Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The (Bio)diversity Debate: A Survey of Recent Articles

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The (Bio)diversity Debate: A Survey of Recent Articles

Article excerpt

Rheobatrachus silus is what biologists call a species of frog found in an Australian rain forest. Other people might simply call the animal amazing. Writer Emily Yoffe describes in the New York Times Magazine (Dec. 13, 1992) the remarkable way in which it reproduces: "The Rheobatrachus female swallows her fertilized eggs, which then gestate in her stomach and are regurgitated as tiny froglets six weeks later." Scientists hoped that since the frog somehow is able to turn off its gastric activity, research might reveal secrets that would help humans with stomach ailments. But in 1980, only six years after Rheobatrachus silus's extraordinary reproductive strategy was discovered by Michael J. Tyler, a zoologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, the gastric-brooding frogs disappeared for their normal winter hibernation--and have not been seen since. The species is presumed extinct.

It is far from the only one. "Just as the importance of all life forms for human welfare becomes most clear," biologists Paul R. Ehrlich of Stanford and Edward O. Wilson of Harvard write in Science (Aug. 16, 1991), "the extinction of wild species and ecosystems is ... accelerating," largely as a result of the destruction of rain forests and other natural habitats. The two scientists are an odd couple. Ehrlich is the crusading prophet who warned in a famous 1968 book that the "population bomb" was about to explode, and Wilson is the father of sociobiology, a man whom liberals have anathematized. Joining forces, they calculate that tropical deforestation alone now causes the annual loss of at least 0.2 percent of all the species of plants, animals, and microorganisms in the forests--a loss of 40,000 species per year, assuming there are 20 million in the forests. Critics, however, point out that there is virtually no empirical evidence to support such claims.

Nobody really knows just how many species there are in the forests or elsewhere on the planet, Robert M. May of Oxford University notes in Scientific American (Oct. 1992). "Despite more than 250 years of systematic research, estimates ... vary widely, all the way from three million to 30 million or more." (Ehrlich and Wilson believe that there may be as many as 100 million species.) Ever since the 18th-century Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus recorded some 9,000 species of plants and animals in his Systema Naturae (1758), taxonomists have been adding to the list. "By far the most attention has been lavished on animals endowed with the charm of feathers or fur," May says. For birds (9,000 known species) and mammals (4,000), and for butterflies (17,500), which many naturalists treat as honorary birds, the record is nearly complete. For many other creatures, it is not. Although the 900,000 known species of insects make up most of the estimated total of 1.5 to 1.8 million recorded species, May says, the true number of insect species may be two to three million.

What difference does a reduction in biodiversity make? Wilson and Ehrlich argue that biodiversity is essential to the working of natural ecosystems, that it provides precious sources of medicines, foods, and fuel, and that humans "have an absolute moral responsibility to protect what are our only known living companions in this universe." Indeed, Wilson is quoted in U.S. News & World Report (Nov. 30, 1992) as warning: "If we let too many species go, we face an enormous psychological and spiritual loss."

The only way to save "our fellow living creatures and ourselves in the long run," Wilson and Ehrlich claim, is "to reduce the scale of human activities," ceasing all development of "relatively undisturbed" land. …

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