April 21, 2014

A striking salute to the balance of nature

By Edward O. Wilson
Review by

If you want a gut-level understanding of why preservation of the Earth’s biodiversity is vital to the survival of our own species, Edward O. Wilson’s new book, A Window on Eternity, is an excellent place to start.

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If you want a gut-level understanding of why preservation of the Earth’s biodiversity is vital to the survival of our own species, Edward O. Wilson’s new book, A Window on Eternity, is an excellent place to start.

Wilson, a pre-eminent evolutionary biologist and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, writes eloquently in this extended essay—beautifully illustrated with photographs by Piotr Naskrecki—about his experiences in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. The park lies in the Rift Valley where the human species first evolved. It is, writes Wilson, “one of the most ecologically interesting and least explored . . . part[s] of Mozambique.” 

Shortly after Mozambique gained independence from and was left bankrupt by its Portuguese colonial rulers, a protracted civil war broke out. During that war most of the large mammals in this wilderness preserve—elephants, hippopotamuses, wildebeests—were slaughtered to provide food for the vying armies, then by poachers and professional hunters. “Between 1972 and 2001,” Wilson notes in one example, “the number of Cape buffalo counted in the park fell from 13,000 to 15.” The few elephant matriarchs that survived remain traumatized and hostile to humans. In a fascinating section called “The Elephant Whisperer,” Wilson writes about attempts to calm these elders “through what experts on animal behavior call habituation.”

The loss of all these large mammals altered the habitats in ways that affected animal and plant life —including humans—throughout the region. Wilson’s swift summary of these impacts in the section “Dung and Blood” is a vivid and succinct explanation of the interrelatedness of an ecosystem. 

In 2004, the government of Mozambique and a foundation established by Gregory C. Carr, co-founder of the firm Boston Technology, agreed on a 20-year public-private partnership to restore large animals, known as “megafauna,” to the park. Carr eventually enlisted Wilson in the project. 

Part of A Window on Eternity recounts the successes of this restoration project. But Wilson, who is now 84, allows his eyes to fall on many aspects of life in the park and writes knowledgeably and charmingly about what he observes. A section called “The House of Spiders,” in which he admits to a mild case of arachnophobia, is a wonderful meditation on fears and phobias and survival behavior. A section called the “The Clash of Insect Civilizations” is an epic account of the wars between ants and termites—both highly organized societies—that goes on beneath our notice (Wilson’s area of expertise, by the way, is the study of ants, though the subjects of his other books have ranged far and wide on topics related to science and environmentalism). Other sections—a logbook and an account of a “bioblitz” (in which adults and children try to discover as many species as possible on Mount Gorongosa during a two-hour period)—give a sense of both the joys and methodology of scientific observation.

But Wilson is at his most eloquent in the final sections of this book, where he builds an argument for preserving large parts of the planet for wildlife habitat. “Despite all our fantasies and pretensions,” he writes, “we always have been and will remain a biological species tied to this biological world.” So preserving the biodiversity of that biological world is vital to our own survival, our own hopes for eternity, he argues. “While our species continues to manufacture its radically different and untested all-human world, the rest of life should be allowed to endure, for our own safety. . . . By thus maintaining two parallel worlds on the planet, humanity will ensure the survival and continued advance of the rest of life, and of ourselves.”

The practicalities of such an effort are challenging of course, but it will be hard for readers of A Window on Eternity to believe the effort shouldn’t be made.

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A Window on Eternity

A Window on Eternity

By Edward O. Wilson
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781476747415

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