TED Prize

E.O. Wilson on PBS: Why should we care if the woodpecker goes?

The last “Bill Moyers Journal“, the weekly report on PBS, featured a long interview (videotranscript) by Moyers with biologist and TED Prize 2007 winner EO Wilson. The focus was very much on Wilson’s career — “No one in our time has added more to our understanding of Earth’s ecology than Ed Wilson” is how Moyers described him — but Moyers took the opportunity to also ask questions about the Encyclopedia of Life. The EOL is Wilson’s TED Prize wish (videosummarytext): It’s a vast project aimed at documenting all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth, and those yet to be discovered (“We’re maybe today about 1/10 through the discovery of species”, says Wilson). Efforts towards an EOL have been underway since January 2006, but Wilson’s TED2007 speech has significantly accelerated the process, with the McArthur Foundation leading a US$ 50 million funding commitment, leading scientific institutions including Harvard University and the Smithsonian teaming up, and agency Avenue A/Razorfish creating a first design concept for the Encyclopedia and a video to explain the ambitious vision behind the initiative, using photography by Frans Lanting (watch his TED 2005 speech) and others.

Moyers is a great interviewer. At a certain point, he asks Wilson: why should we care if the woodpecker goes? I mean, we’ve lost—how many species have we lost?

Wilson: How many species going extinct or becoming very rare do you think it takes before you see something happening? We now know from experiments and theory that the more species you take out of an ecosystem like a pond, a patch of forest, a little bit of marine shallow environments, the more you take out the less stable it becomes. If you have a tsunami or a severe drought or a fire, it is less likely that that ecosystem, that body of species in that particular environment, is going to come back all the way. So it becomes less stable with fewer species. And then we also know it becomes less productive. In other words, it’s not able to produce as many kilograms of new matter from photosynthesis and passage through the ecosystem. It’s less productive. It sure is less interesting, though, isn’t it? And more than that: we lose the services of these species.

Moyers: The services of these species.

Wilson: Yes, services of these species to us. Like pollination and water purification.

Moyers: That we get free from nature.

Wilson: Yeah. Here’s an easy way to remember it.

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