The Future of Life

By Edward O. Wilson

One thing you have to say about Edward O. Wilson is that he’s always thinking of the big picture. After beginning his career studying ants he has moved on to write books with titles like The Diversity of Life, On Human Nature, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, and now The Future of Life. This is because for Wilson there is no way of separating the microworld of ant colonies from the totality of the biosphere. All of life is a seamless membrane wrapped around the Earth.

The Future of Life is an argument for conservation that challenges the short-term thinking of most economists with this holistic, big picture, “real-world view.” Even though our shortsighted approach to environmental problems is “a hard-wired part of our Paleolithic heritage,” it is not our destiny.

There is a solid economic argument to be made for conservation. Economic growth at the expense of the environment comes at staggering real costs. This is especially so in the case of species preservation. At the current rate of habitat destruction we are almost certainly ripping holes out of the web of life that we don’t even know about. And there is simply no way to assign species a current economic value based on what their eventual survival or extinction may be worth.

The economic argument for preservation also has a darker political side. The intentions of everyone involved may be good, but there is something a little unsettling about Wilson’s account of huge chunks of the Third World being bought as nature preserves, thus making them safe havens for bioprospecting by medical corporations and First World ecotourism. When looking at the long term, however, the ends are assumed to justify the means.

But there is more at stake than economics. Ultimately, Wilson sees conservation as a moral issue. For someone who imagines consciousness as the product of physical laws, this isn’t as vague an assertion as we are used to considering it. Certain aspects of biophilia, the love of life, appear to be instinctual. The ethic systems of our great religions may have their root in a natural sympathy for the genetic unity of life. Even aesthetics may be bioethical. As Theodore Roosevelt observed nearly a hundred years ago in a speech defending the preservation of California’s forests, “There is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty.”

Human beings are uniquely situated in being able to consciously influence the future of life on Earth. With such power comes responsibility, not only for the rest of creation but for our posterity. As Wilson eloquently argues, this makes the future of life a moral choice.

Review first published online April 23, 2002.