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Burning Down the Library of Life

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 7, 2012

Should life only matter if it has selfish value to us? A green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, phtographed by Richard Pyle by

I’ve often tried to explain why species matter, usually by emphasizing the ways they affect human health, though I am acutely aware that this is a narrow, selfish view of the life around us.  Deep sea diver Richard Pyle also does some of that in the series of columns he has been writing lately for The New York Times.  But in his latest column,  he also gets at the precious value of the larger fabric of life on earth, with or without humans.

Pyle, who works at Bishop Museum in Honolulu, is exploring and documenting marine biodiversity as a science adviser for the One World One Ocean initiative. His New York TImes series describes an expedition to Cocos Island, off the Costa Rican coast:

My overarching quest is to document biodiversity — both on this project and in general. The most extraordinary aspect of biodiversity to me is the way in which every living thing on earth, everything that has ever lived on earth, is directly connected through time by an utterly unbroken sequence of reproductive events. I can trace my ancestry back through my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on, generation after generation after generation after generation, back through time.

When we imagine our own family history, we tend to think in terms of a few centuries; but in fact, the pattern goes back much further. Not just a few thousand years, or even a few million years, but several billion years. On that scale of time, every organism that has ever lived is part of a shared family tree.

The fundamental thing that separates life from nonliving chemistry is information. Specifically, it is the way in which information is propagated through time. Much of this information is encoded in the genome, but the information content goes far beyond DNA.

It includes the vastly complex ways in which organisms interact with each other — as predator and prey (whitetip reef sharks and the fishes they hunt), as symbionts (hammerhead sharks at cleaning stations), as organisms living in the shelter of other organisms (a juvenile silverstripe chromis among the branches of a black coral tree) and indeed, as entire ecosystems of interdependent communities of organisms.

Each species is like a book, the product of literally billions of years of editing and re-editing through the process of evolution, and each species has its own unique story to tell. These stories are all nonfiction, and more important, stories of survival, of navigating billions of years of persistence. These stories include the cures to many (if not all) human diseases. They include instructions for converting sunlight into stored chemical energy with near-perfect efficiency. But the most important stories are the ones we have not yet imagined.

We are like kindergartners running through the aisles of the Library of Congress, almost completely unaware of the value of the information around us. We are surrounded by the genomic equivalents of the works of Homer and Shakespeare, or detailed plans to build a nuclear reactor, yet our ability to read and understand this information is still at the stage of “See Spot run.”

Biodiversity is earth’s greatest library, and we have not matured enough as a species, as a civilization, to realize it yet. Someday soon we will understand how to read the secrets contained within the Biodiversity Library. Unfortunately, we are on the brink of this planet’s sixth great extinction event, and each time a species goes extinct, it is like burning the last copy of a book. Once it is gone, the information it contained is lost forever. Earth’s greatest library is burning.

The taxonomists of the world, of which I am one, are the librarians. Our job is to build the card catalogs, to document not only the existence and general nature of each book, but also where they can be found.

For the past two and a half centuries, we have managed to document less than 10 percent of the estimated 20 million to 30 million species on earth. The reason it is important to use new technologies like rebreathers and submersibles is not because they are cool, but because we need their help in our race to document biodiversity before it’s gone.

The wonderful efforts by the Costa Rican government to protect Cocos Island and its inhabitants need to be expanded to many other parts of the ocean, many other parts of the planet. Efforts like the One World One Ocean campaign help people understand the importance of biodiversity and the importance of protecting it. As my friend Sylvia Earle has said, what we do in the next 10 years will define what happens in the next 10,000. There is no time to waste.


One Response to “Burning Down the Library of Life”

  1. Preeti said

    Great link! Thanks for sharing this. The part where he says the ‘Earth’s greatest library is burning’ gives me goosebumps.
    I saw Richard Pyle’s TED talk from a while ago and it’s fascinating as well.

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