Biodiversity in the Information Age

By Wilson, Edward O. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Biodiversity in the Information Age


Wilson, Edward O., Issues in Science and Technology


My 1985 Issues article was among the first to document and assess the problem of biodiversity in the context of public policy. It was intended to bring the extinction crisis to the attention of environmental policymakers, whose focus theretofore had been almost entirely on pollution and other problems of the physical environment. Several factors contributed to this disproportion: Physical events are simpler than biological ones, they are easier to measure, and they are more transparently relevant to human health. No senator's spouse, it had been said, ever died of a species extinction.

The mid-1980s saw a steep increase in awareness concerning the living environment. In 1986, the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution cosponsored a major conference on biodiversity, assembling for the first time the scores of specialists representing the wide range of disciplines, from systematics and ecology to agriculture and forestry, that needed to merge their expertise in basic and applied research to address the critical questions. The papers were published in the book BioDiversity, which became an international scientific bestseller. The term biodiversity soon became a household word. By 1992, when I published The Diversity of Life, the scientific and popular literature on the subject had grown enormously. The Society of Conservation Biology emerged as one of the fastest-growing of all scientific societies. Membership in organizations dedicated to preserving biodiversity grew manyfold. Now there are a dozen new journals and shelves of technical and popular books on the topic.

The past decade has witnessed the emergence of a much clearer picture of the magnitude of the biodiversity problem. Put simply, the biosphere has proved to be more diverse than was earlier supposed, especially in the case of small invertebrates and microorganisms. An entire domain of life, the Archaea, has been distinguished from the bacteria, and a huge, still mostly unknown and energetically independent biome--the subterranean lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems--has been found to extend three kilometers or more below the surface of Earth.

In the midst of this exuberance of life forms, however, the rate of species extinction is rising, chiefly through habitat destruction. Most serious of all is the conversion of tropical rainforests, where most species of animals and plants live. The rate has been estimated, by two independent methods, to fall between 100 and 10,000 times the prehuman background rate, with 1,000 times being the most widely accepted figure. The price ultimately to be paid for this cataclysm is beyond measure in foregone scientific knowledge; new pharmaceutical and other products; ecosystems services such as water purification and soil renewal; and, not least, aesthetic and spiritual benefits.

Concerned citizens and scientists have begun to take action. A wide range of solutions is being proposed to stanch the hemorrhaging of biodiversity at the regional as well as the global level. Since 1985, the effort has become more precisely charted, economically efficient, and politically sensitive.

The increasing attention given to the biodiversity crisis highlights the inadequacy of biodiversity research itself. As I stressed in 1985, Earth remains in this respect a relatively unexplored planet. The total number of described and formally named species of organisms (plant, animal, and microbial) has grown, but not by much, and today is generally believed to lie somewhere between 1.

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