Inaugural R.L. Rabb Lecture: Naturalist Edward O. Wilson urges exploration of Earth's biodiversity
peaking at North Carolina State University, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Dr. Edward O. Wilson made a case for more rapid exploration and accounting of the world’s biological diversity.
“We lack an exact counting of what we know, and we have scarcely begun to explore this planet,” Wilson told a standing-room-only crowd of 1,700 people during the Jan. 21 lecture. “We need to get cracking.”
Wilson’s speech, “Exploration of the Biodiversity of Earth: A Little-Known Planet,” was the first in the R.L. Rabb Environmental Science Lectures series, launched by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Entomology.
The series, intended to raise the level of appreciation among scientists and others about the interdependence of all forms of life, is named for Dr. Robert L. Rabb, a College professor emeritus who was a pioneer in developing ecologically sound approaches to managing agricultural pests.
Rabb, a guest of honor at Wilson’s lecture, said he hopes “good will come out of” the series.
“I ... hope this will be the century when ecological considerations will guide decisions regarding our use of natural resources. If this is to come to pass, the ranks of competent ecologists must expand, and ecologists must be more effective in communicating with the general public as well as with those in power,” Rabb wrote in a short paper about his life.
“Fortunately, we have some individuals who are leading the way, none with higher credentials than E.O. Wilson.”
Wilson, named one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential people in America, is often called the father of biodiversity. A distinguished professor emeritus at Harvard University, Wilson has made major contributions to several areas of science, including entomology, the understanding of ecosystems, the importance of biological diversity and the effect of evolution and natural selection on human nature.
Wilson’s broad scientific perspective was evident during his lecture and in a subsequent question-and-answer session with area high-school students. The students, who had read Wilson’s book, The Future of Life, asked the scientist about such wide-ranging topics as global warming, genetic engineering, religion, the role of education in ecology and the interface between environmental protection and human development.
In his lecture, Wilson focused on the need to reassert the place of systematics — the science of naming and classifying organisms and understanding their relationships to one another — in biology.
It has taken 250 years since the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus developed a system of naming, ranking and classifying organisms to identify what could be just 10 percent of the world’s organisms, Wilson said.
But new technologies — portable, high-resolution digital photography, genomic sequencing, bioinformatics and Internet publishing among them — could conceivably speed the work of discovering and classifying species by 100 times or more, allowing scientists to complete the remaining 90 percent in one-tenth that time, he said.
Such advances are among the driving forces behind the Assembling the Tree of Life project that CALS entomologist Brian Wiegmann is involved in (see Beautiful Ramifications).
Completing the Linnaean enterprise, Wilson said, would give us a more reliable and detailed understanding of how people are altering the environment and how best to halt the rapid disappearance of species.
It also could lead to more effective bioprospecting — the search for molecules, genes and organisms useful with applications for medicine, agriculture and other industries.
Moreover, Wilson said, what’s learned could form the foundation of an “encyclopedia of life” with the power to bring together the various branches of biology in a way that accelerates our understanding of life — from the molecular to ecosystem levels.
“A unified biology,” he said, “that’s what’s next.”
Note: To contribute or learn about the endowment
that supports the R.L. Rabb Environmental Science Lectures, email Noreen Smith in the Department of Entomology at firstname.lastname@example.org.