Discordance in the Age of Species

Quentin Wheeler
College of Environmental Science and Forestry

We are living in an age of spectacular species diversity, and an accelerated rate of species extinction threatens to draw it to a close.  Disappearing a thousand times faster than in prehistoric time, 70% of all the kinds of animals and plants are projected to be gone in three hundred years.  It has taken more than 250 years to discover two million of an estimated ten million species, so unless we slow extinction or speed their discovery, most of what species can teach us will never be known.  Why does this matter?

Unless we chart the species of the biosphere we are unprepared to measure their loss, design effective conservation strategies, or detect invasive species including agricultural pests and agents of disease.  Unless we detail the species comprising natural ecosystems, we cannot understand fully understand ecosystem functions or aspire to either restore or mimic them in the wake of massive species losses.  An inventory of species can create urgently needed baseline knowledge of what species exist and which are being lost.

Unless we complete an inventory of species and transform our world’s natural history museums into a distributed comprehensive archive reflecting the full diversity of species, we will greatly diminish our ability to tell the fascinating story of evolution on the only planet known to harbor biodiversity.  If we ever succeed in our search for life elsewhere in the Universe, we shall want to compare its origin, history, and ecosystems to those of earth, but that will be impossible after earth species diversity have been decimated.  And an ultimate question, “What makes us human?,” may never be answered.  The origins of our humanness is told in an elaborate chain of evolutionary transformations only discoverable from a study of other species.

And unless we complete an inventory of species, including detailed descriptions of their wondrous and improbable anatomical novelties and interactions, we discard the best imaginable body of knowledge with which to face the uncertainties of survival on a rapidly changing planet.  Our best hopes to sustain as much biodiversity as possible, and maintain a high quality of life for humans, rest on exploring species while time remains to do so.  No future generation will have access to as much knowledge as we.  Natural history has carried out trial-and-error experiments to solve survival problems for 3.8 billion years.  The results are freely learned from the species around us, among which are found millions of clues for new generations of better designs, materials, and processes.  But because few species leave a fossil record behind, most of this library of knowledge will be lost at just the time in history when we need it most.

Proposals to replace traditional taxonomy with molecular shortcuts miss the point.  The most interesting and informative aspects of evolution are told in improbable attributes of species not easily or at all learnable from DNA alone.  Similarly, millions of biomimetic clues will be lost unless we collect, study, and preserve whole specimens as well as associated observations, tissues, recordings, ecological associations, and other data.  A species inventory can assure that we have access to all that species diversity can teach us — even after millions of species have gone extinct.  Museums, databases, and published studies, combined with surviving species, will allow science to continue to learn from evolutionary history and the organization of the biosphere for thousands of years to come, but only if our generation has the vision and resolve to undertake the taxonomic equivalent of a moon-shot now.

As species losses have multiplied, little has been done to revitalize taxonomy, natural history, or the core mission of museums, all of which are fundamental to a successful inventory.  In spite of an undeniably urgent and rapidly growing need for taxonomic knowledge, the needs of taxonomy have been ignored for decades.  Taxon experts are neither supported to do taxonomy full time nor replaced in kind when they retire.  One result is that the rate of species discovery has not increased since the 1940s.

For the foreseeable future, and perhaps forever, there will be no second chances to inventory the species of a biodiversity-rich planet.  No other sources of evidence of the origins of our humanness or millions of clues for creating a sustainable future.  A comprehensive inventory is literally a now or never possibility.  No single science project could have more immediate or enduring benefits to science or human civilization, yet taxonomy continues to be marginalized due to a combination of bias, hubris, and greed.  Those who malign taxonomy as “merely descriptive” or “stamp collecting” reveal more of their ignorance of the mission, methods and epistemology of taxonomy than they do any shortcoming of the science of species.

We could complete a first pass inventory of earth species, documenting ten million species, in less than fifty years with existing technologies.  Given investments in new technology and experts, even faster.  The payoff would be enormous, immediate, and multifaceted.  We could slow the rate of extinction, assure that surviving species are as diverse as possible, and create an insurance policy against ignorance as we face the most uncertain environmental future in human history.  We must address this discordance between the fact of accelerated species extinctions and neglect of taxonomy, the only science that can prepare us to either avoid or cope with a mass extinction event.

About Quentin Wheeler

Quentin Wheeler, president of ESF, will call for an inventory of ten million species by the year 2058, a date coinciding with the 300th anniversary of the origin of modern taxonomy, the science of species description, naming, and classification.  The ambitious project would invest in training taxon experts and the modernization of museums, instrumentation, and taxonomy-specific cyberinfrastructure to address the alarming disconnect between the rapid extinction of species in nature and the slow pace at which species are being discovered.  Knowledge gained from the project would have direct implications for conservation, ecosystem restoration, and exploring the origins and history of life on our planet.  Further, it would reveal millions of evolutionary novelties that can serve as models for creating a sustainable future by inspiring new designs, materials, and process.  After neglecting the needs of taxonomy and natural history for decades, it is imperative that we revitalize species exploration to assure that we have knowledge and options available with which to adapt human civilization to an uncertain environmental future.

Biographical Sketch

Quentin Wheeler is president of ESF, the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in Syracuse, New York.  He began his career as a professor at Cornell University where he remained on the faculty for 24 years.  Following a term as director of the Division of Environmental Biology of the National Science Foundation, he accepted an appointment as Keeper of Entomology at The Natural History Museum in London.  Prior to joining ESF, Wheeler held the Virginia M. Ullman chair in natural history and the environment at Arizona State University, where he was also a senior sustainability scientist, a vice president, and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Wheeler has named more than one hundred species new to science, and is author or editor of six books and more than one hundred and fifty scientific publications.  He wrote a column for London’s The Guardian reporting on recent species discoveries, and he is founding director of the International Institute for Species Exploration which each year produces the list of the Top 10 New Species.

ESF, America’s earliest institution of higher education focused entirely on the environment, is today a leader in environmental science, design, management, engineering, and scholarship.  With its #2 nationally ranked sustainable campus in  Syracuse and 25,000 acres of forests, lakes, field stations, and study sites transecting New York State, ESF offers a uniquely excellent undergraduate education on a research intensive campus with diverse doctoral programs.

Last Updated: 2/14/17