The Future of Life: Hope for Life’s Future?

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Joel Kovel

The Future of Life by E.O. Wilson New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002 229 pages, $13 paperback.

I was reluctant to turn to this 2002 study of biodiversity and species loss given the bad taste left by Edwin Wilson’s 1975 Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, a work redolent with reductionist and Social Darwinian implications and therefore odious to every good leftist.

But The Future of Life turns out to be a pleasant surprise.  A fine writer, graceful and compelling in his prose, Wilson’s mastery of biology is evident on every page, and lends authority to the grim narrative he relates.  And he relates it, moreover, with sympathy and decency.

Wilson loves his animals, the small as well as the great.  One might even say that he loves this world, and grieves for its demise at the hands of the hellish forces which add up to comprise our ecological crisis.  Were it not for a certain confusion, to be discussed below, one would be inclined to recommend The Future of Life unreservedly.  As it is, the work stands for all its limits as perhaps the best and most lucid introduction to the terrible dilemma posed by species extinction in our time.  Making Our Own Extinction No species can go on forever; thus the extinction of species is as natural a phenomenon as their origin.  Yet the passing away of species is not random, but subject to various tendencies and punctuated by periodic cataclysms.  The previous such great passing away was the disappearance of dinosaurs some 70 million years ago, perhaps set into motion by dust kicked up by a giant meteorite.

The latest one is going on right now, and there is no “perhaps” about the causal agent, which is certainly Homo sapiens, the species that thrives by destroying others.  It is virtually impossible to comprehend or emotionally assimilate the fact that our own human species indubitably causes the extinction—to use the word made famous by Poe’s Raven, the “nevermore-ness”—of so many millions of others.

But species loss is only one, imprecisely determined index of an overall degradation of ecosystems on a planetary scale caused by human activity.  As “Gross Economic Product,” by whatever index, goes up and up, the “Living Planet Index” of world ecosystem health goes down and down, as Wilson notes: “From 1970 to 1995 the index, as calculated by the World Wide Fund for Nature, fell 30 percent.  By the early 1990s its decline had accelerated to 3 percent per year.  No levelling trend is yet in sight.”  (43)

In the Age of Bush this is surely an understatement.  Note how the figures for the decline of ecological health roughly mirror those of economic growth; note also that 1970 was the year chosen for beginning such record-keeping because it was then that the modern environmental movements took shape.  Thus the never-ending deterioration of the ecosphere is a function of economic activity, but also a measure of the inadequacy of contemporary ecological politics as more than a meager set of palliatives.

Wilson has many instructive things to say about how species loss happens.  He makes clear that destruction of habitat is the most important instrumental cause, outweighing pollution or direct killing—though also combined with these in the real world.

Sometimes habitat loss is the direct result of planning, as in suburban sprawl or, indeed, warfare.  But this is not always the case nor even the most consequential.  A host of mediations can stand between social decisions and their eventual consequences in habitat destruction.

We have just learned that the polar bear is facing certain extinction by the end of the century should present trends continue.  No one decided to poison the bear, or to destroy its arctic habitat, yet the great mammal carries the highest proportion of dioxins in its tissues of any species, the result of concentration up the food chain from the points of dioxin production scattered thousands of miles away.

More seriously yet, the polar bear stands to lose its actual place in nature as ice caps impersonally melt, thanks to global warming, reducing its feeding season, where it crucially accumulates the fat needed for survival, to the vanishing point.  These planetary implications still elude the blinkered leaders of global capitalism.

Transcending Anthrocentrism

Wilson does not deal directly with the recently disclosed fate of the polar bear, but he does mention the animal once, in pointing out that tourists will travel great distance into the Canadian subarctic to see bears scavenge on town dumps, while nobody but microbiologists attends to the vastly more consequential spectacle of scavenging carried out by bacteria and other one-celled creatures.

Wilson’s chief expertise is in the study of ants, the most abundant of multicellular orders of animals.  The part of his book I found most agreeable was his discussion of these, and of all the little creatures that provide the actual foundation of life upon which more spectacular creatures sport and roam.

Of course, what is spectacular depends on the beholder and the degree to which s/he projects emotional meaning into what is seen, an anthropocentrism that we will have to overcome if we are ever to contend with the ecological crisis.  Surely we will have to learn to appreciate life forms simply because they exist as part of the great concert of nature and not because they are cute or the stuff of childish fantasies.  In a word, we will have to grow up.

A particularly unsettling effect of Wilson’s case is to disabuse us of the notion that there is any intrinsic virtue in humanity’s relation to the rest of nature.  We are, in his pungent phrase, “Homo sapiens, serial killer of the biosphere” (94); and this killing, though it has greatly accelerated with the growth of industrial capitalism, is by no means simply a product of modern society.

After considering the gruesome record of human-imposed extinctions dating back to paleolithic times, Wilson concludes grimly that:

  • The noble savage never existed.
  • Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse
  • Paradise found is paradise lost.  (102)

Given the record of mass deaths carried out by humans at all stages of historical development, the conclusion is impossible to avoid.

But there is a very important qualifier, with major implications for the direction we need to take: The butcheries of species have occurred almost exclusively under circumstances of displacement, where humans intrude upon or relatively abruptly invade an already stabilized ecological zone.

North American Indians, coming over the Bering Straits, rapidly laid waste to the large mammals of the Western Plains, while hunters in Africa, who had co-evolved with the local fauna, also evolved ways of co-existing with them—just as the Plains Indians eventually figured out how to coexist with the Bison until the Euro-Americans arrived to radically destabilize the indigenous world.

Toward a Survivable Society

The point, therefore, is not to self-flagellate because of the inherent murderousness of Homo sapiens, which is a recipe for quietism, but to better understand how such coexistence and co-evolution can be implemented in social form—or to see it from the other end, to recognize how a society driven by capital accumulation can never achieve the degree of equilibrium to permit co-evolution to occur.

For this, of course, one needs a worthwhile conception of society.  It is here that we would part ways with Wilson—not because he lacks generous instincts or some good ideas, but because his basic social vision is incoherent and therefore red meat for the reproduction of dominant interests.

Here the same defects that caused Sociobiology (with its thesis that social behavior including militarism, male supremacy and narrow clan/tribal loyalty was unchangeably rooted in genetics) to be such a disaster resurface—notably an inability to think in socially critical terms about science, especially to grasp that forms of knowledge are produced within class formations and reproduce those relations.

Thus Wilson will reify nature even as he loves it. Lacking a vision of the social totality, he slides into a banal and confused pragmatism.  In one passage he flirts with the fatal nonsense of putting a price tag on nature only to say what a bad idea this is; in another, he will plead for saving the forests because there are all sorts of potentially profitable creatures therein, thus violating his own best instinct to respect the intrinsic value of nature.

He will roundly criticize the plunder of nature wrought by the dominant economy, then praise “bioprospecting.  Propelled by venture capital, it has in the past ten years grown into a respectable industry within a global market hungry for new pharmaceuticals.”  (124) So let’s hear it for Big Pharma, savior of the ecosphere.

Wilson recognizes the love of nature as “biophilia,” and sees it as our saving grace, but also one best observed in “the rich, who among us enjoy the widest range of options in response, and most readily follow their emotional and aesthetic inclinations.”  (135)

Jesus might disagree, but the “juggernaut of technology-based capitalism will not be stopped.  Its momentum is reinforced by the billions of poor people in developing countries anxious to participate in order to share the material wealth of the industrialized nations.”  (156) Pity the poor, but they only get what they ask for and deserve.

However, the juggernaut can be redirected through “cooperation among the three secular stanchions of civilized existence: government, the private sector, and science and technology.”  (164) The synthesis of this is the well-endowed NGO sector among whose nabobs Wilson swims majestically on, while the ecosphere is crushed by the behemoth of global capital.

Beyond Sociobiology

But just as one is ready to throw up one’s hands at the amiable Wilson for his elitism, scientism and softheadedness toward capital, he surprises.  Consider the following passage, which, as David Finkel has observed, demolishes sociobiology and its reductionism:

“(A) change of heart occurs when people look beyond themselves to others, and then to the rest of life.  It is strengthened when they also expand their view of landscape, from parish to nation and beyond, and their sweep of time from their own life spans to multiple generations and finally to the extended future history of humankind.”  (155)

And at the very end of Wilson’s study, he goes further yet: “At the risk of seeming politically correct, I will now close with a tribute to protest groups.  They gather like angry bees at meetings of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum…gather to demand equal time for the poor and for nature.  I say bless them all. Their wisdom is deeper than their chants and tramping feet suggest, deeper than that of the power brokers they oppose …And if they are uniformly left-wing in ideology, so be it.”  (188, 189)

I would like to read this as meaning that Wilson intuits, if he does not recognize, that the “biophilia” that can heal the world must come through a demand for universal justice, encompassing the human as well as the non-human portions of nature.

Just as there can be no peace without justice, so can there be no ecological rationality.  Thus class society lurches toward ecocatastrophe.  Praise be to Wilson for recognizing his own discipline’s limits and standing aside.  He has, in effect even if unwittingly, passed the torch to us. Will we be able to carry it onward?

ATC 116, May-June 2005