The Diversity of Life Hardcover – 25 Feb 1993
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|Hardcover, 25 Feb 1993||
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Looks at the extraordinary diversity of life on our planet, exploring the reasons for biological diversity, the nature and processes of evolutionary adaptation and speciation and the threat of human-induced extinction. The book combines natural history with an exposition of evolutionary theory.
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"The most wonderful mystery of life may well be the means by which it created so much diversity from so little physical matter. The biosphere, all organisms combined, makes up only about one part in ten billion of the earth's mass. It is sparsely distributed through a kilometre-thick layer of soil, water and air stretched over a half billion square kilometres of surface. If the world were the size of an ordinary desktop globe and its surface were viewed edgewise an arm's length away, no trace of the biosphere could be seen with the naked eye. Yet life has divided into millions of species, the fundamental units, each playing a unique role in relation to the whole."
Wilson divides his ideas, theories and explanations into three main parts: Violent Nature, Resilient Life; Biodiversity Rising; and The Human Impact. In the first section he writes with an almost poetic intensity about the great extinctions that have occurred on the earth since time began. Krakatau (not Krakatoa - which is a westernisation) is an exemplar of how biodiversity can repopulate a devastated plot, an amazing process that is oddly moving to contemplate. Wilson then goes on to talk about the major extinctions - the great eruptions which have occurred repeatedly across long stretches of geological time - and the arguments for one or the other theory of why they happened - meteors or not? The earth appears to have cooled dramatically during the first four crises, eliminating many species and forcing others into smaller areas, rendering them more vulnerable to extinction. He makes the point that a complete recovery from each of the five major extinctions required tens of millions of years.
But the main thrust of this utterly riveting and beautifully argued book comes in the second part, Biodiversity Rising, Wilson makes a range of statements and arguments to the effect that biodiversity is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it. His arguments would be hard to refute, as far as I, a non-scientist can judge, and I do not believe one could ever question this man's sincerity and the depth of his professional integrity.
In the third sector of the book Wilson looks at the human impact; why biodiversity is threatened and the environmental ethic that underpins his own attitude to the earth and which should underpin all attitudes. Wilson says: "The sixth great exctinction spasm of geological time is upon us, grace of mankind. Earth has at last acquired a force that can break the crucible of biodiversity." That's us, people. You and me. Dramatising the dangers, he quotes Virgil:
The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis's door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil...
This is a highly informative and deeply researched set of tenets for saving the earth - we must take action as a species, not individual countries or continents. At the very least the actions recommended in the closing section of this book must be taken. But then maybe our species needs to die out, just like the dinosaurs. This book was published in 1992. It's probably already too late for humankind.
Amateurs as well as passionate biologists will rejoice from this book, which reminds us of why it is important to protect all the biodiversity that we have left.
I won't go into a long litany desribing its structure and strong points as they have been very well-described by the other reviewers.But buy and read with confidence!
Christoph Bauer, Basel, Switzerland