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E.O. Wilson’s Moon Shot
Ethan Zuckerman, 9 Mar 07

Before the second prize, we review Cameron Sinclair’s prize for Architecture for Humanity, and the launch of the Open Architecture network. (See this morning’s post for details.) The project literally launched this morning and is already seeing use.

The second prize winner is the remarkable biologist, E.O. Wilson, who Stuart Brand introduces by saying, “As a biologist, this is someone who has changed my field over and over and over.”

Wilson announces himself as speaking for “his constituency - 10^18 insects and small creatures” and to make a plea for them. If we were to eliminate insects, most human life would be destroyed within years. Wilson is best known for his work on ants - he explains that this is his “devoted period” after briefer childhood periods fascinated with birds, butterflies, snakes, frogs and caves.

Growing up in Alabama on the gulf coast, Wilson blinded himself in one eye when fishing as a seven year old, pulling a pinfish into his eye. He’s also congenitally hard of hearing. “I found that I was bad at birdwatching, and I couldn’t track frogs by sound.” So he became attracted to “the little things who run the world.”

Wilson is interested in the species we don’t know anything about. Recent discoveries include megafauna like whales, antelopes, a new elephant and monkey species. But we know vastly less about life in the sea, about molds and fungus, and about nematodes - roundworms - who represent four of all five animals of the planet. He references bacteria as “the dark matter of the biological world”, with 4 million unique species in a ton of soil, most of them completely unknown.

“What are they all doing? We don’t know.”

Wilson outlines a future hope - that we’ll explore the world, carrying collectors and sequencers which let us discover bacteria and microorganisms, “the way we look for birds with binoculars.” What will we find as we map the world? It’s possible that we might find actual aliens - bacteria or microorganisms that actually came from outerspace - after all, “they’ve had billions of years to do it.”

He points out that we’re destroying these organisms and ecosystems with ingenuity.
Ants that he discovered early in his career - metallic green and gold ants in Cuban forests - are threatened by the cutting of these ancient trees.

Wilson sees a set of threats to environmental stability and discovery coming from factors he refers to as HIPPO:

- Habitat destruction, including climate change
- Invasive species
- Pollution
- (Human) Population explosion
- Overharvesting (by hunting and fishing)

Only about 15% of known species have been studied well enough to know their status and threat - “We’re flying blind into the environmental future.” So Wilson asks for a science project equivalent in scale to the human genome project, a “moon shot with a timetable.”

“I wish we will work together to help create the key tools we need to inspire preservation of earth’s biodiversity.” His vision is an encyclopedia of life, a document on the Internet, accessible to anyone on demand, anywhere in the world, and infinitely expansible.

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Comments

The TED prizes to Wilson and Clinton were a big disappointment, I thought. Nothing really new or innovative here -- and they're both beyond the point where TED could help them achieve their goals.

I wish they would use the TED Prize to find more "up and coming" people and initiatives, like they did last year...


Posted by: anonymous on 9 Mar 07

Been wondering for months what Dr. Wilson's TEDPrize wish would be. An encyclopedia of life is a most worthy wish indeed.

If the rapid materialization of Cameron Sinclair's Open Architecture Network 2006 TEDPrize wish is any indication, this moonshot with a timetable is imminently possible!

Wondering how much time Dr. Wilson has spent with Daniel Janzen, who gave a compelling strategy for bringing down the costs of identifying new species, and much much more, in his long now seminar "Third World Conservation: It's ALL Gardening" (Friday, April 9th 02004 http://www.longnow.org/projects/seminars/)

Also, wondering how much Dr. Wilson is pondering restoring native biodiversity in urban settings. According to his seminal theory of island biogeography, biodiversity increase is influenced by two factors..."the effect of distance from the mainland and the effect of island size." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_of_Island_Biogeography)

It would seem that adding more preserving open space and creating new park space would be the way to go. In urban settings, restoring rooftops to ecological productivity might be our best bet.


Posted by: Daniel Bowmana Simon on 11 Mar 07

Unfortunately, Wilson doesn't seem to know what's already going on in this field. There are already several large sites that are focusing on cataloging the world's biodiversity -- and he didn't mention any of them.

This TED prize was kind of a waste, as far as I can tell.


Posted by: anonymous on 12 Mar 07



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