more easily sowed and harvested. And compared with traditional breeding techniques, genetic engineering is all but instantaneous.
NUENKE: In numerous instances, Wilson's logic is contradictory. Before he talked about diversity and "productivity" and then he elaborates on how humans have thrived on just a few plants for survival, and yet we could domesticate many more and with genetic engineering, do it almost instantaneously. It is hard to know if he is promoting naturalism, conservationism or futurism. They don't need to be contradictory. A eugenicist perspective would include a well-ordered ecological balance, but it includes the breeding of humans as well as plants and animals. It also recognizes that we need to preserve human races for the same reason Wilson wants to preserve diversity, to be able to gain access to exotic and rare genes that may not be found if human races die out. On the other hand, we see humans as the most important component of nature because it is our existence. We are not willing to make a religion out of preserving other species to the detriment of eugenic goals. The difference then is one of choice, a subjective choice of what is important to competing philosophical or religious stances. Eugenicists want to preserve biodiversity also, as long as it does not get in the way of eugenics. When resources and agendas conflict, we will come down on the side of strengthening the nation-state and protecting and promoting our racial kin. It is a matter of resource allocation and making decisions for biodiversity or for new species of humans. Wilson's agenda would hold humans back and send them spiraling into a dysgenic abyss.
WILSON: The exploration of wild biodiversity in search of useful resources is called bioprospecting. Propelled by venture capital, it has in the past ten years grown into a respectable industry within a global market hungry for new pharmaceuticals. It is also a means for discovering new food sources, fibers, petroleum substitutes, and other products. Sometimes bioprospectors screen many species of organisms in search of chemicals with particular qualities, such as antisepsis or suppression of cancer. On other occasions bioprospecting is opportunistic, keying on one or a few species that show signs of yielding a valuable resource. Ultimately, entire ecosystems will be prospected as a whole, assaying all of the species for most or all of the products they can yield.
NUENKE: The above prospecting for genetic variance does have value, but Wilson I believe uses it as a justification for his need to collect species. As he admits, there are only a few hotspots where biodiversity flourishes; most of the earth is far simpler and genetically less interesting. So, let me propose a compromise. When we want to build a new damn for instance, and we find an endangered species in the way, we study its genetic code, preserving it if necessary, and then get on with building the damn. Or as the economist Robert Frank would put is, "There is an optimal amount of pollution in the environment, just as there is an optimal amount of dirt in your house." And the same is true with preserving species, we need to balance the losses with the gains, there will never be an absolute preservation of anything in a dynamic world that is inherently conditioned on change.
WILSON: A few technophiles, I expect, will beg to differ. What, after all, in the long term does it mean to be human? We have traveled this far; we will go on. As to the rest of life, they continue, we should be able to immerse fertilized eggs and clonable tissues of endangered species in liquid nitrogen and use them later to rebuild the destroyed ecosystems. Even that may not be necessary: in time entirely new species and ecosystems, better suited to human needs than the old ones, can be created by genetic engineering. Homo sapiens might choose to redesign itself along the way, the better to live in a new biological order of our own making. Such is the extrapolated endpoint of technomania applied to the natural world. The compelling response, in my opinion, is that to travel even partway there would be a dangerous gamble, a single throw of the dice with the future of life on the table.
NUENKE: The key here is Wilson's assertion that eugenicists will lurch into the future with "a single throw of the dice." Nothing could be more wrong, at least as I understand the nationalist-eugenic position. We want to see numerous eugenic communities and/or eugenic nation-states progressing in incremental steps towards creating new human species that will then compete with each other. In fact, the eugenic community that I have observed is very conservative in terms of keeping human behavioral diversity. Now, only intelligence would be selected for along with reducing genetic diseases that can be easily controlled. The reason Wilson does not understand this eugenic individualism is that he sees solutions in terms of a singular global consensus. He adopts the totalitarian stance that the elite will decide what is the correct path for all of humanity, and we will be forced to follow. Eugenicists are by nature not willing to submit to any single position from a central authority—we reject any form of "a single throw of the dice."
WILSON: And to redesign the human genotype better to fit a ruined biosphere is the stuff of science horror fiction. Let us leave it there, in the realm of imagination. Another reason exists not to take the gamble, not to let the natural world slip away. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that new species can be engineered and stable ecosystems built from them. With that distant potential in mind, should we go ahead, and for short-term gain, allow the original species and ecosystems to slip away? Yes? Erase Earth's living history? Then also burn the libraries and art galleries, make cordwood of the musical instruments, pulp the musical scores, erase Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Goethe, and the Beatles too, because all these—or at least fairly good substitutes—can be re-created. The issue, like all great decisions, is moral. Science and technology are what we can do; morality is what we agree we should or should not do. The ethic from which moral decisions spring is a norm or standard of behavior in support of a value, and value in turn depends on purpose. Purpose, whether personal or global, whether urged by conscience or graven in sacred script, expresses the image we hold of ourselves and our society. In short, ethics evolve through discrete steps, from self-image to purpose to value to ethical precepts to moral reasoning.
NUENKE: Wilson above is using the slippery slope argument: If even one species dies, we are on the slope of ruin, all will be lost. Well the fact is, libraries have burned before, original works of art lost, and humans rose up repeatedly and rebuilt. Nevertheless, no one is suggesting that we throw our history away. But we also can't preserve every detail of life if we want to keep living, because living involves consumption. Wilson is making an argument similar to historical preservationists. If a certain building is lost, it is lost forever for posterity (forgetting we have pictures and plans of how it was built, and noting it could be duplicated again if so desired). So historical preservationists start out preserving a few buildings, then some more, then all of the buildings in a city because each one has a piece of history. No building can be torn down. Eventually the city dies because it can't be renewed. Slippery slope arguments are invalid. We don't live in such a world, we decide when a building should be preserved and which ones are better torn down to make way for new ones. The same is true in nature, species and races are constantly being reorganized, revised, going extinct and coming into existence. The world does not cease because species are lost. His reasoning is flawed because it is based on a static view of nature rather than a dynamic, changing one. The universe has never stood still.
WILSON: A conservation ethic is that which aims to pass on to future generations the best part of the nonhuman world. To know this world is to gain a proprietary attachment to it. To know it well is to love and take responsibility for it.
NUENKE: Likewise, a eugenics ethic is one that takes a proprietary interest in passing on to future generations the best part of the human world, and that includes preserving the best human genomes and combinations of genomes. Eugenicists are conservationists when it comes to preserving the best genes, and futurists when it comes to creating better genomic combinations. Wilson's worldview is static, ours is dynamic. We see a canvass to paint on; Wilson sees nature with a fence around it like a concentration camp. He is a stamp collector writ large.
WILSON: A prominent component of biophilia is habitat selection. Studies conducted in the relatively new field of environmental psychology during the past thirty years point consistently to the following conclusion: people prefer to be in natural environments, and especially in savanna or park-like habitats. They like a long depth of view across a relatively smooth, grassy ground surface dotted with trees and copses. They want to be near a body of water, whether ocean, lake, river, or stream. They try to place their habitations on a prominence, from which they can safely scan the savanna and watery environment. With nearly absolute consistency these landscapes are preferred over urban settings that are either bare or clothed in scant vegetation. To a relative degree people dislike woodland views that possess restricted depth of vision, a disordered complexity of vegetation, and rough ground structures—in short, forests with small, closely spaced trees and dense undergrowth. They want a topography and openings that improve their line of sight.
NUENKE: The above is true of human preferences in habitat, but of course, these preferences are not very powerful. Humans end up living where they need to, and if where they live is any indicator, then they prefer to live in urban environments that also have aesthetic qualities including water sculptures, plant life, clean streets, parklands, etc. That is, they like the aesthetics of nature but they also want to be near modern culture and other people over a hermit like existence in a cabin on the lake somewhere. Humans are very flexible with regards to where they live, but they do seem to prefer the cosmopolitan life when they can afford it, and when it is safe. The leading cause of flight from urban centers is crime and poor schools—it has little to do with wanting to "return to a more suburban natural setting." In fact, suburbia is often criticized for its sterile conformity and blandness even though it has far more open space, parklands, nature preserves, rivers and lakes, than urban environments. What people desire then is a safe and aesthetic blend of other people, safety, and things to do. Also, note that a cosmopolitan life style is completely devoid of animal diversity. Except for dogs, cats, pigeons, and rats—there is little diversity in the animals that live in large cities, and then most of them are considered to be pests.
WILSON: Studies of response prior to surgery and dental work have consistently revealed a significant reduction of stress in the presence of plants and aquaria. Natural environments viewed through windows or merely displayed in wall-mounted pictures produce the same effect.
NUENKE: Wilson lists numerous examples like the one above showing the benefits of natural settings where bare and cold settings become frightening. I find this observation underwhelming. Humans are naturally tense when in the hospital or a dentist's chair. I wonder how serene they would feel if they were being operated on in some open air tent in the jungle? I think they would prefer the sterile hospital, but with distractions such as a beautiful view, pictures, television, and perhaps some dogs running around to play with. None of these observations help advance Wilson's vision of a pristine environment, untouched by human intervention, as the ideal world. They are of interest with regards to human health and well being however.
WILSON: The critical stages in the acquisition of biophilia have been worked out by psychologists during studies of childhood mental development. Under the age of six, children tend to be egocentric, self-serving, and domineering in their responses to animals and nature. They are also most prone to be uncaring or fearful of the natural world and of all but a few familiar animals. Between six and nine, children become interested in wild creatures for the first time, and aware that animals can suffer pain and distress. From nine to twelve their knowledge and interest in the natural world rises sharply, and between thirteen and seventeen, they readily acquire moral feeling toward animal welfare and species conservation.
NUENKE: If humans have this great moral concern for animals, I fail to see it. I am often distressed when I see people with pets and how they treat them. For ten years, when I lived with my two dogs, I always rushed home to take care of them, I never hit them or abused them, I cooked for them, etc. When we went on trips they were taken care of by relatives. Nevertheless, I fail to see the same concern for animals in most other people. Many people have dogs, cats or both but the pets are not treated very well in my opinion. They are left by themselves often, they are hit for doing things that they are not aware of, they are left outside or in small pens most of the time. Wherever this moral concern for animals resides in humans, I have failed to find it. I have only met a handful of people that are as passionately responsive to the needs of animals as I am. At the park where I would take my dogs twice a day, I achieved a bit of a reputation for attracting other dogs. Dogs would have a tendency to run up to me, jump on me, or play before moving on. When I was young, my mother commented on how I could walk up to almost any animal on my uncles' farms and not get bit or attacked (though my father did have to save me from a bull once when I wondered into the pen at about the age of four). And when my uncles went hunting or fishing in Wisconsin, the only thing they talked about was a good kill or a good catch. They didn't come back and discuss the marvels of nature—they were hunters, not naturalists. I don't deny that there is a powerful connection between human behavior and nature, but I do not see that connection in the same way that Wilson portrays it. As he describes it, it is a just so story, devoid of reality.
WILSON: According to the United Nations Human Development Report 1999, the income differential between the fifth of the world's population in the wealthiest countries and the fifth in the poorest was 30 to 1 in 1960, 60 to 1 in 1990, and 74 to 1 in 1995. Wealthy people are also by and large profligate consumers, and as a result the income differential has this disturbing consequence: for the rest of the world to reach United States levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet Earths.
NUENKE: What makes Wilson think the rest of the world deserves or ever will reach the level of wealth we have in the advanced countries. If Sweden closed its borders, allowed its population to stabilize or even decrease, they could sustain a high standard of living no matter what happens in the rest of the world as long as some trade with other nations continued. The wealth in advanced countries was created using the technology developed in these countries. Others in the world can develop, stay where they are, or die out from disease and famine—as long as they do it in their own back yard. Nations, and civilizations, can take steps to isolate themselves from the profligate breeders of the world. It is open immigration that threatens to destroy advanced nations with the displaced masses from third world countries, that lack our innate intelligence and our ability to control population growth. Unwelcome parasites from other countries must not be allowed into advanced nations. Like fast growing weeds, they are not natural races in Western countries and must be turned back.
WILSON: The strength of each country's conservation ethic is measured by the wisdom and effectiveness of its legislation in protecting biological diversity. Without dispute, the most important conservation law in the history of the United States is the Endangered Species Act. Passed in 1973 by a vote of 390-12 in the House of Representatives and 92-0 in the Senate, and signed into law by President Nixon, it was unprecedented in its sweep. Every kind of plant and animal at risk became eligible for listing. Previous legislation had only protected vertebrates, mollusks, and crustaceans. Now, under ESA provisions, the Tennessee purple cornflower, San Rafael cactus, Palos Verdes blue butterfly, and American burying beetle joined the Florida panther and golden-cheeked warbler as the legal wards of the American people. Further, in the special case of birds, mammals, and other vertebrates, not just species but local races were taken under the umbrella. (Races of invertebrates and plants remain excluded.) Finally, not just species and races on the brink of extinction but those classified as threatened—likely to become endangered—were included.
NUENKE: These same people would protect the races of other species while celebrating the destruction of human races. Wilson finds wisdom in this? It is an odd form of conservation that protects the other while destroying the self.
WILSON: The central problem of the new century, I have argued, is how to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible. Both the needy poor and vanishing biological diversity are concentrated in the developing countries. The poor, some 800 million of whom live without sanitation, clean water, and adequate food, have little chance to advance in a devastated environment. Conversely, the natural environments where most biodiversity hangs on cannot survive the press of land-hungry people with nowhere else to go.
NUENKE: Yes, this is a dilemma. But if the poor of underdeveloped countries were left alone to pursue a hunter-gatherer existence as they have done for over a million years, then their ecological niches would persevere as before. Likewise, the advanced nations can proceed with science and technology, and proceed in a different form of culture. Why does every race of man have to follow the same path? End colonialism, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and any other program that meddles in the affairs of backward nations. Just leave them be, as Wilson wants others to leave other ecosystems alone. There is no difference between human ecosystems and ecosystems per se. They are all just ecosystems with humans as just another organism. Developing modern technological ecosystems is just another step in the evolutionary process. There is no need for a guiding hand to plan where the world is going—it just keeps on going. Wilson's bioethical religion is just one of many in competition with others. Let them worship in their naturalist cathedrals, as I will worship in my genetic engineering lab, creating the human masterpiece.
Matt Nuenke October, 2002.