The Future of Life by Edward Wilson — a book review

“Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes. It was put there by our distant ancestors who spread across the world, and it’s never going to be quenched.”

—— Edward Wilson in 2012 TED Talk “Advice to a young scientist”

Synthesis: The book review is composed by four parts: 1) an introduction to the book author Edward O Wilson; 2) a summary of the book; 3) an extensive evaluation and critique of the book, analysing how the book tried to achieve its purpose and 4) A response to certain arguments of the book from the reviewer’s personal perspectives.  

Bibliographic information about the book: 

Title: The Future of Life
Author: Edward O. Wilson
Edition: illustrated, reprint
Publisher: Vintage Books, 2003
ISBN: 0679768114, 9780679768111
Length: 229 pages
Subjects: Environmental / Life Sciences / Nature / Environmental Conservation & Protection

Introduction to Edward Wilson

Edward Wilson loves going on expeditions in nature. He blinded himself accidentally in one eye in a fishing event when he was a kid. The incident of vision reduction prompted him to focus on “little things,” which eventually led him to become the world’s leading myrmecologist. Wilson has dedicated his life studying living beings in nature and established the field of sociobiology. But not just nature, his humanistic rationality and optimism towards the conditions of humans on Earth led to the publication of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990), among other thought-inspiring works, including Consilience, Naturalist, and Sociobiology. The term “sociobiology” that Wilson employed to explain ants’ behaviours as social insects, was at some point controversial within the academics, as he suggested that human beings might have originated by the same principles as all the lower animals, like ants. Wilson believes humans’ narcissistic instinct as social animals has been the driver of human’s conquistador behaviour, which has destroyed much of nature, not just changing the landscape but also radically destroying biodiversity.

Besides studying about insects, animals and ecosystems as a biologist, Wilson also dedicates his life working on integrating the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities in solving the ecological/environmental challenges facing our civilisation. A “plea” as he framed, on behalf of his “constituency” — the insects, animals and other microorganisms that compose the foundation of ecosystems, was to build an Encyclopaedia of life, to collect and document everything about every species, in an open access format and for free. Wilson certainly has made legendary achievement and great contribution to the biology and life sciences community, while he humbly admits that the great majority of unknown species. Acknowledging the irreversibility of the techno-scientific society that we now fully live in, he hopes by embracing the same techno-scientific approach, we could help shift more attention towards the natural environment and make good use of the collective intelligence. “Go as far as you can. The world needs you, badly,” Wilson urged young scientists in his TED speech in 2012. 

Wilson is also a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a program within Center for Inquiry (CFI), a transnational educational non-profit. Members of this committee seek to “promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.” He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. he is currently Pellegrino University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

It seems that the drastic speed of environmental degradation is driving Wilson to be even more active today. He founded the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation to finance and promote science writing; he himself has published 14 books during the new millennium alone. Did passing the new millennium mean something to Wilson? Did it mean something to our living environment? To find out the answers, we are going to read one of these 14 books: The Future of Life, which he published in 2002, right after that historic milestone of time in our human history. 

Summary of the book

A letter to Thoreau 

The book starts with a letter that Wilson wrote to Henry Thoreau, the noted American naturalist who lived around the Walden Forest in Concord, New England. In this letter, Wilson imagines taking a walk with Thoreau and having a conversation surrounding the topic of natural science. He praises Thoreau’s empathetic concern about the general human condition and the conservation movement that he inspired for the world. He wonders how Thoreau had thought of the world in his own time in 150 years ago. 

As if he was really talking to Thoreau in the first person tone, Wilson reviews how natural science has evolved from Thoreau’s time. From Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection to the changes in the biodiversity around the Walden Forest, Wilson briefly explains his work as a biologist of small creatures and the fascinating and complex ecosystems often featured with astonishing numbers, as opposed to biologists like Thoreau, who focus on studying large creatures. 

As he reflects his scientific discovery journey and contemplates Thoreau’s confession of a minimalist, Wilson exclaims how the beauty of nature awakens man to introspect and to pursue higher spirituality. But, unlike the ants which survive and evolve together in history through cooperation, man view highly about Self, family and society. The natural environment has been exploited to fulfil man’s own needs and has been neglected for a long time. “What has happened to the world we both have loved?” Wilson asks. He updates Thoreau with the environmental crisis we are facing today — the rapid increase in world population and the drastic decrease of natural resources. In Thoreau’s point of view, the type of wilderness that surrounded him is to be preserved, if we want to save the world. Wilson laments how rapidly species are going extinct (100 times or faster), and the unprecedented disasters we are going to face within the next decades. 

To mitigate the foreseeable future of natural (or indirectly manmade) tragedies, Wilson proposes the establishment of a set of global land ethic, based on which we then should act, with the Thoreauvian wisdom and respect towards the scientific truth that we have developed in modern time. 

Chapter 1: To the Ends of the Earth 

Wilson outlines a comprehensive picture of life in different physical, chemical and geographical conditions within the Earth’s biosphere. As thin and fragile it may seem from space, the biosphere is extremely complex and diverse within itself. The totality of life comes down to one simple rule in biological geography: Where there’s water, there’s life. Following this rule, together with technological assistance, scientists have discovered tens of thousands of new species, many of which are beyond the vision of human’s naked eyes. Microorganisms such as single-cell algae and archaea can sustain life in hostile conditions from boiling hot to freezing cold and from acidic to radiative. Scientists have found a wide variety of species deep under the permafrost in the middle of the Antartica, the very bottom of the Mariana Trench and even inside the Earth crust. 

Indeed, life is literally distributed in every corner of the Earth. The biosphere is one interconnected whole. Our knowledge about nature largely started from religion as it often debates human-god relationship with nature in between. Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life in Greek mythology, is one of the attempts that try to define biosphere. Scientifically, we have learnt the three layers of biodiversity: ecosystem, genes and species diversity. 

Detail of Gaea, goddess of the earth, holding her infant son Erichthonius. The earth-mother is depicted as a matronly woman with a generous figure. She wears an elaborate crown, or wreath, of sprouting spring flowers and bulbs. Museum Collection: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Source: https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T1.7B.html

How many species are there in the biosphere? Which species serves what function to the ecosystem? A scientific method called binomial nomenclature was then established by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus to name and classify living organisms. With this method, scientists have identified and documented tens of thousands of new species. How many do we have in total on the Earth? Wilson confesses that we are just beginning to explore the life on Earth and our knowledge about nature is still awfully little. 

In recent decades biologists have made significant advancement in studying existing and endangered animals, discovering new plants, mammals and birds. Most of these achievements are made in the tropical areas of the Earth as they are places with the highest biodiversity in all three layers. But even on our own body, there is a high level of biodiversity. Wilson concludes that the inclusivity and diversity of the biosphere to us humans are miracles. But it is also tragic, given so many species have already gone extinct even before we get to know them. 

Chapter 2: The bottleneck 

In the 20 century, the human society progressed dramatically, in many aspects — science and technology, modern arts, democracy and human rights; but human activities have also resulted in severe environmental degradation. The increasing resource demand due to the improvement of the quality of life and population growth worldwide have pushed the capacity limit of our planet. Climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss are exposing us to greater risks for survival and development. 

Turning into the new millennium accelerated the spreading of environmental awareness. In this chapter, Wilson summarises the rise of environmentalism, some of the views and difference it has made in society. As opposed to the environmentalist view, the conventional economist view promotes production and consumption to be the priorities and it is economic growth that leads to social progress. Economists tend to believe the destiny of the Earth is dominated by mankind and therefore we will be able to fix the problems once we’ve achieved greater economic growth. The environmentalists, on the contrary, insist human occupation and the ecological footprint we produce have deprived the Earth’s ability to self-regenerate. 

The environmentalist view has gained more and more audiences. Discussions regarding the essential cause of environmental degradation have focused on the population growth. Global population is increasing but the growth rate has decreased. Wilson discusses the case of China in details. The country has achieved rapid growth in both population and economy, with the price of high environmental stress. Despite the government’s will to manage by growing more food, regulating population growth rate and building mega hydrological engineering projects, they have not encountered effective solutions to solve the dilemma between economic growth and the environmental stress due to the economic growth. Wilson proposes the government to adopt multiple water conservation strategies and to make polluters pay through taxation instrument. He also advocates for closer attention on China, given that the country has advanced much farther within merely a period of decades. “If China solves its problems, the lessons learned can be applied elsewhere.”

Chapter 3: Nature’s last stand

Wilson points out that the exclusion of ecological footprints in the wealth calculation has added externality to the environment, e.g., the loss of biodiversity and the disappearance of primary forests. He takes Hawaii as an example to demonstrate, how species invasion caused by human travelling can drastically destroy local biodiversity. A HIPPO model — Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Population and Over harvesting — is used to explain the stresses created by human activities. Wilson then lists a few cases of protection and conservation efforts, for instance, on the North American marmots, the African Achatina fulica (a type of big snail) and amphibians. 

Among all human activities, the destruction of tropical rainforests is the most fatal to the integrity of biodiversity. Every year, deforestation in tropical rainforests takes away the size equivalent to half of Florida. Out of the world’s 25 most threatened biodiversity hotspots, 15 are located in the tropical zone. An estimation for the Amazon rainforest in 2000 suggested 40% of the vegetation has been destroyed.

A palm oil plantation in Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia.Credit…Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Climate change caused by increasing greenhouse gas emission is another critical threat to the biodiversity. Governments started to act by putting up the Kyoto Protocol. Climate zones are displaying a polar-wards moving trend. Prospects towards 2100? A greater human population with longer life expectancy but lower genetic biodiversity, due to the globalisation in all dimensions of human activities. We may evolve to be a little more intelligent and better educated, however, adds Wilson, none of these changes will influence our human nature, our strengths and weaknesses as Homo sapiens. We have pushed the nature to its last stand, the future destiny (the conventional economists may be partially right) is depending largely on us humankind. What testament would we leave for our next generations? 

Chapter 4: The planetary killer 

Wilson shares a touching moment of his encounter with Emi, a Sumatran rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo back in 1994. He was relieved to able to see a real life unicorn. The Sumatran rhino is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Naturally, a species like the Sumatran rhino, its biological value lies in not just its rarity but also as a living fossil, carrying rather consistent genetic sets all the way back from the Oligocene in at least 30 million years ago. The causes of their living condition today are mostly two: 1) the superstitious belief in Chinese traditional medicine that rhino horns have a distinctive medical effect, which is based on no scientific evidence, and 2) for making the ornamental handles of jambiya (a dagger for ceremonial purposes) in the Arabic region.  

Humans are notorious in the case of large animal extinction in the world. It is a global phenomenon, it is driven by first the global human expansion and then the Western industrialisation. Today it is occurring at a much greater speed. Scientists have established sets of methodologies for assessing the rate of species extinction, based on cross examination between facts and truth. Humans have been the planetary killer because we only care about our own short-term survival and not the long-term impacts towards the Earth. Can the case of Sumatran rhino Emi inspire us for more decisive action in the near future? 

Sumatran Rhino

Chapter 5: How much is the biosphere worth?

In this chapter, Wilson takes us back to the beginning of the 19th century to learn about ivory mouth woodpecker, a “noble hunter” bird species living in the low-lying woodland around Virginia. Why do we linger about the extinction of species like the ivory woodpeckers? Perhaps because we are familiar with it, and it had become a part of our culture. Wilson explains. The motivation for us to conduct biodiversity conservation is to verify the value of each species and calculate the services ecosystems provide us. The benefits human obtain from ecosystems have been categorised as four main types: provisioning services such as food and water; regulating services such as flood and disease control; cultural services such as spiritual, recreational, and cultural benefits; and supporting services, such as nutrient cycling, that maintain the conditions for life on Earth. The supporting services as they do not provide actual benefits of use, they are the ones we’ve neglected for a long time. 

The desire to optimise each ecosystem service has driven us to explore possible ways to make the highest value out of ecosystems and at the same time to preserve biodiversity. This is a major challenge for the field of agriculture. Existing solutions include genetic engineering. Wilson briefly introduces this technology, alerting that it is hard to assess the potential impacts on the human body and genetic engineering is not a safe option. 

How to feed the billions of new population in the next decades, save more lives without entering a trap like the deal between Faust and the devil? Bioprospecting for the purpose of medical research could be the beginning of a sustainable path. Wilson lists a few successful cases in local government and scientific communities collaborating with pharmaceutical companies. What are the other possible solutions for us to both conserve biodiversity and keep enjoying the services that ecosystems provide? 

Chapter 6: For the love of life

“How you ever wondered how we will be remembered a thousand years from now?” Wilson emotionally takes on an imaginary future tour, wondering what life will become in the year 3000. He vetoes the techno-maniac approach, pointing the issue is about making moral decisions based on good purpose, nature-friendly value and strong moral reasoning. He advocates for a conservation ethic that is aimed to pass on to the future generations the best part of the non-human world. The aesthetic and spiritual value, for instance, is a good reason, because “each species is a masterpiece assembled by the craftsman called natural selection,” besides a great amount of knowledge, the species can offer us infinite aesthetic pleasure. In addition, the genetic unity of life and Earth stewardship are also wonderful values which should be promoted widely for biodiversity conservation. The existence of the species itself is also appreciable — “each species has a name, a million years of history and a place in the world”. 

Each species is a masterpiece assembled by the craftsman called natural selection… Each species has a name, a million years of history and a place in the world.”

——– Edward Wilson

Chapter 7: The solution 

Wilderness has always given way to civilisation, but is it unavoidable? How do we seek a solution? After an emotional confession of our needs for nature and our instinctive love of life in the last chapter, Wilson critically searches for solutions with an open mind and long-term vision. He restates the importance of sticking to the ethics approach and rationally analyses the reasonings of both the people-first groups and the environmentalists. If we put the anger aside, both parties can work together focusing on the long-term benefits we may gain from the Earth. 

A series of conservation strategies have been established by biologists such as immediate actions on the threatened biodiversity hotspots, mapping ocean biodiversity hotspots,  stopping deforestation in all the ancient forests and properly raising the income of local inhabitants. A wide range of collaboration between different stakeholders — government, private sectors, science and technology and societal groups (NGOs and churches) should be encouraged, taking the instruments of law, finance, public policy and culture to implement those strategies. Leading environmental conservation institutions such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have also come a long way to establishing a global hotspot network that covers hundreds of non-well-known species. The change is also from the very top-down “protection” to bottom-up “protection + sustainable exploration,” taking into consideration the welfare of local inhabitants. Many other innovative solutions are put to experimental practice too. Low-income countries such as Suriname and Costa Rica can gain monetary return or national debt deduction from their forest protection efforts. The finance instrument is effective across different stakeholders if put in place properly. The legislation is an effective tool, as well as a barometer of morality and long-term vision for the governments. Wilson ends his advocacy by emphasising again the conservation of biodiversity is a choice of morality, a result which will be evaluated by our future generation. Finally, Wilson asserts the potential of the civilised humans in making the right decision to keep the integrity and biodiversity of Earth. 

An extensive critique of the book

The book The Future of Life is a piece of inarguably high standard, concentration of knowledge and wisdom. It is a rich and comprehensive display of scientific arguments finely knitted with strong facts and truth, forming persuasive logical coherence on the subject — biodiversity, human-nature relationship and future advancement of life on Earth. Edward Wilson’s deep love and life-long passion towards nature are seen throughout the book, presented by fascinating details of nature, species, and human discoveries. It is categorised as a book of life/environmental sciences, but Wilson brought it out as if it was some most private and emotional stories. The book reached both great vastness and depth in its field of study. Wilson did not try to tell us what exactly the future of life will be. He outlined the possibilities and the logical assumption for readers to echo about the future in their own head. But at the same time, he did tell us what the future of life will possibly be like, by bringing the readers to as close as what he can possibly foresee with his scientific certainty and inspire those who read with an open mind. For this reason, the book has achieved its purpose. 

The storyline of this book is composed of a problem-solution plus “victim-convicted” logical structure, polished by personal notes of the book author as an outstanding biology scientist. The book starts with A letter to Henry Thoreau, bringing in another inspiring figure to attract readers’ attention as well as adding fun to the book reading experience. Then, Wilson outlined a general background of the biosphere and the fascinating biodiversity. Following by the beautiful foundation of life as he described, Wilson alerted the readers by showing the environmental Bottleneck that we are facing. In Chapter 3: Nature’s last stand, he illustrated the line where humans came down to cause the destruction of the environment and drastic loss of biodiversity. To justify the “accusation” on humans, he dedicates the 4th chapter: The planetary killer to show evidence, some of which were quite shocking. But of course, he did not stop at the “accusation”. After explaining the problems, identifying the “victims” and the “convicted,” he showed us how scientists work to find solutions by properly defining and calculating the value of each species and ecosystems in Chapter 5: How much is biosphere worth. This is already a fantastic motivation to advocate for action on biodiversity conservation. But before he goes on to advocate for collective action, Wilson gave an emotional, personal but not too subjective reasoning called “For the love of life” in Chapter 6. The book finishes with a powerful call for action among all societal groups with all resources possible — economic, intellectual, individual and institutional. Wilson ends the book on a positive note, conveying his optimism and trust in humanity to make wise decisions for the future of life on Earth. 

The book is unique by its richness of natural science knowledge and humane wisdom of one of the most distinguished scholars of nature. It is also outstanding in its art of communication to translate a specific field of scientific study into very readable and enjoyable language, resonating with Wilson’s universal empathy towards all living beings of nature, including mankind. 

A personal response

To give this book review the maximum taste of the original book, this chapter is going to be written as a letter from the author of this review to Edward Wilson. 

A letter to Wilson

Dear Eddie, 

May I call you just by your nickname? It has been a great pleasure to read your work. I am definitely fascinated by how knowledgeable and how humble you are. I am touched by your generosity and humanistic thinking on the human-nature relationship, and I thank you for giving me such a precious moment for communicating with you. 

I have not been to the rainforests in Suriname, where you studied ants for your PhD degree. Although I did try to observe the ants in the shrub field near Lisbon, where I take my daily walk with Goji my dog in the late afternoon. Yes, I tried to understand you and wanted to know what is in your mind. Along the reading of your book The Future of Life, the short meeting I had with Jane Goodall kept coming into my mind. You and she are probably good old friends, so you will understand what I am talking about. I met her at a National Geographic event in Lisbon, at which she shared her exotic life journey with the chimpanzees, her shift into working on wildlife protection and youth education projects. I feel that the type of optimism and generosity of her is so similar to yours. She called for students and young scientists to work with both the head and the heart, stating that it is the way for us to reach the most human potential and to pursue human-nature harmony. Ohh, and she gave me a hug! 

I am still fascinated by how similar you both are in your professional pursuit and dignity, despite her study subject is biologically much more similar to human than yours. Thanks to scientists like you and her, we are departing to learn the world at a much higher point. In your book, you used my country China as an example to show how severe the environmental problems we have and what kind of efforts should be put in to solve them. I appreciate your attention on China and agree with your expert insight. True, my country has come a long way to pull its people out of poverty and improve their quality of life. It is also true that we are at a critical standpoint regarding our environmental future. Future… no. Reality, crucial reality. My family lives in a small town that is going through rapid industrialisation, the river and the rice fields are polluted. Like many Chinese students who come to study abroad, I hope I can learn the good part of Western practices and to apply them in China. 

I found the Chinese government very interested in your environmental expertise and advocacy. It is a positive signal, isn’t it? The love of life and the desire to live in a biodiverse world, they do not differentiate political ideologies. Certainly, I agree with you on the common focus of long-term benefits of nature and flexible approaches for biodiversity conservation. The universal appreciation of nature needs no further explanation. But as we take nature’s fortune and make nature serve us in the socio-economic dimension, how different political ideologies address the value of nature and if they make a difference in nature’s final deliverables to society is worth exploring, don’t you think? Perhaps your long-term vision transcends the relatively short existence of political ideologies to ethics, the long-standing human evolution principle? I would love to hear your answer. 

I definitely would recommend your book to my dear friends and my colleagues who are working on their PhDs related to climate change and sustainable development. We are already living in the climate century, the battle against biodiversity loss is a battle against time for us. As much as I enjoy nature, my personal embarrassment is how little I know about species even in my own neighbourhood. Your book definitely inspires me to learn more about them, the tiny animals. You said “we need nature, especially the wilder part of it. It is exactly from there we the human species were born, and there we come safely home.” For you, enjoying the wilderness is what elevates your spirit. Do you think our spirits can resonate with each other, crossing space and time and all the societal settings if we both enjoy wilderness long enough? 

Let’s try. 

Yours sincerely, 

Jieling 

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