Astonishingly alive

The Diversity of Life

By Edward O. Wilson

This book is something of a revelation to me. I have read only a few books about the natural world – most of them being older or much older than myself – and have wondered whether it is possible to write such a book in an almost literary style. You know the kind I mean: beautiful descriptions of nature that feel more at home in a novel than a field guide to mushroom picking.

And Wilson’s cracked it. The opening ‘scene’ is breathtaking. All he does is describe a night he spent in the rainforest in the middle of a storm. But the words he employs, the fluid sentence structure that strings them together and the heart-and-mind insight he provides elevates it above almost any other such account I’ve read, in fiction or otherwise. Of course, Wilson’s a man of science too. This book is not a slur of anecdotes about camping in the bush. Wilson takes his reader on a journey through the natural world in a way that Darwin never could have. Writing a century and a half after Darwin, Wilson is much more comfortable plotting the origins of species and, more importantly for this book, their place in the contemporary world. That is not to say urban environments, but the entire biosphere. Wilson breaks down every layer of every biome and shows us just how much life is there. Only a million or so species have been identified and studied, he says, but between 10 million and 100 million probably exist. The sections I found particularly insightful are those in which the author describes the interconnectedness between every life form in an ecosystem: the ‘weeds and bugs’ living in every one of the five or so strata of a forest floor are especially memorable.

I would suspect that, for many readers, the most memorable part of this book is actually the final third, in which Wilson enters polemical mode. After having outlined the great diversity of life and why it is important for our planet, he sets forth his manifesto for a reversal of environmental destruction and real custodianship of our natural world. It is both enlightening and persuasive. Twenty years after this book was published, I can’t help but feel that it has fallen on the scrapheap. Aren’t we still cutting down rainforests? Aren’t we still extinguishing species because we desire their meat, bones or skin – or just because we want to live where they live? And yet Wilson has some very practical ideas and some compelling arguments. Perhaps it’s time that this book came back into the public consciousness. However, I feel that its greatest flaw is that it is only one-third polemical. The rest would be characterised by some as boring science or – worse – a birdwatcher’s field notes. Wilson and others know how important the preservation of biodiversity is. The question is: how do you make all 7 billion of us care?

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