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Biodiversity - Edward O Wilson

Biodiversity - Edward O Wilson

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Published by Patrick Pedulla

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Patrick Pedulla on Nov 28, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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“Biodiversity,” the term and concept, has been a remarkable event in recentcultural evolution: 10 years ago the word did not exist, except perhaps throughoccasional idiosyncratic use. Today it is one of the most commonly used expres-sions in the biological sciences and subsequently has become a household word.It was born “BioDiversity” during the National Forum on BioDiversity, held inWashington, D.C., on September 21-24, 1986, under the auspices of the NationalAcademy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution. The proceedings of theforum, published in 1988 under the title
(later to be cited with lessthan bibliographical accuracy by most authors as
), became a best-seller for the National Academy Press. By the summer of 1992, as a key topic of the Rio environmental summit meeting, biodiversity had moved to center stageas one of the central issues of scientific and political concern world-wide.So what is it? Biologists are inclined to agree that it is, in one sense, every-thing. Biodiversity is defined as all hereditarily based variation at all levels of organization, from the genes within a single local population or species, to thespecies composing all or part of a local community, and finally to the communi-ties themselves that compose the living parts of the multifarious ecosystems of the world. The key to the effective analysis of biodiversity is the precise defini-tion of each level of organization when it is being addressed.Even though the study of biodiversity can be traced back as far as Aristotle,what finally has given it such extraordinarily widespread attention is the real-ization that it is disappearing. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, the firstconvincing estimates were made of the rate of tropical deforestation, whichtranslates to the areal loss of habitat where most of living diversity is concen-
Pellegrino University Professor, Museum of Comparative Zoology,Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
trated. This information led to disturbingly high estimates of the rates of loss of species in these forests. The magnitude of erosion also drew attention to ongo-ing extinction in other habitats, from deserts to coral reefs, at all levels of bio-logical organization from alleles to entire local ecosystems. It became clear thatthe decline of Earth’s biodiversity was serious. Worse, unlike toxic pollutionand ozone depletion, it cannot be reversed.Scientists who once had devoted their careers to bits and pieces of bio-diversity now became holists, or at least more approving of the holistic approach,and they were energized by a new sense of mission. For the good of society asa whole, they now realized that the classification of such organisms as braconidwasps and lauraceous shrubs mattered. Moreover, the ecologists also were in-cluded: the processes by which natural communities are assembled and theirconstituent species maintained have central importance in both science and thereal world. The study of diversity subsumed old problems in systematics andecology, and specialists in these and in related fields of biology began to talk incommon parlance as never before. Just as significantly, physical scientists, so-cial scientists, geographers, and artists were drawn into the colloquy. The sub- ject consequently has begun to be reshaped into a new, often surprisingly eclec-tic field of inquiry. Today we now hear regularly of “biodiversity science” and“biodiversity studies.”Since the 1986 National Forum on BioDiversity, there has been an exponen-tial rise in research and technical innovation. Scientists appreciate that only atiny fraction of biodiversity on Earth has been explored, and that its origin andmaintenance pose some of the most fundamental problems of the biological sci-ences. These problems are also among the least technically tractable. Thosewho have cut into the outer surface of ecology and evolution suspect that mo-lecular and cell biology eventually will prove simple by comparison.The present volume is a 10-year report on the state of the art in biodiversitystudies, with an emphasis on concept formation and technique. Overall, it makesa striking contrast with the original
, showing how extraordinarilyfar we have come and at the same time mapping how far scientists yet musttravel in their reinvigorated exploration of the biosphere.Some scientists and policy-makers have worried that the magnitude of thebiodiversity we now know to be present in the world’s habitats is so enormous,the cost of exploring and documenting it so overwhelming, and the number of biologists who can analyze and document it so small that the goal of understand-ing the diversity of the world’s species is unattainable. The central message of this volume is, to the contrary, that the potential benefits of knowing and con-serving this biodiversity are too great and the costs of losing it are too high totake a path of least resistance. By documenting the infrastructure of knowledgeand institutions that already are in place, this volume suggests that there is acost-effective and feasible way of approaching the conservation of the world’sbiological resources. The key to a cost-effective solution to the biodiversity
crisis lies in the collaboration of museums, research institutions, and universi-ties; the pooling of human and financial resources; and the shared use of physi-cal and institutional structures that are already present. Rather than buildingthe knowledge, institutional and physical infrastructure for documenting bio-diversity from the ground up, we need to build upon preexisting infrastructureand increase support for systematics, training, and museums.This volume is an outgrowth of one such endeavor, the recent establish-ment of a Consortium for Systematics and Biodiversity between the SmithsonianInstitution, the University of Maryland at College Park, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Systematics Laboratories, the University of Maryland Biotechnol-ogy Institute, and the American Type Culture Collection. The Consortium, dedi-cated to enhancing the conceptual understanding and documentation of bio-diversity of organisms (from viruses and bacteria to invertebrate and vertebrateanimals, protists, fungi, algae and higher plants) in living and nonliving mu-seum collections, represents the type of cooperation that will be necessary for usto cost-effectively understand and protect our natural resources.

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