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E.O. Wilson’s moon shot

Before the second prize, we review Cameron Sinclair’s prize for Architecture for Humanity, and the launch of the Open Architecture network. (See this morning’s post for details.) The project literally launched this morning and is already seeing use.

The second prize winner is the remarkable biologist, E.O. Wilson, who Stuart Brand introduces by saying, “As a biologist, this is someone who has changed my field over and over and over.”

Wilson announces himself as speaking for “his constituency – 10^18 insects and small creatures” and to make a plea for them. If we were to eliminate insects, most human life would be destroyed within years. Wilson is best known for his work on ants – he explains that this is his “devoted period” after briefer childhood periods fascinated with birds, butterflies, snakes, frogs and caves.

Growing up in Alabama on the gulf coast, Wilson blinded himself in one eye when fishing as a seven year old, pulling a pinfish into his eye. He’s also congenitally hard of hearing. “I found that I was bad at birdwatching, and I couldn’t track frogs by sound.” So he became attracted to “the little things who run the world.”

Wilson is interested in the species we don’t know anything about. Recent discoveries include megafauna like whales, antelopes, a new elephant and monkey species. But we know vastly less about life in the sea, about molds and fungus, and about nematodes – roundworms – who represent four of all five animals of the planet. He references bacteria as “the dark matter of the biological world”, with 4 million unique species in a ton of soil, most of them completely unknown.

“What are they all doing? We don’t know.”

Wilson outlines a futue hope – that we’ll explore the world, carrying collectors and sequencers which let us discover bacteria and microorganisms, “the way we look for birds with binoculars.” What will we find as we map the world? It’s possible that we might find actual aliens – bacteria or microorganisms that actually came from outerspace – after all, “they’ve had billions of years to do it.”

He points out that we’re destroying these organisms and ecosystems with ingenuiety.
Ants that he discovered early in his career – metallic green and gold ants in Cuban forests – are threatened by the cutting of these ancient trees.

Wilson sees a set of threats to environmental stability and discovery coming from factors he refers to as HIPPO:

– Habitat destruction, including climate change
– Invasive species
– Pollution
– (Human) Population explosion
– Overharvesting (by hunting and fishing)

Only about 15% of known species have been studied well enough to know their status and threat – “We’re flying blind into the environmental future.” So Wilson asks for a science project equivalent in scale to the human genome project, a “moon shot with a timetable.”

“I wish we will work together to help create the key tools we need to inspire preservation of earth’s biodiversity.” His vision is an encyclopedia of life, a document on the Internet, accessible to anyone on demand, anywhere in the world, and infinitely expansible.

1 thought on “E.O. Wilson’s moon shot”

  1. I can’t say I care for Wilson’s sociobiology shtick. (In what universe could insect behavior, largely inherited, tell us much about human societies and near-100% learned behavior?) But as far as needing to know what we’re destroying BEFORE we destroy it: “Right on!” as we used to say.

    He should have also mentioned the forces working against such a project. Discovering “what’s out there” (a field called “systematics,” officially) is the stepchild of biology at this point. The establishment views it rather like a convention of computer geeks might view a crow quill pen. Quaint, fine in it’s day, but useless now except as a museum exhibit.

    They couldn’t be more wrong, as Wilson rightly points out, but that attitude means that:
    a) Nobody who is simply a systematist is hired into academic positions (now, not in Wilson’s or my day).
    b) Work in pure systematics, especially the floristic and faunistic work Wilson is referring to, no longer gets people tenure.
    c) Almost all grants for work in systematics are tiny these days, when funding is given at all.
    d) The funding issue only feeds even more into a) and b).
    (As someone who’s been a systematist for going on 30 years now, trust me on this.)

    Perhaps I should add that systematics is not a simple matter of getting out there and identifying things. You have to know what you’re looking at before you can ID it, and that’s amazingly complicated in all its ramifications.

    Wilson needs to add to his call to arms. He needs to map out a way to study the world’s organisms when the specialists involved have been squeezed out of the jobs where they could do the work.

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