I’ve been falling behind a little in my book reviews lately, but here’s one I read a couple of weeks ago. It’s one of the core texts off Paul’s Conservation and Biodiversity degree, and he lent it to me. Edward Wilson, if you haven’t come across him yet, is one of the world’s foremost biologists, but he writes with an elegance and fluency that belies his scientific background. His basic premise in this overview of biodiversity is that biodiversity “is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it.” It’s what makes life so resistance to extremes, and seen it through the climate and weather changes of the past millennia. Because life adapts and fills every niche, diversity is healthy, and “homogeneity means vulnerability.”
The problems with this become apparent when you consider that industrial farming tends towards homogeneity, cutting out regional differences and preferring the same few food crops everyhwere – rice, wheat, corn, soya. “Modern agriculture is only a sliver of what it could be” says Wilson. It rests on “a thin cushion of diversity.” There are hundreds more plants that could be grown, and more animals that could be farmed for meat.
Wilson’s main interest is of course conservation. He explains the five great extinctions, by volcano, climate change and meteor strike, and then the sixth – which is us. I have to confess I got a little lost among the alleles as the book traces the collapse and subsequent rebuilding of diversity in each age. Genetics gets a little mathematical for my liking. I was more struck that each cycle of destruction takes at least five million years to recover – a pretty long-term legacy for our short-lived prosperity. We are wiping out species faster than science can document them, without ever knowing what contribution they might have brought to us. “It is a failing of our species,” says Wilson, “that we ignore or even despise the creatures whose lives sustain our own.”
The real strength of this book however, is in it’s descriptions of the sheer vibrancy of biodiversity, the miraculous intricacy of species and subspecies. Wilson points out that we might walk through a forest and miss a beetle on a tree, while the beetle might walk along the tree trunk and miss the mites in the bark, and they in turn know nothing of the bacteria beneath them. The human body is full of symbionts, and “an entire ecosystem can exist in the plumage of a bird.”
It is these passages that the book really comes alive with Wilson’s infectious enthusiasm for all things living. The Diversity of Life is a warning, but most of all it is a celebration.