E.O. Wilson on the Importance of Biodiversity
The famous biologist discusses his life's work in conservation and his efforts to save the ecosphere.
Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism). Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular humanist ideas concerned with religious and ethical matters.
A Harvard professor for four decades, he has written twenty books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species. Considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, Dr. Wilson is often called "the father of biodiversity," (a word that he coined). He is the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.
E.O. Wilson: In my long life, actually I'm 85 years old, I've been through a lot of different worlds, mostly biological worlds and parts of the natural world and the like. And what I'm coming increasingly to concentrate on in whatever time I have left is the natural world and the necessary means that we have to use to save it. There are about two million species of plants, animals and microorganisms that we know about, that scientists have found, diagnosed, given a description of and a scientific name, two million almost exactly at the present time. The actual number of species in the world is estimated at roughly eight million species, maybe eight to ten. We don't know. Most of the natural world, most of nature, much of the living part of the environment is unknown to us. And of those species that we know, the two million, we only know the lives, lifecycles and the biology of only a tiny fraction. And of that tiny fraction that we know something about we know just a tiny fraction again of how they interact with other species. We are living in and dependent upon a world, a biosphere in which we evolved and to which we are exquisitely well adapted in every part of our body and our mind, razor thin that biosphere within which we and our fellow organisms live without going into submersibles or space suits. And we are destroying a large part of it.
The rate at which species are going extinct, this is the consensus order of magnitude, I've estimated, others have estimated different ways and so on working in this field of extinction, the rate at which species are going extinct is on an order of magnitude a thousand times faster than what species were, how fast they were going before the coming of humanity. We're hemorrhaging the world's biodiversity. People know that but they just don't seem to grasp what this means. What this means is that the living shield, just from their point, the human point of view, the shield of living organisms that maintains the environment is close to or exactly what humans need, because we evolved as one of them, is being shorn away. We estimate that the number of species of existing unimpaired at the end of the century would be just somewhere around one half. One half will be gone or on the brink of extinction at this rate of extinction.
There are ways to stop this and I think we're going to have to start talking about big changes in how much of the earth's surface we put aside for nature just to keep it from going extinct in a very short period of time. And I'm in a group of scientists working very hard on that part right now, this is what I'm focused on and I hope we might even see what some of the solutions will be, but here's one last interesting point. Just as our salvation is aided by an unintended consequence of women who get any economic freedom stop having children, that is they drop having the children number below zero population growth, which is a very good thing for an overpopulated world right now. In other words we don't have to enforce or persuade much more people to have fewer children, what we need to do is to move as much of the world population into the middle class with women's freedom. We could reach, well this is the United Nations projection, we could reach eight to ten billion by the end of the century and then the population begins to subside.
What about consumption? Many people would say well, you know, eight/ten billion people that still means that we're going to eat up the rest of the world so there's still a lot. No. Not at all. There's something called the ecological footprint. That's the amount of land required for each person on average to live at whatever level of life humanity is reaching for or has acquired for the amount of land for habitation, for food, for governance, for transportation, the whole thing, maybe scattering pieces around the world but we can measure it and it has been measured. And so the theory would be that's growing, is it not, because of increased per capita consumption. And that makes even with the population slowing and receding the rest of life would be gone, right? Wrong. No.
With modern technology, and think about it, everything in the current innovative techno-scientific evolution that society is going through is producing an ever smaller footprint. Why? Because people buy - the whole economy is increasingly techno-scientific and being directed at making things lighter, smaller and more effective in energy consumption. And it happens then, and this is something I need, I think the economists should be measuring and thinking about. What then important is as human economic activity increases world wide it is, at the same time it seems to me, I have discussed this with some experts and they seem to agree, this is an extremely important principle, that what we're doing in the modern scientific techno-scientific digital hyper-connected age is shrinking the ecological footprint. Believe it or not. That could be, and we need measurements taken, that could be the solution of the whole thing. Because if we give more to nature to hold onto that shield and the living part of the environment, it can be done and I believe it can be practical because of the shrinking ecological footprint. Just a thought.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Edward O. Wilson claims that the biosphere is incredibly delicate and without a change in behavior we will irreversibly destroy the biodiversity on the planet.
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- Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
- Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
- Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.
Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.
- "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
- New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
- It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.
At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.
As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.
But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.
Just as sharp as the whippersnappers
To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.
First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.
The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.
The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.
An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.
How to ensure brain health in old age
While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."
To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.
Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.
For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.
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