Scientist notes 'great spasm' of extinction -- thanks to man

January 06, 1993|By Newsday

This may sound apocalyptic, but ant expert and autho Edward O. Wilson warns bluntly that "the sixth great extinction spasm of geological time is upon us, grace of mankind."

Only during rare instances in the earth's 4.6-billion-year history have species been driven into extinction as rapidly as they are disappearing now, Mr. Wilson observes in his new book, "The Diversity of Life."

Extinctions of the past -- such as the great die-off recorded in fossils and rocks from 65 million years ago -- were cataclysmic, probably caused by the impact of a huge meteorite or by massive volcanic eruptions. The insidious extinction under way now, which accelerated greatly with the Industrial Revolution, could be as lethal, if a bit slower.

Mr. Wilson, founder of the discipline of sociobiology, professor of science at Harvard and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his writing, warns that because of bulldozers, chain saws, smokestacks, garbage, rampant population growth and the like, "Earth has at last acquired a force that can break the crucible of diversity."

In the tropical rain forests alone, for example, where more than half of the world's species live, he said, "the rate of depletion of species has been estimated to be on the order of one-half of one percent per year."

Worse, nobody even knows what species are there, so no one knows what is being lost. Natural chemicals that might serve as curative drugs, new sources of food and new industrial products are there, but no one has identified or studied them.

What to do?

First, he said, the value of diversity -- biological richness -- must be recognized. "The essence of the biodiversity problem is that biological wealth is taken much less seriously" than the value of material and cultural goods.

"This," he said, "is a major strategic error." One simple example is the Pacific yew, formerly a trash tree in Pacific Northwest forests, that is the source of taxol, a new anti-cancer drug.

To address the biodiversity problem, Mr. Wilson's proposals include:

* Surveying the world's fauna and flora.

* Promoting sustainable development.

* Creating biological wealth. "Every community of organisms contains species with potential commodity value -- timber and wild plant products to be harvested on a sustained basis . . . seeds and cuttings . . . fungi and micro-organisms to be cultured as sources of medicinals . . . and organisms of all kinds offering new scientific knowledge."

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