The Diversity of Life

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"In the Amazon Basin the greatest violence sometimes begins as a flicker of light beyond the horizon. There in the perfect bowl of the night sky, untouched by light from any human source, a thunderstorm sends its premonitory signal and begins a slow journey to the observer, who thinks: the world is about to change." Watching from the edge of the Brazilian rain forest, witness to the sort of violence nature visits upon its creatures, Edward O. Wilson reflects on the crucible of evolution, and so begins his remarkable account of how the living world became diverse and how humans are destroying that diversity. Wilson, internationally regarded as the dean of biodiversity studies, conducts us on a tour through time, traces the processes that create new species in bursts of adaptive radiation, and points out the cataclysmic events that have disrupted evolution and diminished global diversity over the past 600 million years. The five enormous natural blows to the planet (such as meteorite strikes and climatic changes) required 10 to 100 million years of evolutionary repair. The sixth great spasm of extinction on earth - caused this time entirely by humans - may be the one that breaks the crucible of life. Wilson identifies this crisis in countless ecosystems around the globe: coral reefs, grasslands, rain forests, and other natural habitats. Drawing on a variety of examples such as the decline of bird populations in the United States, the extinction of many species of freshwater fish in Africa and Asia, and the rapid disappearance of flora and fauna as the rain forests are cut down, he poignantly describes the death throes of the living worlds diversity - projected to decline as much as 20 percent by the year 2020. All evidence marshaled here resonates through Wilson's tightly reasoned call for a spirit of stewardship over the worlds biological wealth. He makes a plea for specific actions that will enhance rather than diminish not just diversity but the quality of lif

Harvard Professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Wilson takes readers through time--tracing the processes that create new species, the five cataclysmic events that have disrupted evolution over the past 600 million years, and how humans are destroying diversity at a projected rate of 20 percent over the next 30 years.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review - David Papineau
The central message of Edward O. Wilson's stirring new that Homo sapiens is in imminent danger of precipitating a biological disaster to rival anything in evolutionary history. Mr. the doyen of American biology. Two decades ago he popularized the term 'sociobiology,' and generated a small industry of speculation about the biological basis of human nature. In this book he stops asking what biology does to humans, and asks instead what we humans are doing to biology.
Washington Post Book World - T. H. Watkins
Edward O. Wilson...has laid and elegant and ingratiating literary style over a fundament of science to produce a book that will enlighten the uninformed, correct the misinformed and serve as a beacon of lucidity in the wilderness...Wilson takes us by the hand and leads us through the wilderness of diversity--explaining along the way how species evolve, adapt, specialize, colonize, hybridize, recreate new versions of themselves, radiate out to new locations, become new things in often symbiotic combination with other new things, then transmogrify themselves into something else and move on again to fill other niches, other combinations--a mad, wonderful saraband of complexity and cohabitation that Wilson conducts with eloquence, clarity, and wit.
Boston Globe - Charles A. Radin
[Wilson's] passion for the beauty and mystery of nature, coupled with his adherence to scientific method and his unsurpassed professional standing, give the work the possibility of being the most important environmental book since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Nature - Stephen Jay Gould
We need prophets to shake the souls and grab the attention of those who have eyes but see not. The Diversity of Life is a deft and thoroughly successful mixture of information and prophecy.
London Review of Books - Steve Jones
Edward Wilson reminds the jaded viewer that there really is a crisis, and that--just as in 1917--it is already almost too late to do anything about it. He gives a penetrating historical analysis of what went wrong and even has a New Economic Plan which might, just, pull us back from the brink...[This] book is a passionate defense of life's variety.
Washington Post - T.H. Watkins
Wilson's is still the best work we are ever likely to have on the tangled, ever-changing relationships that all species on the planet have with one another--and why the preservation of the same biological diversity that sparks our curiosity and enriches our spirit may also be the key to our survival.
One of the most engaging and interesting books that this reviewer has seen recently. Wilson, internationally recognized as one of the leading experts in this field, leads the reader through the often difficult subject of biodiversity.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author calls for collective initiatives to confront the deterioration of biodiversity. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Harvard entomologist Wilson has written a clear, detailed, and fascinating but disturbing critical survey of global biodiversity. He examines organic history in terms of reproductive isolation, nucleotide variation (microevolution) and adaptive radiation (macroevolution). Wilson focuses on the abundance of life forms within tropical rain forests, especially pointing out that both vanishing species and their threatened natural habitats (hot spots) must be saved if we are to maintain the earth's rich and needed genetic reservoir. Identifying five natural events that have disrupted evolution and global diversity (e.g., climatic changes, meteorite strikes), Wilson maintains that the present sixth great extinction is being caused by human neglect and ignorance. This important book is highly recommended for all biologists, environmentalists, and academic libraries.-- H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, N.Y.
Library Journal
This is still the best book on biodiversity. Wilson, an eminent Harvard entomologist, details the rise of biodiversity on earth and the human threats to it. His eloquent plea to save the rich variety of plant and animal life will resonate with readers of all ages and educational backgrounds. (LJ 11/1/92) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This classic by the distinguished Harvard entomologist tells how life on earth evolved and became diverse, and now, how diversity and life are endangered by us, truly. While Wilson contributed a great deal to environmental ethics by calling for the preservation of whole ecosystems rather than individual species, his environmentalism appears too anthropocentric: "We should judge every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity." And: "Signals abound that the loss of life's diversity endangers not just the body but the spirit." This reprint of the 1992 Belknap Press publication contains a new foreword. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Stephen Jay Gould
We need prophets to shake the souls and grab the attention of those who have eyes but see not. The Diversity of Life is a deft and thoroughly successful mixture of information and prophecy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674058170
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2010
  • Series: Questions of Science Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 440
  • Sales rank: 219,007
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward O. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the world's preeminent biologists and naturalists. The author of more than twenty books, including The Creation, The Social Conquest of Earth, and Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.
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Table of Contents

Violent Nature, Resilient Life
1 Storm over the Amazon 3
2 Krakatau 16
3 The Great Extinctions 24
Biodiversity Rising
4 The Fundamental Unit 35
5 New Species 51
6 The Forces of Evolution 75
7 Adaptive Radiation 94
8 The Unexplored Biosphere 131
9 The Creation of Ecosystems 163
10 Biodiversity Reaches the Peak 183
The Human Impact
11 The Life and Death of Species 215
12 Biodiversity Threatened 243
13 Unmined Riches 281
14 Resolution 311
15 The Environmental Ethic 343
Notes 355
Glossary 391
Acknowledgments 408
Credits 411
Index 413
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 18, 2011

    Well written example of what more kids need to be reading

    This book was issued to me by a teacher at school and when i first started reading the book i thought it was going to be really boring. Now that i have finished this book i feel the complete opposite. In the beginning of this book he paints a beautiful picture about how wonderful the world is and all of its sites and places. Then he goes on to talk about how people are the cause for major problems worldwide such as loss of biodiversity and global warming. The way this book is written changes the way you look at things and gets you really thinking about your environmental footprint and how you could change it ( Since reading this book i have started recycling). Granted, this book can become dry at times because of the large amounts of facts and statistics but overall i rate this book a 4. I recommend this book to anyone who cares about the longevity of diversity or has any interest in the Issues that are threatening our world.

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  • Posted December 15, 2011


    This book doesn't even deserve half a star, for all the people who love science, good luck to you. To be honest, this was my nap time book, everytime I felt like I needed a nap, I would pick this book up, read a few pages and use it as a pillow. It was boring, and terrible. Worst book in my life. I can't fathom the past few weeks of patience I have had with this book. I used to love science and biology until I encountered this book, I mean it was well written, but it was like reading fact over fact over fact. Worst book of my life. Oh, and also my teacher said not to spoil the end... It wasn't even a story to have an ending! This book made watching grass grow look like fun. GEEZ. Enjoy. (:

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