Date: April 2, 2009

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E.O. Wilson Discusses Fate of Earth's Species


E.O. WilsonWASHINGTON -- Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University, delivered last night's ninth annual Sackler lecture at the National Academy of Sciences building.  Wilson's talk, "Evolution and the Future of the Earth," addressed species extinction and natural habitat loss occurring around the world, ending on a hopeful note as he described increasing global commitments to conservation and the degree of Earth's biodiversity that has yet to be discovered.


Wilson, who first coined the term "biodiversity" at an NAS workshop in 1988, spoke at length of the impact humans have had on specific habitats like the forests of the Philippines -- slashed from 70 percent of the country's landmass down to 22 percent during the 20th century -- and the diminishing Brazilian rainforest.  As habitats shrink, the number of species they can sustain drops as well, and Wilson spent a portion of his talk eulogizing specific species, many of which are thought to already be extinct, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker.  A world-renowned conservationist, Wilson showed portraits of these endangered or extinct species because, he says, "you have to get to know them to want to save them."    


Despite the losses that have already occurred, Wilson spoke of an increasing global recognition of the importance of saving Earth's remaining plant and animal species.  Changes in the way humans value and interact with the natural world are needed quickly, however.  It took 3.5 billion years to develop Earth's current levels of biodiversity, but according to Wilson, half of the known species could be lost by the end of the century.  While a chilling prediction, Wilson reminds us that the biodiversity of the Earth is actually far larger than that which we know.  In fact, it is thought that less than 10 percent of Earth's species have been discovered.  In many ways, he says, "we live in an unknown world."


Wilson is a university research professor emeritus at Harvard University and honorary curator in entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.  He has written 25 books, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes, and is the recipient of more than 100 international medals and awards, including the U.S. National Medal of Science.  He is also the creator of the Encyclopedia of Life, now housed at the Smithsonian.  Wilson was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1969.


An audio recording of the talk is available here.  The Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia of the National Academy of Sciences address scientific topics of broad and current interest, cutting across the boundaries of traditional disciplines.  These events are made possible by a generous gift from Jill Sackler, in memory of her husband, Arthur M. Sackler.