The End Of The World Is Nigh

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The End Of The World Is Nigh… Essay, Research Paper The end of the world is nigh…The Future of LifeEdward O WilsonLittle, Brown ?18.99, pp230What Evolution IsErnst MayrWeidenfeld & Nicholson ?14.99, pp318Small but perfectly formed, South America’s dart frogs are some of evolution’s strangest by-products. They come in a vivid array of reds, oranges and greens and are so tiny they could perch on a fingernail.Yet these little popinjays are the rainforest’s most feared denizens, for each secretes poisons that can flatten even the largest predator. Take Colombia’s wonderfully named Phyllobates horribilis. Each one has enough toxin to kill 10 men, a fact exploited by Choco tribesmen who rub their blow-gun darts (very carefully) over phyllobates when preparing for

battle.Then there is Equador’s Epipedobates tricolor which exudes a cocktail of different chemicals, including one that medical researchers John Daly and Charles Myers discovered was a powerful, opium-like painkiller, but which seemed to lack addictive side effects.And thereby hangs a tale. Having stumbled on this exceptional amphibian emission, Daly and Myers needed more samples to develop their research. So they returned to the little frogs’ homeland glade, only to find it had been turned into a banana plantation. Thus a pharmacological miracle seemed to have perished forever at the hands of the fruit farmer. Only the subsequent discovery of a separate, distant epipedobates’ lair saved the day.The world was lucky, but it has not been in thousands, possibly millions, of

other cases when we have bulldozed, cemented, flooded, dynamited, or burned unique environment after unique environment, taking each one’s remarkable, but usually unstudied, occupants with it. As Wilson says: ‘We are chipping away at the miracles around us.’Ecological horror stories are ten-a-penny, of course, and their capacity to alarm was long ago neutralised by overuse. This is ‘the litany’ that is disparaged by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg in his anti-green diatribe, The Sceptical Environmentalist, which so delighted right-wing commentators last year. For a few months, they nearly had us believing everything was tickety-boo on planet Earth.The appearance of The Future of Life, is, therefore, timely, for it is not the work of desk-bound pedants who spend their

days analysing and finding flaws in UN statistics but of the greatest natural history expert of our age, a double Pulitzer Prize winner, a distinguished Harvard professor and a renowned naturalist who has spent his life grubbing through the forest floor in search of novel wildlife.And he can see absolutely no grounds for dismissing the warnings of the doom-mongers. ‘An Armageddon is approaching,’ he says. ‘Not the cosmic war and fiery collapse of mankind foretold in scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.’ We are back in eco-horror land, in other words, though never has it been so vividly and disturbingly described.Consider the book’s first sentence: ‘The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and

creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet is so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered.’It is a majestic start from which Wilson proceeds lovingly to assemble a picture of the delicate interrelatedness of the 10 million species with which we share that biosphere – ‘the Sumatran rhinoceros, flat-spined, three-toothed land snail, furbish lousewort’ and all the other plants and animals that we are now eradicating at a stunning rate.The trouble, Wilson says, is that human population growth has become ‘more bacterial than primate’, creating a biomass (the combined weight of all six billion humans alive today) that is now 100 times that of any other