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BioDiversity by E.O. Wilson, Editor

"BioDiversity": the fantastic multitude of different forms of life on planet Earth. Just one group of animals alone, the insects, may account for an inconceivable 50 million species, according to the latest estimates of entomologist Terry Erwin, a contributor to this book. Unfortunately, what has taken evolution over three billion years to produce may take the human species only a few generations to wipe out: Erwin estimates that human activity may eliminate 20 to 30 million species in the next generation alone! This wholesale obliteration of species has profound consequences for all humans, not just "nature lovers." As ecologist Paul Ehrlich, another of BioDiversity's authors, points out, the complex ecosystems formed by the Earth's plants, animals, and microorganisms supply the mixture of gases that makes the atmosphere livable, prevent habitable land from turning into desert, insure the pollination of our crops, and maintain a balance of predators and prey that keeps humans from being overrun by pests. Perhaps most important of all, the assemblage of species with which we share the planet represents a vast untapped genetic library, teeming with undiscovered pharmaceuticals and other beneficial substances.

Ehrlich and Erwin are only two of over fifty contributors to this book, the product of a National Forum cosponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution. A superb lineup of biologists graphically outlines the terrifying enormity of the current extinction crisis — which dwarfs all of the natural extinctions of the past — and makes suggestions about how it can be reversed. Their essays are complemented by contributions from pharmacologists, economists, environmentalists, poets, and philosophers. (Included are a number familiar to Whole Earth Catalog readers: Ehrlich, Ocean Arks Institute founder John Todd, James "Gala Hypothesis" Lovelock, beat poet Michael McClure.)

What emerges is pretty grim, but not hopeless. Ehrlich predicts that unless human cultures are transformed by a "quasi-religious . . . appreciation of diversity for its own sake," most of the Earth's surface will soon become desert, and "civilization will disappear some time before the end of the next century — not with a bang but a whimper" This book amply demonstrates that if Ehrlich's apocalyptic vision comes to pass, it won't be because the human species wasn't smart enough to see it coming. The question to ask now is: Are we smart enough to do anything about it? —Ted Schultz

 

I will go further: the magnitude and control of biological diversity is not just a central problem of evolutionary biology; it is one of the key problems of science as a whole. At present, there is no way of knowing whether there are 5, 10, or 30 million species on Earth. There is no theory that can predict what this number might turn out to be. With reference to conservation and practical applications, it also matters why a certain subset of species exists in each region of the Earth, and what is happening to each one year by year. Unless an effort is made to understand ail of diversity, we will fall far short of understanding life in these important respects, and due to the accelerating extinction of species, much of our opportunity will slip away forever. —E.O. Wilson