The diversity of life is in danger

November 24, 2009 marked the last official Darwin Day of the year. In the old lecture hall at the Royal Institution of London, the British Council celebrated “Origin Day” to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. It was the last Darwin-occasion of 2009 but it was not the final mentioning of Darwin.

Greater responsibility

The main speaker of the day was O.E. Wilson professor at Harvard University and one of the great figures of evolutionary research during the past several decades. Among other things, he is one of the founders of socio-biology and evolutionary psychology.

Unfortunately, he had pneumonia and being 80 years old, he was not able to manage the journey across the Atlantic.  However, we were not cheated. By video transmission, he appeared on a big screen to wish everyone a happy Darwin Day from his home in Boston.

But it did not end there. In an intense presentation, O. E. Wilson used the occasion to talk about our moral obligation to create a descent future for the diversity of life; in other words, the biodiversity of the planet.

Darwin made it clear that all life on earth has the same conditions of life and that we are on our own. That has given us a lot of freedom. But with that freedom comes responsibility, Wilson argued. As the only species that is capable of acquiring insight and using it, we have an obligation to take that responsibility upon us and protect the biodiversity which through centuries we have been only to eager to diminish.

Man or meteors

The debate which followed was marked by the moral reprimand. One of the questions to the panel of experts of the day was which was more destructive for the diversity of life: the meteor that eliminated the dinosaurs or today’s human race.

It is of course impossible to answer. But the comparison was spot on: Homo sapiens are without comparison the most destructive species the world has seen so far.

Man is an invasive species

Today, we talk about and discuss the so called “invasive species” which are incredibly destructive to the local and vulnerable ecosystems. These are always the most visible and relevant when present in our own backyards. In Denmark, there is a common hatred of the Spanish slug and it is easy to convince ourselves and each other of the destructive effects of the invasive species.

But if we turn around and look at ourselves, it becomes painfully clear that we are both the most successful and most destructive invasive species of today.

From an evolutionary perspective we, the Homo sapiens, with our 200.000 years of existence have only been here for a minute. However, in that time we have spread out from Africa to the most remote and harsh corners of the world. Not many other species can compete with that. And none of them have left as clear a mark and changed landscapes and life conditions for other species that have had no other choice but to adapt or become extinct.

With his theory and the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin helped us understand the basis of the diversity of life. He cannot help us to protect it. That is up to us. And we have to. It is our obligation.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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Extended knowledge

E. O. Wilson is the creator of the project Encyclopedia of Life, a freely accessible research based database of all the known species on earth.

The journal Nature also celebrated the 150th anniversary by focusing on biodiversity in crisis in their third and final special issue on Darwin in 2009.