‘If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity,” wrote Saint Francis of Assisi, “you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” The Golden Rule, it turns out, has a naturalist sequitur. We can call it “biophilia,” the term coined by the zoologist Edward O. Wilson to describe the love of all living things.
Biophilia, and the wonders of creatures great and small, inspired Wilson from an early age. It led him to become, while still quite young, the world’s leading authority on ants: It was he who discovered that ants communicate by leaving pheromone trails for one another; and he went on to discover more than 3 percent of all known ant species. Now, 60 years after he started teaching at Harvard, Wilson is one of the most influential scientists of modern times.
Wilson first became famous, even notorious, for an idea that was widely seen as a frontal assault on any sort of spirituality or humanism. In the 1970s, he introduced the term “sociobiology” to describe the study of the biological basis of social behavior, including traits such as altruism and the brother–sister incest taboo, all of which, he said, could be explained by population genetics. In The Insect Societies (1971), Wilson demonstrated that many aspects of social behavior among insects were a product of “kin selection,” a concept he later expanded to “group selection.” In Sociobiology (1975), he extended the study to all social species, including humankind. The book caused a firestorm, starting with his fellow faculty members at Harvard. One implication, inferred by critics more than implied by Wilson, was that social inequality might sometimes be deterministic and biological in origin, a notion that struck many as a virulent new kind of racism.
But Wilson never claimed to have discovered the biological basis of all social behavior, much less that social inequality was a biological phenomenon. In animals without culture or learning, such as ants, all social behavior is biological. But in humans, among whom culture is dominant and behaviors are learned, only the most primitive instincts are explainable in terms of population genetics. That was the subject of Wilson’s marvelous On Human Nature (1979), for which he won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes.
Wilson’s increasingly pronounced biophilia led him eventually to focus on man’s threat to the diversity of species on Earth. That is the subject of his latest book.
Since multicellular life forms first appeared on this planet 650 million years ago, there have been six “mass extinction” events, in which a large fraction of species were wiped out, and the current one is our doing. Like the meteor that wiped out the remaining dinosaurs 65 million years ago, modern civilization has devastated large swathes of the natural habitat on which most species depend, and fragmented much of the rest, which is nearly as bad.
Conservative estimates put the potential loss by 2050 at 20 percent of all land species; other estimates are far higher. Large fractions of all vertebrate phyla — which include birds and mammals — now face extinction because of habitat loss and fragmentation. Humans have already driven thousands of species to extinction, including the vast majority of megafauna (animals weighing more than 10 kilograms) that existed at the end of the last ice age. Many of the largest prehistoric mammals of North America, such as woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, were driven to extinction by prehistoric man. More recently, man’s colonization of the Pacific Islands alone wiped out about 10 percent of all the planet’s bird species.
Not long ago, the rainforests of southeast Asia teemed with millions of smallish single-horned Java rhinos. Alas, the Java rhino was on land that humans needed for expansion, and the rhino’s horn is highly prized in Chinese medicine, which leads to rapacious poaching; the species is down to one small population of maybe 50 individuals, ensconced in a small national park at the water’s edge in Indonesia. “A tsunami or determined band of poachers,” writes Wilson, “can take out the species in a single strike.”
Wilson proposes to set aside half the world as a nature preserve, a ratio he arrives at by observing that if you can preserve 50 percent of a particular habitat, you can typically save 90 percent of the species that are unique to it. But where other environmentalists call for a world government to bring population and industrialization under control, and invoke familiar socialist boilerplate about how we need to escape the vices of capitalism and profit, Wilson is silent on precisely how we should implement his vision. In fact, he puts enormous stock in genetically modified foods (a big taboo for typical environmentalists) because their potential to feed many more people from the same land area means that we won’t need as much land.
By the end of the book, the reader is anxiously awaiting the punchline: How are we going to get to a “Half-Earth” preserve? But, in the book’s final pages, Wilson veers instead into an excursion on the possibilities of artificial intelligence and virtual reality — which might enable us to experience the limitless possibilities of nature while reducing humanity’s footprint and energy consumption. We would be able to enjoy waterfalls without mucking them up, or even touching them at all.
The current mass extinction raises difficult questions that have thus far eluded good answers. Punishing landowners who happen to host endangered species on their property, as the Endangered Species Act does, is clearly the wrong answer, because it imposes a cost on a small number of people when it should be borne by society as a whole, and creates a huge incentive to make endangered species on your property disappear before they are discovered.
But if progressives have the wrong answer to this problem, conservatives have no answer at all. The animus on the right against such organizations as the Sierra Club is a natural product of these groups’ often far-left politics. But purchasing critical habitat, as such organizations were created to do, is far more promising than punishing its owners.
The most important question raised by Half-Earth is: Why should we care? The purely utilitarian answer is both unsatisfying and speculative: The biosphere is very fragile, and tipping points could bring much of the ecology on which we vitally depend crashing down, but we will probably colonize other planets long before Earth becomes barren.
Wilson stresses the moral obligation to love all creatures, but as he himself noted in Sociobiology, the “hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain . . . flood our consciousness with all the emotions — hate, love, guilt, fear, and others — that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil.”
In a recent encyclical, Pope Francis offered the best answer, and perhaps the only one. He recalled that his namesake, Saint Francis, found God in all living things: “For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary gardens always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.”