The Diversity of Life

The great entomologist E O Wilson’s The Diversity of Life (Harvard University Press, 1992) should be required reading for all who care to understand the complex web of life that we all are part of.

What is urgently needed is knowledge and a practical ethic based on a time scale longer than we are accustomed to apply. An ideal ethic is a set of rules invented to address problems so complex or stretching so far into the future as to place their solution beyond ordinary discourse. Environmental problems are innately ethical. They require vision reaching simultaneously into the short and long reaches of time. What is good for individuals and societies at this moment might easily sour ten years hence, and what seems ideal over the next several decades could ruin future generations. To choose what is best for both the near and distant futures is a hard task, often seemingly contradictory and requiring knowledge and ethical codes which for the most part are still unwritten. (page 312)

The fundamental problem is that of the knowledge of how the components of the biosystem interact with each other. We can easily enough mess around with any bit of it. But our meddling is certain to have consequences that are not intended by us. And the longer the time horizon, the more uncertain our grasp of the consequences of any intervention becomes.

The web of life is a seriously intricate web. John Muir understood that really well. He said that he found it hard to write about nature. Because, he said, if he started to write about something, he realized that that something was connected to something else; so he would have to write about that also. Then he would find that the something else was itself connected to another something, and so on till he found that he could not write about something unless he wrote about everything. Since it was a hopeless task, why bother writing about nature.

Wilson’s call for the development of a practical ethic which will balance the near and the far time scales is timely. Humanity has little time to lose. For in the absense of such an ethic, given the harm that humanity is now capable of inflicting on nature, the web of life could well unravel.

{Continued at “Storm over the Amazon.”}

Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “The Diversity of Life”

  1. #My perennial grouse against Evolution or the Creator has been that even when Man does his best, with the best of intentions, with all the good-will and all the highest intelligence in his store, things can freely get messed up. Very easily. Let alone when he deliberately goes out of his way to consciously destroy and pave complicated paths to total destruction of all species and all of this Earth too.
    I am totally pessimistic about this -Man in/for this world seem to be an impossibility difficult to resolve 😦

    # Wilson’s call might be timely. But it is impossible to heed it. It definitely cannot be done. We do not have the data needed, we donot have the wisdom and intelligence needed to develop a system of anything that will embrace both the near and far futures. 😦
    Verily the time has come for evolution to bring forth the next species in the great scale of beings.
    Man at the height of the evolutionary toil is a big joke.
    He either will not, or even if will, he cannot…


  2. Hi Atanu:

    Very timely indeed. Here in my job in Australia I have a tough time getting people to understand the environmental damage that is caused by our actions today and how it can affect future generations.

    Somehow most of the people are not wired to think long term and connect it back to short term.

    I need to get that book.



  3. I guess this quote has now become a cliche, but I like it’s poetic form.

    “This we know… everything is connected.
    Like the blood that unites one family.
    Man did not weave the web of life
    He is merely a strand in it.
    Whatever he does to the web
    He does it to himself”
    –Chief Seattle (c.1786 – June 7, 1866)

    Now I know there is a controversy about the speech and whether the Chief actually said the words about the “web of life”. BUT…

    I like to believe that in this quote there is a guideline for an ethic based on time scale longer than we are accustomed to apply.


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