April 23, 2002

Golf, Biophilia, and Edward O. Wilson

Here's a review from Commentary of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson's new book "The Future of Life" that, while it reflects the neoconservatives' typical dislike of the natural world (did you know that Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park for decades, but never went for a walk in it?) eventually, grudgingly, comes around to admitting that it's basically a good thing that there are people out there who care as much for species preservation as Wilson does.

I appear to have radically changed Wilson's views on "biophilia." I wrote to him in 1994 after he produced two books on the subject (Biophilia and The Biophilia Hypothesis) that naively claimed that people have a natural love of nature, as shown by experiments showing that people love grasslands, like the savannah where we presumably evolved in East Africa. Therefore, he argued, in a big non sequiter, we should preserve rain forests because people love nature. I explained to him, and he agreed, that people like some nature - grasslands - a lot more than they like other nature (jungles), which is why all over, say, Southeast Asia, they are plowing under jungles to build golf courses. Lots of men love golf courses because they are a kind of Disney-version of the primordial East African savannah, where we evolved as hunters.

Wilson has now reversed course and taken up my argument that human love of savannahs can be a threat to biodiversity in non-savannah environments. Although we shouldn't exaggerate the size of the threat - the biggest threat is not converting other landscapes into golf courses and lawns, but into croplands. But as global population growth slows and genetic engineering makes crop yields rise, conversion into farmlands will presumably slow, and conversion into pleasure grounds will rise. Currently golf courses cover maybe a couple of million acres in Americas, and lawns cover several times more, with those figures increasing as business move into grassy "campuses."

An analogy: at this point in my life, I don't really care about the preservation of the great architecture of the past, but I have cared about it at other times, and maybe my kids or potential grandchildren will care someday. So, I'm glad that fuddy-duddies like Prince Charles campaign for preserving fine old buildings. They may be extremists, but without some extremists, nobody would have the energy to do much of anything, and the compromise we'd arrive at would be less optimal. The same goes for environmentalists.

Further, although I've only flipped through Wilson's new book, it seems to contain a lot of practical suggestions for making environmental protection less costly or even profitable.

In summary, it appears that Wilson continues to grow as a thinker even while he returns again and again to the two main themes in his life: a Promethean urge to connect all the fields of science, and a love of bugs.

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