Silent Spring

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Sun Jan 29 23:59:58 CST 2006

> Conservationists are mistaken, argues Professor Tim Halliday in
> this week's
> Green Room; many animals and plants cannot be saved from
> extinction, and the
> job of conservation scientists is to document them as they disappear.

I think our job as biologists/taxonomists/conservations is really twofold:

1) Protect species from human-induced extinction wherever its practical and
feasible to do so (usually in the form of protected habitat; not
disproportionately expensive efforts to save charistmatic individual
species), acknowledging that we can't save everything, and further
acknowledging that for every lost species we know about, there may be many
others we don't know about, because we never knew they existed in the first
place; and

2) Do whatever we can to expand our knowledge of what is "out there", so we
at least have the knowledge that it once existed at all (and perhaps even
have a tissue sample of a number of representative individuals, so that
future generations will be able to read their complete genomes).

A couple years ago, I posted to this list a metaphor of global biodiversity
as a great Roman library, which has among its shelves a collection of books
containing the total accumulated wisdom on Earth.  The library is burning
(in many different places), and books are being lost.  We have a finite
number of Roman soldiers to try to save the books.  One approach is to use
every last soldier to carry buckets of water into the library, to extinguish
the blaze.  Another approach divides the soldiers, with some carrying
buckets of water to specific sections of the library containing many unique
and valuable books and where the fire has a chance of being contained; while
the other soldiers are running through the library grabbing a few
representative copies of each book from a wide array of library sections
(noting basic information about where they were found, and what other books
were nearby, etc.), and carrying them to a vault across the street.

The books are species, and the soldiers represent biodollars -- with the
bucket-carriers representing funding for conservation, and the "runners" are
funding for collecting and alpha taxonomy (i.e., supporting the frantic
effort of trying to document species by placing representative samples of
them in the "vaults" of natural history museums).

When non-biologists ask me why it's important to save biodiversity, I begin
by describing it in terms of a library -- containing tens of millions of
different books, which represent the accumulated "wisdom" of three and a
half billion years of editing and re-editing. The information contained in
these books holds many, many secrets; their value to human civilization
vastly exceeding whatever information was contained in the library at
Alexandria.  The value of some of the secrets is obvious -- things like how
to convert sunlight energy with fantasitc efficiency. Others are completely
unknown to us now, but may eventually prove to be unimaginably powerful and
benefical to humanity (nanotechnology to the extreme -- incredible molecular

Until recently, we were like a bunch of chimpanzees living in the Library of
Congress -- totally unaware of the vastness of information surrounding us.
At this moment in history, we are more like first-grade school children
wandering up and down the aisles.  We have only recently started to learn to
read a few words in a few books; but the vast majority of the information is
well beyond our comprehension, and is stored on shelves out of our reach
(i.e., species yet undiscovered).

Some day, we will be able to read the pages of all those books with the
insight of a Shakespearian scholar; catching the hidden meaning, subtle
nuances, and implications contained therein. Wouldn't it be a tragedy of
epic proportions if, when that day comes, most of the books are already gone
wihout a trace?

So yes, let us continue to throw buckets of water on the burning library.
But the way things seem to be heading (and I think the main point of
Halliday's article), the fire is burning out of control, and all the Roman
soldiers in the world aren't likely to put it out before a lot of books are
lost forever. So while we continue to fight the good fire-fight, let's also
put a little more emphasis on documenting what books are in there, and
getting some samples stored safely in a vault, where future generations will
be able to read them, and know they existed. Then maybe (just maybe) someday
our great grand children will be able to rebuild many of the more important
parts of the library.


Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
  and Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology
Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at

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