Why should we study biodiversity?
“When voters in Montana ask me why we should save the spotted owl, what should I tell them?”
This was the question posed to renowned biologist Ed Wilson during an early-1990s visit to the office of Montana senator Max Baucus. Wilson, unfazed, shot back, “Tell them, senator, about the rosy periwinkle, a small plant discovered in Madagascar that provided successful treatment for Hodgkin’s disease and acute lymphomatic leukemia. Tell them about the obscure Norwegian fungus that yielded cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant now used every day in organ transplants. And ask them how many species of fungi exist in the old stand forests of the Pacific Northwest that we haven’t even classified yet, much less learned the benefits of.”
Medical advances comprise just one of the many reasons for preserving and studying biodiversity, the quantity and variety of all living organisms. From the tiniest bacteria to elephants to humans, all biodiversity is interconnected in a complex yet fragile network of relationships. The tiniest perturbation to this network can cause its wholesale collapse, which is why we must be responsible and informed citizens of our environment.
Aside from the medical benefits mentioned by Wilson, there’s dollars and cents—40% of the global economy is based on biological products and processes. Think about the food on your dinner table; the paper you are writing on; those herbal extracts in your shampoo. Think even more simply—the very air you breathe is recycled and emitted by trees, which in turn absorb the carbon dioxide you exhale. Indeed, our ability to persist and function as a society is entirely dependent on the biodiversity of our planet.
Despite our shrinking world, biodiversity remains a frontier of new discovery. Of a possible 5-30 million species on the planet, only 1.8 are named and described. Who knows what medical cures and new technologies exist in the remaining millions? With more than 12 million specimens deposited in its natural history museums, the University of California, Berkeley dedicates much time and resources to the study of past and present biodiversity, in order to inform our understanding.
Wilson said it best in his book The Diversity of Life, when he implored us to “cherish each species in turn as a world unto itself, worthy of lifetimes of study.”