E.O. Wilson Urges Tomorrow’s Scientists to Seek Earth’s Undiscovered Riches

In a Smithsonian talk, the eminent biologist argued for more protected areas and greater efforts to map the diversity of life

As a boy, Edward O. Wilson wandered Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park with a butterfly net and marveled at the living wonders at the nearby National Zoo. But it was the National Museum of Natural History, where the “demigods of science” worked to untangle life’s diversity, that captivated his ten-year-old heart. Today the eminent evolutionary biologist returned to that museum to deliver a lecture opening the first-ever Global Biodiversity Genomics Conference, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution. 

Despite our progress in probing the world around us, Wilson argues, “Earth remains a little-known planet.” "Species are the basic units of biodiversity,” said the emeritus professor at Harvard University—and each year, researchers are describing an average of 18,000 new ones. That lack of knowledge has consequences. Of all the species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered in some form, we have managed to slow just 20 percent in their slide toward extinction, Wilson says.

He compares the situation to a surgeon staunching his patient’s blood loss by 20 percent: The victim may not die today, but he’ll certainly be dead tomorrow. Yet through interdisciplinary collaboration, Wilson says, today's scientists can create "a golden age of their own comparable to that of the invention of molecular biology."

Wilson paints two potential solutions to this hemorrhaging of species. The first is to vastly increase the swaths of protected regions to encompass around 50 percent of the globe. The second is to start mapping those millions of undiscovered species, taking the first step in confronting our “stunning inadequacy of knowledge” about the richness of life on Earth. In this endeavor, Wilson stresses the importance of museums and other collections-based research institutions, like the Smithsonian istelf, which uses its National Mosquito Collection to trace and study the Zika virus.

Wilson's address serve as a clarion call to budding biologists, who today have access to powerful new genomic tools and find their work infused with a new urgency. “Keep in mind: Climate change we can reverse if we work hard enough and get the right leadership,” said Wilson, addressing an audience of more than than 200 scientists from 20 different countries. “But extinction is really, really forever.” 

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