Tag: E.O. Wilson

Wild Dogs and Englishmen …

… go out in the mid-day sun!

Say the word ‘dog’ to me and my immediate thought would be of the domesticated animal, as I’m sure would be the first thought of thousands of others.

But our wonderful doggie companions came from the wild and in some countries wild dogs still are widely found. There was an article on the Mokolodi Nature Reserve blogsite in November, 2009 specifically about wild dogs, that included the following picture:

Wild hunting dogs drinking.
Wild hunting dogs drinking.

All of which is a wonderful reminder that wilderness is a critical and essential element in the overall health of our planet, and by extension, of ourselves.

The academic blogsite The Conversation yesterday published an article by William Lynn who is a Research Scientist in Ethics and Public Policy at Clark University. It proposes a wonderful way of keeping our populations of wild animals healthy and vibrant through rewilding.  It is republished here within the terms of The Conversation.


Setting aside half the Earth for ‘rewilding’: the ethical dimension

August 26, 2015 5.50am EDT

Wildlife corridors: four proposals to ‘rewild’ portions of North America. Smithsonian Institute, CC BY-NC

A much-anticipated book in conservation and natural science circles is EO Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which is due early next year. It builds on his proposal to set aside half the Earth for the preservation of biodiversity.

The famous biologist and naturalist would do this by establishing huge biodiversity parks to protect, restore and connect habitats at a continental scale. Local people would be integrated into these parks as environmental educators, managers and rangers – a model drawn from existing large-scale conservation projects such as Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica.

The backdrop for this discussion is that we are in the sixth great extinction event in earth’s history. More species are being lost today than at any time since the end of the dinosaurs. There is no mystery as to why this is happening: it is a direct result of human depredations, habitat destruction, overpopulation, resource depletion, urban sprawl and climate change.

Wilson is one of the world’s premier natural scientists – an expert on ants, the father of island biogeography, apostle of the notion that humans share a bond with other species (biophilia) and a herald about the danger posed by extinction. On these and other matters he is also an eloquent writer, having written numerous books on biodiversity, science, and society. So when Wilson started to talk about half-Earth several years ago, people started to listen.

As a scholar of ethics and public policy with an interest in animals and the environment, I have been following the discussion of half-Earth for some time. I like the idea and think it is feasible. Yet it suffers from a major blind spot: a human-centric view on the value of life. Wilson’s entry into this debate, and his seeming evolution on matters of ethics, is an invitation to explore how people ought to live with each other, other animals and the natural world, particularly if vast tracts are set aside for wildlife.

The ethics of Wilson’s volte-face

I heard Wilson speak for the first time in Washington, DC in the early 2000s. At that talk, Wilson was resigned to the inevitable loss of much of the world’s biodiversity. So he advocated a global biodiversity survey that would sample and store the world’s biotic heritage. In this way, we might still benefit from biodiversity’s genetic information in terms of biomedical research, and perhaps, someday, revive an extinct species or two.

Not a bad idea in and of itself. Still, it was a drearily fatalistic speech, and one entirely devoid of any sense of moral responsibility to the world of nonhuman animals and nature.

What is striking about Wilson’s argument for half-Earth is not the apparent about-face from cataloging biodiversity to restoring it. It is the moral dimension he attaches to it. In several interviews, he references the need for humanity to develop an ethic that cares about planetary life, and does not place the wants and needs of a single species (Homo sapiens sapiens) above the well-being of all other species.

people to consider the role of humans in nature. jene/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
The half-earth proposal prompts people to consider the role of humans in nature. jene/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

To my ear, this sounds great, but I am not exactly sure how far it goes. In the past, Wilson’s discussions of conservation ethics appear to me clearly anthropocentric. They espouse the notion that we are exceptional creatures at the apex of evolution, the sole species that has intrinsic value in and of ourselves, and thus we are to be privileged above all other species.

In this view, we care about nature and biodiversity only because we care about ourselves. Nature is useful for us in the sense of resources and ecological services, but it has no value in and of itself. In ethics talk, people have intrinsic value while nature’s only value is what it can do for people – extrinsic value.

For example, in his 1993 book The Biophilia Hypothesis, Wilson argues for “the necessity of a robust and richly textured anthropocentric ethics apart from the issues of rights [for other animals or ecosystems] – one based on the hereditary needs of our own species. In addition to the well-documented utilitarian potential of wild species, the diversity of life has immense aesthetic and spiritual value.”

The passage indicates Wilson’s long-held view that biodiversity is important because of what it does for humanity, including the resources, beauty and spirituality people find in nature. It sidesteps questions of whether animals and the rest of nature have intrinsic value apart from human use.

His evolving position, as reflected in the half-Earth proposal, seems much more in tune with what ethicist call non-anthropocentrism – that humanity is simply one marvelous but no more special outcome of evolution; that other beings, species and/or ecosystems also have intrinsic value; and that there is no reason to automatically privilege us over the rest of life.

Consider this recent statement by Wilson:

What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: we arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

The non-anthropocentric view does not deny that biodiversity and nature provide material, aesthetic and spiritual “resources.” Rather, it holds there is something more – that the community of life has value independent of the resources it provides humanity. Non-anthropocentric ethics requires, therefore, a more caring approach to people’s impact on the planet. Whether Wilson is really leaving anthropocentrism behind, time will tell. But for my part, I at least welcome his opening up possibilities to discuss less prejudicial views of animals and the rest of nature.

The 50% solution

It is interesting to note that half-Earth is not a new idea. In North America, the half-Earth concept first arose in the 1990s as a discussion about wilderness in the deep ecology movement. Various nonprofits that arose out of that movement continued to develop the idea, in particular the Wildlands Network, the Rewilding Institute and the Wild Foundation.

These organizations use a mix of conservation science, education and public policy initiatives to promote protecting and restoring continental-scale habitats and corridors, all with an eye to preserving the native flora and fauna of North America. One example is ongoing work to connect the Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystems along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

Take it up a notch? The British Columbia Ministry of Transportation recently started to add signs warning motorists when they are likely to encounter wildlife. British Columbia Ministry of Transportation, CC BY-NC-ND
Take it up a notch? The British Columbia Ministry of Transportation recently started to add signs warning motorists when they are likely to encounter wildlife. British Columbia Ministry of Transportation, CC BY-NC-ND

When I was a graduate student, the term half-Earth had not yet been used, but the idea was in the air. My classmates and I referred to it as the “50% solution.” We chose this term because of the work of Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider’s 1994 book, Savings Nature’s Legacy. Amongst other things, the book documents that, depending on the species and ecosystems in question, approximately 30% to 70% of the original habitats of the Earth would be necessary to sustain our planet’s biodiversity. So splitting the difference, we discussed the 50% solution to describe this need.

This leads directly into my third point. The engagement of Wilson and others with the idea of half-Earth and rewilding presupposes but does not fully articulate the need for an urban vision, one where cities are ecological, sustainable and resilient. Indeed, Wilson has yet to spell out what we do with the people and infrastructure that are not devoted to maintaining and teaching about his proposed biodiversity parks. This is not a criticism, but an urgent question for ongoing and creative thinking.

Humans are urbanizing like never before. Today, the majority of people live in cities, and by the end of the 21st century, over 90% of people will live in a metropolitan area. If we are to meet the compelling needs of human beings, we have to remake cities into sustainable and resilient “humanitats” that produce a good life.

Such a good life is not to be measured in simple gross domestic product or consumption, but rather in well-being – freedom, true equality, housing, health, education, recreation, meaningful work, community, sustainable energy, urban farming, green infrastructure, open space in the form of parks and refuges, contact with companion and wild animals, and a culture that values and respects the natural world.

To do all this in the context of saving half the Earth for its own sake is a tall order. Yet it is a challenge that we are up to if we have the will and ethical vision to value and coexist in a more-than-human world.


I am sure many will agree that this is a very interesting idea and one that I hope is eventually adopted. For the sake of all our wild animals, including our dogs.

From ants to cities

More on the work of E. O. Wilson

Yesterday, I introduced a 50-minute film concerning the famous biologist E O Wilson, Lord of the Ants which, as well as being a wonderful tribute to Prof. Wilson, also allowed us humans to have a better understanding of our deeper human issues.

Coincidentally, around the same time of watching that film, I saw an article on the Grist website that referred to some research published in Nature magazine.  This what I read, first from Grist, reprinted with the kind permission of Libby S., Senior Marketing Manager of Grist.

Scientists have been doing studies for years that show you are more likely to suffer from mental illness if you live in a city. What they haven’t figured out is why.

Now, researchers in Germany have conducted experiments that they believe might begin to get at the neuroscience behind the crazy-making nature of urban areas.

Publishing in the journal Nature, a group led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg’s Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, looked at how social stress affected the minds of subjects, some city-dwellers and some not.

If we then turn to that article in Nature (to get access you will need to arrange prior free sign-up) we get to read this,

City living marks the brain

Neuroscientists study social risk factor for mental illness.

Alison Abbott

Epidemiologists showed decades ago that people raised in cities are more prone to mental disorders than those raised in the countryside. But neuroscientists have avoided studying the connection, preferring to leave the disorderly realm of the social environment to social scientists. A paper in this issue of Naturerepresents a pioneering foray across that divide.

Using functional brain imaging, a group led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg’s Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, showed that specific brain structures in people from the city and the countryside respond differently to social stress (see pages 452 and 498). Stress is a major factor in precipitating psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

The work is a first step towards defining how urban life can affect brain biology in a way that has a potentially major impact on society — schizophrenia affects one in 100 people. It may also open the way for greater cooperation between neuroscientists and social scientists. “There has been a long history of mutual antipathy, particularly in psychiatry,” says sociologist Craig Morgan at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. “But this is the sort of study that can prove to both sides that they can gain from each others’ insights.”

I feel uncomfortable about reproducing more of this fascinating study without some formal permission to do so, therefore, if you want to read the full article then do sign up for access at the Nature website.

Back to the article from Grist written by Sarah Goodyear, Grist’s cities editor,

I called Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg to ask him more about the implications of his experiment, and what he thought might be the cause of heightened sensitivity to social stress among urban dwellers.

“On the neural level, we find two things,” he told me. “A, the neural effects are completely dissociated, so current urban living only affects the amygdala, urban upbringing only affects the cingulate. And B, these areas are associated with these illnesses. The amygdala is sort of a danger center, and it’s critically important for fear. And it is clear that the amygdala is a major player in depression. The cingulate is a prefrontal area regulating negative emotion, and it’s known to be one of the earliest areas affected by schizophrenia.”

So what accounts for the hyperactivity of the amygdala-cingulate circuit in urban dwellers? “That exact circuit that we found hyperactive has also shown to be activated when someone comes too close to you and crowds your personal space,” Meyer-Lindenberg told me.

But he cautioned against inferring that mere density of population is at fault. “It’s still speculation,” he said. “There could be myriad components of the urban experience that might or might not be bad for you from the point of your risk for mental illness. No one really knows. People are annoyed by noise or by traffic, or it could also be lead, or air pollution, but there’s no evidence base to say this is an important factor, this is not an important factor. Therefore there’s no basis for urban planning that’s grounded in human biology, at least with regard to mental illness.”

Later in the Grist article, Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg told Sarah Goodyear,

“Social status is closely linked to socioeconomic variables. What we found in our imaging studies is that if your social status becomes labile, and especially if you are in danger of losing it, a very similar brain circuit becomes active. There is a convergence of socially relevant risk factors on that circuit.”

Different types of urban environments might also affect people in different ways. “It’s very different if you live in Manhattan and you sort of live in a series of overlapping villages, if you will, or if you live in a city like Sao Paolo, in which no such microstructure is immediately available to you, or if you live in a large spread-out area,” said Meyer-Lindberg.

The social connections that are fostered in more walkable neighborhoods could help city dwellers from losing it. “A previous study found that that the size of your social support network is actually correlated to the size of the exact brain circuit we found in this study,” Meyer-Lindenberg said. “So that’s a protective factor. The more friends you have, the bigger those brain structures are.”

Already, more than half the human population lives in cities. That proportion will only increase. New cities are springing up all over the developing world, some built to order, some completely unplanned. The form they take could be crucial.

More knowledge about what exactly drives people could lead to concrete solutions that would make for better mental health — the same way the discovery of how disease was spread by waterborne germs finally ended the scourge of cholera in London.

“I think it would be important to make cities better, given that we can’t escape cities, given the dynamics of urbanization,” said Meyer-Lindenberg. “That’s a reality that we’re not going to get rid of.”

Fascinating article made doubly interesting by E O Wilson’s lifetime study of ants!

Lord of the Ants

A passing visit to the American biologist, E. O. Wilson

E O Wilson

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in June 1929 thus making him, at this time of writing, just into his 82 year.  His biological specialty is myrmecology.  Got that?  Myrmecology.  And if you, like me, didn’t have a clue as to what  myrmecology is and had to look it up, it is the study of ants.  Blow me down, there is even a myrmecology blogsite!

So where is this all heading?

One of the things that we do know about dogs, especially if we go way back into the dim and distant times when they behaved more like the grey wolf, from which the species ‘dog’ genetically originates 100,000 years ago, is that their social order, their pack behaviour, was highly stable.  As an aside, when Jean was rescuing dogs in San Carlos, Mexico during the years that she lived there with her late husband she readily observed that the stray dogs, of which there were too many, had a natural propensity to group up into their historic pack formations.  (And as an aside to my aside, Jean’s close friend of many years, Dan’s sister Suzann, today carries on the splendid work of looking after stray dogs from her San Carlos house!)

OK, back to the plot!

E O Wilson’s study of ants has revealed much about social order and organisation.  The following YouTube video was from a PBS programme, aired in May, 2008, from which I quote (that is the PBS website),

Program Description

At age 78, E.O. Wilson is still going through his “little savage” phase of boyhood exploration of the natural world. In “Lord of the Ants,” NOVA profiles this soft-spoken Southerner and Harvard professor, who is an acclaimed advocate for ants, biological diversity, and the controversial extension of Darwinian ideas to human society.

Actor and environmentalist Harrison Ford narrates this engaging portrait of a ceaselessly active scientist and eloquent writer, who has accumulated two Pulitzer Prizes among his many other honors. Says fellow naturalist David Attenborough: “He will go down as the man who opened the eyes of millions ’round the world to the glories, the values, the importance of—to use his term—biodiversity.”

It’s a fascinating film, truly engaging, so do settle down for a relaxing 53 minutes and watch,

Now there’s more to this and I do want to continue with the theme of this Post tomorrow.

So for now, look in on the E O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s website and I’ll see you tomorrow.