Book Review of Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world. – Alexander von Humboldt
Edward O. Wilson’s new book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (New York, W.W. Norton, 2016), offers a plan for the problem of species extinction: the dominant species, man, must hold itself back, must relinquish half the earth’s surface to those endangered. It is a challenging and on the face of it improbable thought, expressed in a terse style. But his phrases are packed because the hour is late. There is an air of finish in the offing, a great change to be rehearsed. What else is he asking for if not an awakening, an urgent and belated change of heart? Humankind must quarantine itself, must be satisfied to hold its own flawed predatory nature in check. Watching human desperation and greed kill the last rhinos in spite of massive and costly efforts at rescue, watching humanity’s thoughtless blunders erase the last of many other shy and obscure species, Wilson examines actions taken by sheer mounting numbers of humans bowing to social compulsions and market forces, often without particular malice but with deadly cumulative effect.
The “straw man” Wilson has elected to do battle with is what he calls the Anthropocene viewpoint, the man-centered view that most uncritical humans subscribe to, since it is supported by the creation story of the Old Testament, and holds that man has been given dominion over all the rest of nature. Only recently has “dominion” been reinterpreted by some thinkers and religious leaders to mean stewardship — tending, preserving and improving — which still doesn’t always recognize the right of other life forms to exist independent of their benefit to man. In contrast he posits the view of the naturalist and biologist engaged in understanding the complex web of life on Earth.
But making the case for nature-as-it-is, besieged and quickly shedding the hidden gift of its diversity, can be a tough sell. Why do we even need a biosphere with millions of species? From where we sit nearly all of those species are already invisible, and serve no clear purpose — economic, medicinal, nutritive or other — to us. It would seem Wilson must first convince the anthropocentric reader that there is hidden value to the biosphere independent of our place at the head of the table.
Regarding the urgency of our situation with 7.2 billion human mouths to feed, Wilson reports, “At present we consume nearly one-quarter of Earth’s natural photosynthetic productivity: that much of the planet’s freshly manufactured biomass ends up in our hands and stomachs and the share is growing. The remainder of the planet’s productivity is left for all of the other millions of species.” (172) He is often at his best in laying out the blunt truths of our ignorance. Speaking of the sheer scientific work to be done, he says “At least two-thirds of the species on Earth remain unknown and unnamed, and of the one-third known, fewer than one in a thousand have been subject to intensive biological research.” (104) So one large benefit of the book, not just for fellow scientists but for the rest of us, is how Wilson lays out the work to be done to even know where we stand regarding the health of the biosphere. Not just where to look and what to save, but what to do first.
Edward O. Wilson’s scientific emblem and lifework has been and remains the ant — industrious, versatile, sturdy, missing nothing as it forages among all the living underfoot. But then despite — or perhaps because of — his grounding, in mid-career he undertook an ambitious and vital work with larger implications. His book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) traced social and historical connections, and more elusive behavioral echoes, between species up the phylogenetic tree, from the simplest organisms to man. It was original, vigorous and sweeping in its implications, and was hotly debated. The tracing of almost ghostly parallels and inferences between the behaviors of species was exciting, finding hidden sources and echoes in ourselves, though much of the work’s implications reached far in advance of supporting evidence. It was one of those moments, as with Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), when science forewent its routine plodding, and suddenly leapt in the sunlight.
Professor Wilson is older and wiser now, but he’s gotten stirred up again, and regards the issue of species extinction as timely and urgent. Consider merely the most telling piece of his argument for biological diversity, which occurs when he turns to the human organism, and points out its dependence on the myriad bacteria and other symbionts that are complicit in human life. The very existence of the host — us! — depends upon healthy internal colonies with millions of members, acting in a dance of mutual benefit. He concludes with this description of our looming dilemma: “An Earth packed wall-to-wall with people would be a planetary spaceship, dependent on humanity’s future intellect and wisdom for the long-term survival of life.” (134) His view, in other words, is that the biosphere contains an alternative wisdom to the mental powers of humans, and that that diverse and vast array of life forms operates in the best interests of all aboard planet Earth.