PW: Is this book, The Future of Life, your manifesto?
EOW: In part, yes. It's a dispatch from the front, a look into the future and a manifesto concerning what should and can, and to some degree is, being done.
PW: You say in your book that each species is "a masterpiece," a vessel for "aesthetic pleasure," a "living library." Can you elaborate?
EOW: It's a masterpiece in that it was fashioned by millions of years of evolution. It can be viewed aesthetically as a biological creation that is able to perform almost perfectly in every generation in the niche to which it's adapted. There is beauty in function. In studying the genome of any given species, we are reading the equivalent of a very large library. In fact, it's been established that the amount of information present in a single organism of one species is equivalent to or greater than all the editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica published since the 18th century.
PW: Would you agree that there is something divine or spiritual to the idea of the biosphere?
EOW: Spiritual, yes. The biosphere as a whole, as you might view it from outside earth's atmosphere looking in, does have a spiritual quality in that it represents a collectivity of life that is more complex than anything else we have observed in the universe, and possibly may ever observe. And in my view, the spirituality is enhanced by the thinness and the fragility of it. It's so thin that it can't be seen edgewise from an orbiting shuttle. And all of the evidence now coming in suggests that it is fragile enough to be thoroughly wrecked by a single species: us.
PW: Why did you address your prologue to Henry David Thoreau?
EOW: I wanted to give a sense of historical depth to the general reader in considering the environmental ethic. Conservation has no anchor unless there is a solid environmental ethic, a reason that people can deeply believe in, that life should be understood and conserved. Thoreau is the original pioneer in American culture of the environmental ethic, and his influence has been worldwide in this respect.
PW: How has your vision of life on earth changed since you were a student at Harvard 50 years ago?
EOW: I was typical of my generation of biology students in that I didn't see the natural world as much more than a paradise waiting to be explored. Then, I began to realize in the 1950s and '60s that something bad was happening. The tropical forests in particular were disappearing. The very best and most impressive areas were being cut over and destroyed, and not likely to return. By the '70s, I was among a group of young scientists with similar experiences, and we were beginning to participate in a conservation activism. Now we viewed the Amazon, for example, as not just as it had been for centuries—an unexplored wilderness—but as threatened nature reserve. This book is a call to arms and an outline of the likely solution. What the entire conservation movement needs is a precise statement of what the problem is in scientific terms, what the loss of biodiversity will cost us, what the solution is in saving it, and how much the solution will cost and how long it will take. And that is what this book is about.
PW: In your last book, Consilience, you argue that the arts and the humanities share the same goal with the sciences: the human quest for understanding of the intrinsic orderliness underlying all life. How does the idea of consiliences figure into your new book?
EOW: Consilience is the connection in cause and effect from one domain of understanding to others. The study and the conservation of biodiversity is an example of a domain of understanding now being strengthened by some findings in almost all of the major branches of science and social sciences. As our self-understanding improves, with each step we will come to cherish the study and the preservation of the rest of life more deeply.