Geomedia: Books: "Half-Earth" is only half-compelling

by Callan Bentley
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life," Edward O. Wilson, Liveright, 2017 (paperback), ISBN-13: 978-1631492525

Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard, is a scientist of acclaim and renown, a naturalist and experimentalist who has made astounding discoveries about the natural world. These discoveries range from small details about ant communication to much larger ideas related to sociobiology, the co-evolution of genes and culture, island biogeography and biophilia, for example. His work is widely known, in large part, because he’s a talented and prolific writer, and he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve read and enjoyed several of Wilson’s books. “The Ants,” co-written with Bert Hölldobler, is a spectacular work, and his autobiography, “Naturalist,” is insightful, personal and compelling. So I had high hopes for his most recent book, “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” first published in 2016 and released in paperback last year. I regret to say those hopes were not realized.

The title implies a thesis for the book: that humanity can only stave off the current ecological crisis (widely dubbed “the Sixth Extinction”) by setting aside half the planet for wild nature. On the back cover, this is described as Wilson’s “plan for saving Earth’s imperiled biosphere.” But Wilson doesn’t really ever seem to get around to proposing an actual plan for how this would be accomplished, save for a paragraph in the Prologue that offers no details. Even in the section of the book called “The Solution,” and in the chapter titled “Half-Earth: How to Save the Biosphere,” Wilson doesn’t say: “Hey folks, we need to set aside half the planet’s area for wilderness, and here’s how we could do it.” It was such a strange omission, particularly for a writer of Wilson’s skill and experience, that I reread the chapter three times (it’s only four pages) to make sure I didn’t miss it in some subtle formulation. But it’s not there!

To be clear, I don’t take issue with the idea that retaining more wild places could help sustain the planet’s biodiversity. I’m happy to listen to an accomplished scientist and thinker make the case for that policy. But “Half-Earth” rambles, is full of disjointed facts and a muddle of tangents, and is held together only by Wilson’s passion.

So what does “Half-Earth” spend its time on? First, Wilson documents the current crisis in biodiversity. This is his bailiwick, and he’s good at delineating trends in species richness, with specific examples of measured declines. The foundation is laid solidly with these chapters.

Next, regarding the popular notion that we’ve entered, or are approaching, a new geological epoch — the Anthropo­cene — Wilson argues that tolerating even minimal anthropogenic impact on biodiversity is a slippery slope that will lead to a “depauperate” future for life. He rails against proponents of alternative approaches to managing biodiversity like “new conservation” — the idea that invasive species will eventually reach a new equilibrium in the ecosystems they disrupt. Assigning economic value to biodiversity is also criticized as missing the point. Sometimes he cites empirical research, but more often he seems to rely only on his own indignation to support his points. In sum, Wilson argues against accepting the Anthropocene, not because he finds the evidence of a new geological epoch less than compelling: He is quite conscious of the fundamental shift in the functioning of the planet’s biosphere. Rather, he sees accepting the Anthropocene as a flawed conservation ideology and “mistaken philosophy.” Accepting it makes the ongoing change in the biosphere seem like a done deal. Wilson scoffs at anyone whose approach to conservation places value on anything other than maximizing biodiversity, arguing that these other approaches are patently self-defeating.

He also devotes space to outlining another “us vs. them” situation, this time among two sets of biologists: Wilson is a natural historian, which he celebrates, contrasting his approaches with those of molecular biologists, whom he characterizes as being obsessed with DNA, cells and medicine. The molecular crew looks for ideal species on which to test certain general hypotheses, rather than studying the intimate details of species in the hope of stumbling onto enlightening discoveries that are larger, and more generally applicable — the approach favored by naturalists. Naturalists make the “most surprising discoveries and often also the most important ones,” yet somehow get the shaft, Wilson claims, citing a “disparity in prestige and support” for his cohort of biologists. He notes that many of the “Other Tribe of Biologists” unjustifiably see naturalists as has-beens with archaic interests. (Curiously, the book’s only illustrations are drawings that showcase pieces of natural history art, none of which are more recent than 1884. If he’s trying to show the relevance of a natural history approach in modern biology, the choice of illustrations appears to undermine his point.) His “sour grapes” tone is unfortunately dissonant with the positivity that blooms from his loving descriptions of natural systems. Wilson’s messages are much more effective when he’s extolling the beauty and curious miscellany of the world’s critters.

The last of the book’s three sections, where Wilson’s thesis should crystallize and be presented as a solution for our planet, is unfortunately the least coherent. Not only is the central idea neither articulated nor elucidated, but instead there are long digressions into tangential topics like the development of artificial intelligence, computerized whole brain emulation, and technological innovation. His attempts to link these to the larger theme of biodiversity conservation (and specifically his Half-Earth proposal) are either tentative or absent.

I hold traditional natural history in high regard, have great personal respect for Wilson, and agree that our society is not conserving enough wild space. I should have been an easy audience for Wilson. But instead I found myself thoroughly unconvinced by his argument, and indeed unconvinced that I’d even read a clear articulation of his argument. While the idea that motivated Wilson to write the book may have merit, you’d never know it from this read. “Half-Earth” is a whole mess.

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