The eminent evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has an audacious vision for saving Earth from a cataclysmic extinction event
By Tony Hiss in Smithsonian Magazine
“Battles are where the fun is,” said E.O. Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, “and where the most rapid advances are made.” We were sitting in oversized rocking chairs in a northwest Florida guest cottage with two deep porches and half-gallons of butter-pecan ice cream in the freezer, a Wilson favorite. He’d invited me here to look at what he considers a new approach to conservation, a new ecological Grail that, naturally, won’t happen without a fight.
Wilson, 85, is the author of more than 25 books, many of which have changed scientific understanding of human nature and of how the living part of the planet is put together.
Known as the father of sociobiology, he is also hailed as the pre-eminent champion of biodiversity: Wilson coined the word “biophilia” to suggest that people have an innate affinity for other species, and his now widely accepted “theory of island biogeography” explains why national parks and all confined landscapes inevitably lose species. He grew up in and around Mobile, Alabama, and has been at Harvard for over 60 years but still calls himself “a Southern boy who came north to earn a living.” He is courtly, twinkly, soft-spoken, has a shock of unruly white hair, and is slightly stooped from bending over to look at small things all his life—he’s the world’s leading authority on ants. Wilson has earned more than a hundred scientific awards and other honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes. And perhaps his most urgent project is a quest to refute conservation skeptics who think there isn’t enough left of the natural world to be worth saving.
Throughout the 544 million or so years since hard-shelled animals first appeared, there has been a slow increase in the number of plants and animals on the planet, despite five mass extinction events. The high point of biodiversity likely coincided with the moment modern humans left Africa and spread out across the globe 60,000 years ago. As people arrived, other species faltered and vanished, slowly at first and now with such acceleration that Wilson talks of a coming “biological holocaust,” the sixth mass extinction event, the only one caused not by some cataclysm but by a single species—us.
Wilson recently calculated that the only way humanity could stave off a mass extinction crisis, as devastating as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would be to set aside half the planet as permanently protected areas for the ten million other species. “Half Earth,” in other words, as I began calling it—half for us, half for them. A version of this idea has been in circulation among conservationists for some time.
“It’s been in my mind for years,” Wilson told me, “that people haven’t been thinking big enough—even conservationists. Half Earth is the goal, but it’s how we get there, and whether we can come up with a system of wild landscapes we can hang onto. I see a chain of uninterrupted corridors forming, with twists and turns, some of them opening up to become wide enough to accommodate national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.”
Like Wilson, M.C. Davis is a tireless, elaborately courteous Southern charmer. But Wilson himself is quick to point out a difference: “I only write about saving biodiversity. He’s actually doing it.”
Davis’ idea has been to revive the “Piney Woods,” the signature ecosystem of the American Southeast. The longleaf pine forest once covered 90 million acres, or about 60 percent of the land, in a virtually continuous 1,200-mile stretch across nine states from Virginia to East Texas. That forest has been reduced by 97 percent, and there are about three million acres of it left. That’s more catastrophic than what has happened to coral reefs (10 percent to 20 percent destroyed) or the Amazon rainforest (more than 20 percent). The longleaf pine forest’s “Big Cut,” as it’s still known, began after the Civil War and left behind what commentators referred to as “a sea of stumps.” Much of the land has since been reforested, but de-longleafed, and is now planted with row after row of faster-growing pines raised for pulpwood.
Davis, a commodities trader in timber and oil and gas rights, who grew up 65 miles west of his forest, is jovial, folksy, forceful, slightly rumpled-looking, unassuming (“I’m a dirt-road, Panhandle guy”). But for the past decade he has been spending half a million dollars a year planting longleaf pine trees and another half million on other parts of a longleaf forest.
Davis remembers his awakening. He got stuck in a big pileup on I-4 near Tampa, saw a high-school marquee with the sign “Black Bear Seminar” and walked in the door: “There was an old drunk, and a politician who’d thought there’d be a crowd, and a couple of Canadians looking for day-old doughnuts and coffee—and, up on the stage, two women talking about saving black bears. They were riveting. The next day I gave those ladies enough money to keep going for another two years, which I think scared them, it was so out of the blue. Then I asked them for a 100-book environmental reading list for me, for my education. I spent a year reading Thoreau, John Muir, Ed Wilson. Then I started buying up land to see what I could do.”
To honor Wilson, Davis built the dazzling, $12 million E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center at one edge of Nokuse, where thousands of fourth through seventh graders from six counties get free classes that let them hold real baby gopher tortoises and clamber and pose for pictures on a giant ant sculpture.
Wilson regards Nokuse as part of “the final stage of conservation.” Back in 1871, the United States electrified the world by inventing the national park, setting aside 2.2 million acres, an area larger than Delaware, to create Yellowstone National Park as a public “pleasuring ground.” (The world now has 5,000 national parks among its 200,000 protected areas.) Half a century ago, the vision expanded. Fifty years ago this month, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which for the first time permanently protected land for its own sake, establishing a National Wilderness Preservation System of areas where “the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man is only a visitor who does not remain.” This was hailed as securing the “freedom of the wilderness”; Wilson would call it “the conservation of eternity.” The 9.1 million acres of American wilderness protected in 1964 have since grown to 109.5 million acres (4 percent of the country), thanks to citizen groups working on behalf of the rest of life.
Read more at Smithsonian Magazine