Address by Edward O. Wilson at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Science Takes Flight Celebration, September 4, 2003, at the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, Ithaca, New York. Complete transcript.

Introduction by John Fitzpatrick, Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

It’s a very great pleasure and honor to introduce a professor at Harvard and an Alabamian, Edward O. Wilson, touted as the father of biodiversity. He’s the Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1955 and, as a specialist in ants and on social behavior, has developed a career that represents one of the truly great careers ever in the history of biological sciences. Ed has published 20 or so books, and has garnered two Pulitzer Prizes. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is on the national boards of a variety of conservation organizations. He has won the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for environmental achievement, and, perhaps most important of all, he remains to this day a committed lover of ants and of the natural world, and of the protection of both. It’s a great pleasure and honor to introduce Edward O. Wilson.

Edward O. Wilson:

Dean Henry, Dr. Fitzpatrick (Fitz), my old and cherished friend Tom Eisner, Maria Eisner, staff, and fellow guests, I really am very grateful for the opportunity to join you on this special occasion and also to take this opportunity to stress that the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, among its multiple roles as a growing powerhouse of science, education, and public policy, is—by virtue of the affectionate familiarity of birds to the general public, the large amount of information we have about birds, and the Laboratory’s own many important achievements—a major resource for conservation of biodiversity. That is the subject that I would like to particularly address in the short period of time I have today.

To that end, bear in mind that the world’s environmental problems and opportunities divide into two categories. On the one side is the physical deterioration of the earth’s surface, such as global warming and toxic pollution. That can be fixed, maybe even reversed, with money and political will. On the other side is the erosion of the living environment, by the shrinking and outright erasure of species and entire ecosystems, and when extinction occurs, it can’t be fixed, not by any amount of money or will. So the present status of the living environment can be summarized very briefly as follows.

In the last several decades especially, scientists have found the biosphere to be far richer in diversity, particularly in species and genes, than ever before conceived. Second, that biodiversity, which has taken over 3.5 billion years to evolve, is being eroded at an accelerating rate by human activity. At the present rate of habitat loss, particularly in the tropical forests and the shallow marine environments, we could lose as many as half of the species of plants and animals on earth by the end of this century. That is not alarmist, so please, if you wish, challenge me later so I can unpack that information. Third, that loss overall is going to inflict a heavy price in wealth, security, and spirit. On the other hand, the scientific studies and wise management of biodiversity can yield benefits and new knowledge, wealth, and security, that are beyond imagination.

Let me tell you why I believe we are in what will eventually be called the century of the environment, with a strong biological emphasis. This is in science a century of biology. Physics has had its years, its decades. We’ll keep our attention on the latest developments in astrophysics, and if we ever get string theory brought within the realm of experimental verification, we will put some more attention on that. But now biology’s time has arrived and for all sorts of reasons, including the need to develop new approaches, methodologies, and even philosophies of science.

The immediate human future can be thought of as a bottleneck of overpopulation and rising per capita consumption. It’s a bottleneck that will last most or all of this century but then, if we are sufficiently wise and lucky, we will see the widening out again of the bottleneck, for several reasons. First, by what appears to be the providential instinct, women consciously reduce their fertility wherever they gain education, opportunity, and some degree of freedom of choice in reproduction. This is not just a liberal Harvard professor addressing you. This is, fortunately, thoroughly now documented in world demographic studies. Among nearly all of the European countries, Japan, Thailand, the Asian tigers, and native-born Americans (and immigrants will almost certainly soon follow as their security in this country improves), the population growth has now fallen below the zero-population-growth breakpoint of 2.1 children per woman, and is headed toward population decline. That would be characteristic of all of the industrialized countries in a very short period of time.

The rest of the world is following. The average number of children per woman has dropped worldwide in the last 40 years from 6 to 3 children. That is an astonishing decline for global demography. The latest United Nations estimates project that the total human population may very well peak out at about 8.9 billion around mid-century, and then very likely start to decline. We may thank whatever gods may be that women, when given the choice, prefer a small number of quality children, instead of entering the lottery of life by scattering out many children who, by force of necessity, cannot be raised in a quality manner.

Meanwhile, however, data from the best-known groups of organisms, the flowering plants and vertebrates, show a continuing high rate of extinction, and that is evidently accelerating. So we are in a race in this century as far as the rest of life and our beloved birds are concerned—a race with an increasingly clearly defined finish line. We must raise the standard of living and political freedom of the developing countries which have 80 percent of the people today and virtually all of the world’s population growth, while at the same time protecting the biodiversity that is concentrated especially in these developing countries.

If we get through the bottleneck, while bringing through as much of the rest of life as we can, for the benefit of all generations, then it will be considered in future centuries, a great accomplishment of this century, even as we head for the outer stars, even as we have computers with better than human capability, and all those wonders that the futurists among us dream of without, in many cases, understanding the reality of this planet. Perhaps my imagination is defective, but I ask, what could be a more noble goal than that?

Let me put environment and the human prospect this way, in biological terms. The rest of life comprising natural ecosystems—and I’m compelled to add, with birds at the conspicuous apex—run the world just the way we like it, without any effort on our part, without costing us a cent. Biodiversity manufactures the atmosphere, clears the water, creates the fertile soil, and above all, this creates a living world on which our own lives depend.

Is this true? Do our lives really depend on it? For a reason you may not have considered, it does—because we are a biological species that evolved in a biological world as part of biodiversity, and we are exquisitely adapted in every fiber of our being and our physiology and even our spirit, to the exact conditions on this planet’s surface created by the rest of life. The more that we degrade and destroy the natural environment through selfishness and short-term planning, the more we depend on prosthetic devices of engineering, such as gigantic water filtering plants, to maintain our equilibrium that the natural world provides for us scot-free, the more we turn this planet, literally, not figuratively, into Spaceship Earth in which our existence depends upon on our continuing alertness and ingenuity, pushing the right buttons, pulling the right levers, monitoring every square kilometer of the planet’s surface, just to keep things going because we destroyed the natural base that kept it that way for billions of years until our own species arrived.

The ecosystem services that the natural living environment provides were estimated in 1997 by a team of ecologists and economists to be about $33 trillion annually. That is a bit more than the annual world domestic product, in other words, everything that all of the human race creates economically. In the realm of science, we need to get on with the exploration of biodiversity.

To mention another special interest that I have in all of this, and I’m sure that is shared by most of you here, amazingly, we probably know and have given a scientific name to only a small minority, perhaps 10 percent of the species of organisms on earth. The number of named species lies, we believe, somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million diagnosed, published, and given a scientific name. The actual number of species on earth, that is, known plus unknown, has been estimated variously to fall somewhere between 3.6 million, an improbably low figure, and over 100 million species, and is very likely to fall closer to the upper end. It’s been recently projected, for example, that about 4 million species of bacteria, virtually all unknown to science, are found in a ton of fertile soil. Least known are these bacteria and other microorganisms, of course, together with small invertebrate animals that teem around us here in this Laboratory space and support the environment here. Best known, of course, are the birds, but even there, an average of three verifiable new species of birds a year are discovered, and that number may rise steeply when genetic comparison along with field tests of reproductive isolation are used more widely, using the kind of sound recordings of which you have the largest collection in the world, incidentally, here. Dr. Fitzpatrick has personally discovered seven new species of birds. That’s equivalent to winning the Tour de France five times in a row. You’ve got to slow down, Fitz, and let somebody else have a crack at it.

In short, we live on a little-known planet, and it’s crucial to find out what is here, everywhere on this planet—from the largely unknown invertebrates and microorganisms that exist right here on this property, to all around the world—and how we can best manage and benefit from it. We also need to learn how best to conserve these natural ecosystems in a way that is as acceptable especially to the developing countries, as it is to the industrialized countries. Environmental biology, conservation of natural resources, and the proper management and use of them to build economies in developing countries, should be an important part of our foreign policy. Economic development of our future trading partners and our security, our defense against terrorism and civil war, will depend upon assisting these countries to develop their scientific and technological capacity, and there is no better way and no better conduit than the kind of institution this Laboratory represents.

Yesterday on our way down from Syracuse, I had a very nice talk with Fitz and a couple of graduate students, and I was saying that I keep feeling that what you have here is the equivalent of growth stock in the business world; in other words, “invest in this because this is where the action is going to be.” Not just science, not just biology—the coming revolution of biology, a great part of which is going to be focused on biodiversity and on the maintenance and nature of ecosystems—but radiating out through new kinds of agriculture, forestry, ecotourism, a search for pharmaceuticals and so on, a large part of what the world is going to be about in practical terms in the decades ahead.

Not to do this, to stand by and watch the world’s billion-year heritage go down the drain, is the folly our descendants will least likely forgive us. So this realm of biodiversity, understanding it, making use of it, enjoying it, celebrating it, is, among the many reasons in science, education, and spirituality, why the work of the Laboratory of Ornithology should continue and flourish, and I am proud to be associated with it, however momentarily. Thank you.


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