The recent death of Dr. Edward O. Wilson, naturalist, and entomologist, brought accolades for his decades of work, spanning his important discoveries on how ants communicate, which led to his controversial theory of Sociobiology, to his pleas for the preservation of biodiversity.
His ability to see both the tiniest of detail and the big picture of planet-wide loss of diversity, made him a giant of science.
His address given at the opening of the invertebrate (creatures without spines) exhibit at the National Zoo in Washington DC in 1987, “The Little Things That Run the world (The Importance and Conservation of Invertebrates)” laid out not only the sheer numbers of invertebrates, with roughly 43,000 named species of vertebrates vs. 990,000 invertebrates, but the fact that they are the underpinning of every biological function on earth.
These are the little things: beetles, butterflies, worms, spiders, and marine invertebrates including crabs and lobsters, mollusks like squids and clams, and coral. The things we mostly regard as pests. The things we poison, squash, shriek about, and generally disregard.
The bottom line, as Dr. Wilson stated, is that invertebrates can do fine without us but not the reverse. He laid it out in his landmark address, “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us.
If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change. Gaia, the totality of life on Earth, would set about healing itself and return to the rich environmental states of a few thousand years ago.
But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months. Most of the fishes, amphibians, birds, and mammals would crash to extinction about the same time.
Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of the majority of the forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world. The earth would rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, narrowing and closing the channels of nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them the last remnants of the vertebrates.
The remaining fungi, after enjoying a population explosion of stupendous proportions, would also perish. Within a few decades the world would return to a state of a billion years ago, composed primarily of bacteria, algae, and a few other very simple multicellular plants.”
Though Dr. Wilson retired from Harvard at age 73 in 2002, he never stopped working. He subsequently published a dozen books and created “The Encyclopedia of Life” (eol.org) a website that will eventually house information about every known species. His most intense focus was on raising awareness of the loss of biodiversity.
In 2016 he published “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”. It laid out the argument that only by leaving the world half wild, could mass extinction be avoided. This has spurred other scientists to work on achieving this goal.
The E.O. Wilson Foundation (eowilsonfoundation.org) continues his work, seeking solutions to the crisis of loss that continues like an avalanche. Scientists can only warn of what is to come. It will take political and social will and willingness to change, money, and resources. It is also up to each of us to change in order to create a future that will support humans and the rest of the earth’s inhabitants.
The first thing is to realize that nature is not a separate entity from us. We live in it, we try to harness it, we pollute it, poison it, and extract resources that cannot be replaced. Unless we learn to live with a little less, future generations will pay the price.
From the simplest change – like leaving your leaves as mulch- raked, not blown under shrubs. That leaf litter is an essential part of the survival of many invertebrates. Use a fan instead of insecticides to keep mosquitos away from your patio.
Plant native plants, get rid of a large portion of your lawn. Stop using “cides”. For a greener new year, a greener future, educate yourself, be part of the change and be part of the solution.