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.
Arriving at Wilson’s conclusions I found myself thumbing back through the book, seeing if I could glean in the flow of his argument a particular message for farmers. But there are indications that for all his hands-on science, he harbors an outsized faith in a cyber-future, and sees the problem of feeding the world as one to be solved by a combination of technology and agribusiness, rather than by millions of artisans planting what might grow well and best engage neighborhood appetites on their small diverse plots. He trusts the millennia of adaptive change and the complexity of the biosphere, yet pivots quickly in the present to put his trust in what he terms “synthetic biology,” praising “its potential benefits, easily visualized as spreading through medicine and agriculture.” (197) Yet on the previous page he had just described how maize took ten millennia to arrive at its present form, with human help selecting plants and seed potentially every step of the way. Then he concludes: “For all those millions of years…our species let the biosphere continue to evolve on its own. Then, with scythe and fire, guided more by ignorant instinct than by reason, we changed everything.” (204) Perhaps that scythe and fire were guided by ignorance, but perhaps by choices Wilson is not yet prepared to acknowledge.
I can’t help but report how this argument over the beginnings and prospects of agriculture comes on the heels of his discussion of how “Decision, even for simple physical action, can proceed without awareness.” (203) He quotes Henry Poincare’s poetic 1902 description of the process:
“The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment, it has tact, delicacy; it knows better how to choose, to divine. What do I say? It knows better how to divine than the conscious self, since he succeeds where that has failed. In a word, is not the subliminal self superior to the conscious self?” (203)
The relatively sudden selection of species of plants and animals to domesticate seven to eleven thousand years ago may have been conscious or unconscious. Scientists have suggested that some of those animals may even have self-selected. In particular the dog and pig might have been drawn within the circle of the firelight and accepted the deal that was tacitly offered. But this gathering arrangement of plants and animals which led to agriculture and thence over time to civilization, which is to say living in one place under a roof by a fire with stable sources of food, then politics and art and all that entails, was not an evil, but a set of choices with implications that seem in the long light of time to have mostly gone one way, with no return. No one chose to go back to hunting and gathering, for all that lifestyle’s supposed advantages, once they had taken to herding instead of chasing after wild meats, and had tasted wheat and barley, corn and beans and potatoes that might keep for years. Those species of plants and animals whose survival until then had been part of the biosphere’s general diversity, subject to the same urgencies to survive or perish, found themselves chosen to thrive as part of an unfolding but perhaps unthinking strategy of man, with an undreamt-of success, their offspring over time spread worldwide.
Contrary to Wilson’s view, perhaps we don’t need to “radically improve agriculture with new crop species and ways to grow them,” (205) when the strategies of biotech and agribusiness have been to scrub all other life forms from the soil, creating an artificial wasteland responsive only to synthetic inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, denying the very diversity Wilson would champion. And as Wilson himself notes, “Technology without science is like an automobile without wheels and a road map.” (163)
In spite of my reservations about Professor Wilson’s consistency regarding the advent and prospects of agriculture over the last ten thousand years, and his enthusiastic appreciation of the computer’s potential for cataloguing the other species that inhabit the biosphere, Half-Earth offers some remarkable insights from the field, and an unparalleled opportunity to know where we stand regarding species diversity. The chapter entitled “the best places in the biosphere,” with its detailed survey of those lands around the world already set aside, which constitute some 15% of the Earth’s land area and 2.5% of its ocean area, should be required reading for the young and the hopeless, to know what is already being done. We might wish for more consistent insights from this statesman-scientist, yet we need the perspectives of science, especially the far-reaching, unselfish and ultimately optimistic insights of a thinker like Edward O. Wilson, whose lifetime of efforts in the wilds underfoot and around the world inform his sense of the importance to the planet of its living systems of species reaching back billions of years. “Threading the bottleneck” which he terms our present dilemma of endangered species, manmade global climate change and over-population, his is a bold and timely work that deserves our attention and thanks.