A UNITED BIOLOGY: E.O. WILSON (p5)
This brings us to the entire question of biological diversity, which is one of my major concerns now. We probably know, and in the most elementary manner, no more than ten percent of the species of plants, animals, and microorganisms sufficiently well enough to give the species a scientific name. Ninety percent remain unknown, particularly if you throw in the bacteria and other similar, simple organisms called archaeons. We've got to get about the business of exploring the planet's biodiversity.
The project that I've put my shoulders behind was called the All-Species Project. We had a summit conference here at Harvard a little less than two years ago to bring together people who want to see this happen and believe it could be made to happen in 25 years, much in the manner of the human genome project, if we were to want it. We agreed on the main issue: that new technologies make it possible for this to be done. We're ready to build up the systematics of biodiversity exploration around the world and could pull this off and make a huge difference in biology and environmental management.
We established enthusiastic partnerships with various agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, but the sinking economy brought us against the wall of insufficient funding. There are still major enterprises around the world that are doing this on a continental level, or are starting up on global scale, so within a relatively short period of time we'll see these efforts begin to coalesce. I just got off the phone giving a very positive evaluation of the fundraising drive of one of these organizations, which is going for a $9 million endowment. They're getting ambitious, have a compelling argument, and I believe it will happen. It's just a matter of when. The All-Species Project is simply a term used to describe this worldwide movement to complete the exploration of the planet.
If we do not know 90 percent of the kinds of organisms that exist on the earth, what would knowing almost all mean for us? There are overpowering arguments for undertaking this project. It would mean that for the first time we would know all of the bacteria around the world. We would understand potential disease organisms, as well as the fundamental bacterial elements of ecosystems, the very primitive but elementary organisms that form a large part of the base of the ecosystem. Right now we don't even know what the majority of organisms are doing. After cataloguing all of the world's species we would have a huge reservoir of knowledge from which to draw genes for transgenic changing of crops, and the development of new pharmaceuticals.
This would also greatly enlarge biology. Bear in mind that biology is primarily a descriptive science. It deals with the particularity of species and their adaptation to the environment. Although biology is based on the principals of physics and chemistry—at least it is consistent with them—its actual substance is an account of the individual biologies of thousands and eventually millions of species, each of which has a unique history—in many cases millions of years old—of exquisitely adapting and interacting with one another at certain parts of the environment. We don't know what most of that is. Supporting All Species' effort for the planet has not only a logic behind it to bring biology more quickly to maturity, but also promises huge practical applications.
I talked about some of these issues in my book, The Future of Life, which came out early in 2002 and had some success, but there has to be a change in the culture. The way that this can be accomplished is to open the eyes of the scientific community, the government, and non-governmental supporting organizations to the tremendous cost-effectiveness and potential benefits of pulling off a full inventory of species-level diversity.
For the past 20 years, during my service on the boards of directors or advisory boards of most of the major global conservation organizations and in my research in this field there has been a question of how to balance the importance of saving biodiversity with that of saving jobs and helping the poor. There isn't any question any more that saving the rest of life is compatible with saving and improving the lot of humanity. In fact, to push for one means to push for the other, and to let the one go means that you let a lot of the other go.