The Future of Life

Overview

One of the world’s most important scientists, Edward O. Wilson is also an abundantly talented writer who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize. In this, his most personal and timely book to date, he assesses the precarious state of our environment, examining the mass extinctions occurring in our time and the natural treasures we are about to lose forever. Yet, rather than eschewing doomsday prophesies, he spells out a specific plan to save our world while there is still time. His vision is a hopeful one, as ...
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Overview

One of the world’s most important scientists, Edward O. Wilson is also an abundantly talented writer who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize. In this, his most personal and timely book to date, he assesses the precarious state of our environment, examining the mass extinctions occurring in our time and the natural treasures we are about to lose forever. Yet, rather than eschewing doomsday prophesies, he spells out a specific plan to save our world while there is still time. His vision is a hopeful one, as economically sound as it is environmentally necessary. Eloquent, practical and wise, this book should be read and studied by anyone concerned with the fate of the natural world.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has long been one of the most prominent scientific voices to speak out about the crisis of species extinction that has engulfed the earth in the past half century. In this eloquent and readable book, Wilson unstintingly portrays the nightmarish scenario into which we are passing but also offers constructive ideas on how it might still be averted.

Beginning with a tour of microbial ecosystems that demonstrates how few of the planet's species we have even named, much less understood, Wilson tracks the staggering toll taken on the world's ecosystems by a proliferating Homo sapiens. He touches on the planet's hotspots, from Madagascar to China: particularly rich zones of plant and animal diversity that are the most critically threatened. In Hawaii, for instance, thousands of unique species evolved in isolation over centuries, only to be rapidly decimated by human activities and the introduction of alien species with which they cannot compete.

It is a grim toll, and one that we have heard with depressing regularity in recent years. But Wilson follows this sobering litany with a chapter of concrete hopes for the planet's future, from debt-for-nature swaps to the proliferation of environmental groups. One of the book's most interesting sections resurrects the idea of biophilia, "the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike forms," which Wilson introduced several years ago. We all have deep and abiding connections with nature, and if they can be nourished (education will play a large role) and channeled into moral decisions, we still have a chance to save the planet's biodiversity from our other, baser motives.

Ever the scientific optimist, Wilson places faith in the ability of technology to get us out of the fixes into which it has put us: For example, he advocates the highly controversial genetic engineering of crops. But, intriguingly, Wilson has yielded some of the ground claimed in Consilience, where he placed science at the pinnacle of human endeavor. Here, this great scientist argues that our ability to protect what's left of the planet's biodiversity ultimately depends, more than anything, on an ethical commitment. Unless we harness what's noblest about ourselves as a species, we risk being the only ones left on a silenced, emptied, and impoverished planet. (Jonathan Cook)

From the Publisher
“Wilson, perhaps our greatest living scientist . . . offers the most powerful indictment yet of humanity as destroyer.” –San Francisco Chronicle Observer

“His book eloquently makes one thing clear: . . . we know what we do, and we have a choice.” –The New York Times Book Review

The Future of Life makes it clear once again that Wilson is one of our most gifted science writers.” –The Washington Post

“[An] elegant manifesto. . . . [A] nuanced and evocative explanation of just why biodiversity matters.” –The New Yorker

“Wilson writes with a magisterial tone. . . . The Future of Life is the work of a man with deep convictions who is also utterly reasonable.” –Bill McKibben, The Boston Globe

“A critical report card for planet Earth, an urgent manifesto on global action, an eloquent plea . . . A literate, even poetic recounting of current scientific information that is readily accessible to lay readers. A more engaging and persuasive single volume on this crucial subject is difficult to imagine.” –Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“A no-nonsense appraisal of the problem of species extinctions and a pragmatic road map for renewal. . . . The Future of Life takes the reader on a fascinating and ultimately hopeful journey.” –San José Mercury News

“Our contemporary Thoreau, Wilson elegantly and insistently makes the case that to choose biodiversity is to choose survival.” –Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Wilson knows his subject too well. It behooves the rest of us to listen.” –San Diego Union Tribune

“One of the most clear-eyed pictures of how bad things have gotten.”–Minneapolis Star-Tribune

The Future of Life offers an encouraging vision that solutions to the environmental problems facing humanity are within reach. . . . A refreshing change from the doom-and-gloom rhetoric that marked much environmentalism in the past.”–American Scientist

“A landmark new book.” –Houston Chronicle

“The biosphere’s Paul Revere defines the incalculable value and fragility of ‘the totality of life.’” –Outside

“Wilson is a member of an important but very rare species: the world-class scientist who is also a great writer.” –Nature

“A short book of breathtaking scope. . . . Wilson brings genuine authority to these weighty pronouncements.”–New York Observer

“[A] readable gem. . . . Wilson manages to avoid dark gloom while still cataloguing the damage we have wrought.” –Toronto Star

“Takes the reader on a fascinating and ultimately hopeful journey. . . . A concise primer remarkable in its breadth and clarity.”–Austin American-Statesman


From The Critics
There are a staggering number of species on Earth, and half may go extinct by century's end. Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Wilson is one of our most eloquent spokesmen for the necessity of conserving Earth's dwindling biological heritage, for reasons as much practical as sentimental and moral. Letting species disappear while hoping someday to re-create them in the test tube, he says, is tantamount to destroying great masterpieces, knowing we have copies. We must not only celebrate nature's beauty and spiritual virtues but also be prepared to argue for its value in economic terms. A hardened veteran of policy debates, Wilson knows how to make a pragmatic case for conserving biodiversity. This beautifully written book is many things: It is a bracing wake-up call about the ecological catastrophe that is looming on our horizon, an inspiring exhortation to accept our responsibility as nature's stewards and a realistic blueprint for reversing the current extinction trend—that is, saving species and ecosystems in ways that generate, rather than impede, economic growth. The future of life may be bleak, Wilson warns, but it remains in our hands to save it.
—Eric Wargo

Publishers Weekly
Legendary Harvard biologist Wilson (On Human Nature; The Ants; etc.) founded sociobiology, the controversial branch of evolutionary biology, and won the Pulitzer Prize twice. This volume, his manifesto to the public at large, is a meditation on the splendor of our biosphere and the dangers we pose to it. In graceful, expressive and vigorous prose, Wilson argues that the challenge of the new century will be "to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible." For as America consumes and the Third World tries to keep up, we lose biological diversity at an alarming rate. But the "trajectory" of species loss depends on human choice. If current levels of consumption continue, half the planet's remaining species will be gone by mid-century. Wilson argues that the "great dilemma of environmental reasoning" stems from the conflict between environmentalism and economics, between long-term and short-term values. Conservation, he writes, is necessary for our long-term health and prosperity. Loss of biodiversity translates into economic losses to agriculture, medicine and the biotech industries. But the "bottleneck" of overpopulation and overconsumption can be safely navigated: adequate resources exist, and in the end, success or failure depends upon an ethical decision. Global conservation will succeed or fail depending on the cooperation between government, science and the private sector, and on the interplay of biology, economics and diplomacy. "A civilization able to envision God and to embark on the colonization of space," Wilson concludes, "will surely find the way to save the integrity of this planet and the magnificent life it harbors." Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Start by looking at the cover: stark white letters on a solid black background. The future of life looks grim indeed. A hole cut through to the page behind seems to offer hope: it reveals a brilliant Costa Rican golden toad, a detail of a stunningly beautiful painting in the style of 17th-century Dutch flower artists. The distinguished biologist, Edward O. Wilson, invites us to think about the reality represented by both the cover and the painting. Between 1987 and 1988, the entire population of golden toads vanished. And all 60 of the other plants and animals in the painting are also endangered or extinct. Wilson explains clearly and eloquently why their loss matters and what Americans can do to reverse the destruction of living creatures and their wild habitats. His arguments and examples range from the economic (preserving a watershed is cheaper than flood control measures) and medical (another threatened amphibian, the poison dart frog, has yielded a powerful new kind of anesthetic) to the aesthetic and the quality of human experience. In a devastated environment, no one can have a really good life. An important book for any collection that deals with science, nature, the environment, and the future of our lives. KLIATT Codes: A*—Exceptional book, recommended for advanced students and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 229p. notes. index.,
— Karen Reeds
Library Journal
A plea to save our biological heritage and a plan for doing it; from Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Wilson. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson (entomology and zoology, Harvard U.) celebrates the wonder and diversity of life, warns of the dangers humans pose to it, and suggests immediate measures to protect it. Two of the seven chapters have been published separately. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Kirkus Reviews
Never one to shrink from the Big Picture, Harvard antman Wilson (Consilience, 1998, etc.) addresses the decline and fall of species but sees the potential for the survival of biodiverse life on earth if . . .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679768111
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/11/2003
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 93,458
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward O. Wilson is the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990, with Bert Hölldobler), as well as many other groundbreaking works, including Consilience, Naturalist, and Sociobiology. A recipient of many of the world’s leading prizes in science and conservation, he is currently Pellegrino University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, with his wife, Renee.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

TO THE ENDS OF EARTH

The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered. The membrane is seamless. From Everest's peak to the floor of the Mariana Trench, creatures of one kind or another inhabit virtually every square inch of the planetary surface. They obey the fundamental principle of biological geography, that wherever there is liquid water, organic molecules, and an energy source, there is life. Given the near-universality of organic materials and energy of some kind or other, water is the deciding element on planet Earth. It may be no more than a transient film on grains of sand, it may never see sunlight, it may be boiling hot or supercooled, but there will be some kind of organism living in or upon it. Even if nothing alive is visible to the naked eye, single cells of microorganisms will be growing and reproducing there, or at least dormant and awaiting the arrival of liquid water to kick them back into activity.

An extreme example is the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, whose soils are the coldest, driest, and most nutritionally deficient in the world. On first inspection the habitat seems as sterile as a cabinet of autoclaved glassware. In 1903, Robert F. Scott, the first to explore the region, wrote, "We have seen no living thing, not even a moss or lichen; all that we did find, far inland among the moraine heaps, was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing." On all of Earth the McMurdo Dry Valleys most resemble the rubbled plains of Mars.

But the trained eye, aided by a microscope, sees otherwise. In the parched streambeds live twenty species of photosynthetic bacteria, a comparable variety of mostly single-celled algae, and an array of microscopic invertebrate animals that feed on these primary producers. All depend on the summer flow of glacial and icefield meltwater for their annual spurts of growth. Because the paths of the streams change over time, some of the populations are stranded and forced to wait for years, perhaps centuries, for the renewed flush of meltwater. In the even more brutal conditions on bare land away from the stream channels live sparse assemblages of microbes and fungi together with rotifers, bear animalcules, mites, and springtails feeding on them. At the top of this rarefied food web are four species of nematode worms, each specialized to consume different species in the rest of the flora and fauna. With the mites and springtails they are also the largest of the animals, McMurdo's equivalent of elephants and tigers, yet all but invisible to the naked eye.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys's organisms are what scientists call extremophiles, species adapted to live at the edge of biological tolerance. Many populate the environmental ends of Earth, in places that seem uninhabitable to gigantic, fragile animals like ourselves. They constitute, to take a second example, the "gardens" of the Antarctic sea ice. The thick floes, which blanket millions of square miles of ocean water around the continent much of the year, seem forbiddingly hostile to life. But they are riddled with channels of slushy brine in which single-celled algae flourish year-round, assimilating the carbon dioxide, phosphates, and other nutrients that work up from the ocean below. The garden photosynthesis is driven by energy from sunlight penetrating the translucent matrix. As the ice melts and erodes during the polar summer, the algae sink into the water below, where they are consumed by copepods and krill. These tiny crustaceans in turn are the prey of fish whose blood is kept liquid by biochemical antifreezes.

The ultimate extremophiles are certain specialized microbes, including bacteria and their superficially similar but genetically very different relatives the archaeans. (To take a necessary digression: biologists now recognize three domains of life on the basis of DNA sequences and cell structure. They are the Bacteria, which are the conventionally recognized microbes; the Archaea, the other microbes; and the Eukarya, which include the single-celled protists or "protozoans," the fungi, and all of the animals, including us. Bacteria and archaeans are more primitive than other organisms in cell structure: they lack membranes around their nuclei as well as organelles such as chloroplasts and mitochondria.) Some specialized species of bacteria and archaeans live in the walls of volcanic hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, where they multiply in water close to or above the boiling point. A bacterium found there, Pyrolobus fumarii, is the reigning world champion among the hyperthermophiles, or lovers of extreme heat. It can reproduce at 235°F, does best at 221°F, and stops growing when the temperature drops to a chilly 194°F. This extraordinary feat has prompted microbiologists to inquire whether even more advanced, ultrathermophiles exist, occupying geothermal waters at 400°F or even higher. Watery environments with temperatures that hot exist. The submarine spumes close to the Pyrolobus fumarii bacterial colonies reach 660°F. The absolute upper limit of life as a whole, bacteria and archaeans included, is thought to be about 300°F, at which point organisms cannot sustain the integrity of DNA and the proteins on which known forms of life depend. But until the search for ultrathermophiles, as opposed to mere hyperthermophiles, is exhausted, no one can say for certain that these intrinsic limits actually exist.

During more than three billion years of evolution, the bacteria and archaeans have pushed the boundaries in other dimensions of physiological adaptation. One species, an acid lover (acidophile), flourishes in the hot sulfur springs of Yellowstone National Park. At the opposite end of the pH scale, alkaliphiles occupy carbonate-laden soda lakes around the world. Halophiles are specialized for life in saturated salt lakes and salt evaporation ponds. Others, the barophiles (pressure lovers), colonize the floor of the deepest reaches of the ocean. In 1996, Japanese scientists used a small unmanned submersible to retrieve bottom mud from the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, which at 35,750 feet is the lowest point of the world's oceans. In the samples they discovered hundreds of species of bacteria, archaeans, and fungi. Transferred to the laboratory, some of the bacteria were able to grow at the pressure found in the Challenger Deep, which is a thousand times greater than that near the ocean surface.

The outer reach of physiological resilience of any kind may have been attained by Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium that can live through radiation so intense the glass of a Pyrex beaker holding them is cooked to a discolored and fragile state. A human being exposed to 1000 rads of radiation energy, a dose delivered in the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dies within one or two weeks. At 1,000 times this amount, 1 million rads, the growth of the Deinococcus is slowed, but all the bacteria still survive. At 1.75 million rads, 37 percent make it through, and even at 3 million rads a very small number still endure. The secret of this superbug is its extraordinary ability to repair broken DNA. All organisms have an enzyme that can replace chromosome parts that have been shorn off, whether by radiation, chemical insult, or accident. The more conventional bacterium Escherichia coli, a dominant inhabitant of the human gut, can repair two or three breaks at one time. The superbug can manage five hundred breaks. The special molecular techniques it uses remain unknown.

Deinococcus radiodurans and its close relatives are not just extremophiles but ultimate generalists and world travelers, having been found, for example, in llama feces, Antarctic rocks, the tissue of Atlantic haddock, and a can of ground pork and beef irradiated by scientists in Oregon. They join a select group, also including cyanobacteria of the genus Chroococcidiopsis, that thrive where very few other organisms venture. They are Earth's outcast nomads, looking for life in all the worst places.

By virtue of their marginality, the superbugs are also candidates for space travel. Microbiologists have begun to ask whether the hardiest among them might drift away from Earth, propelled by stratospheric winds into the void, eventually to settle alive on Mars. Conversely, indigenous microbes from Mars (or beyond) might have colonized Earth. Such is the theory of the origin of life called panspermia, once ridiculed but now an undeniable possibility.

The superbugs have also given a new shot of hope to exobiologists, scientists who look for evidences of life on other worlds. Another stimulus is the newly revealed existence of SLIMEs (subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems), unique assemblages of bacteria and fungi that occupy pores in the interlocking mineral grains of igneous rock beneath Earth's surface. Thriving to a depth of up to two miles or more, they obtain their energy from inorganic chemicals. Because they do not require organic particles that filter down from conventional plants and animals whose ultimate energy is from sunlight, the SLIMEs are wholly independent of life on the surface. Consequently, even if all of life as we know it were somehow extinguished, these microscopic troglodytes would carry on. Given enough time, a billion years perhaps, they would likely evolve new forms able to colonize the surface and resynthesize the precatastrophe world run by photosynthesis.

The major significance of the SLIMEs for exobiology is the heightened possibility they suggest of life on other planets and Mars in particular. SLIMEs, or their extraterrestrial equivalent, might live deep within the red planet. During its early, aqueous period Mars had rivers, lakes, and perhaps time to evolve its own surface organisms. According to one recent estimate, there was enough water to cover the entire Martian surface to a depth of five hundred meters. Some, perhaps most, of the water may still exist in permafrost, surface ice covered by the dust we now see from our landers--or, far below the surface, in liquid form. How far below? Physicists believe there is enough heat inside Mars to liquefy water. It comes from a combination of decaying radioactive minerals, some gravitational heat remaining from the original assembly of the planet out of smaller cosmic fragments, and gravitational energy from the sinking of heavier elements and rise of lighter ones. A recent model of the combined effects suggests that the temperature of Mars increases with depth in the upper crustal layers at a rate of 6°F per mile. As a consequence, water could be liquid at eighteen miles beneath the surface. But some water may well up occasionally from the aquifers. In 2000, high-resolution scans by an orbiting satellite revealed the presence of gullies that may have been cut by running streams in the last few centuries or even decades. If Martian life did arise on the planet, or arrived in space particles from Earth, it must include extremophiles, some of which are (or were) ecologically independent single-celled organisms able to persist in or beneath the permafrost.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

List of Endangered and Extinct Species and Races
Prologue: A Letter to Thoreau

Chapter One: TO THE ENDS OF EARTH
Chapter Two: THE BOTTLENECK
Chapter Three: NATURE’S LAST STAND
Chapter Four: THE PLANETARY KILLER
Chapter Five: HOW MUCH IS THE BIOSPHERE WORTH?
Chapter Six: FOR THE LOVE OF LIFE
Chapter Seven: THE SOLUTION

Notes
Glossary
Acknowledgments
Index

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

TO THE ENDS OF EARTH

The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered. The membrane is seamless. From Everest's peak to the floor of the Mariana Trench, creatures of one kind or another inhabit virtually every square inch of the planetary surface. They obey the fundamental principle of biological geography, that wherever there is liquid water, organic molecules, and an energy source, there is life. Given the near-universality of organic materials and energy of some kind or other, water is the deciding element on planet Earth. It may be no more than a transient film on grains of sand, it may never see sunlight, it may be boiling hot or supercooled, but there will be some kind of organism living in or upon it. Even if nothing alive is visible to the naked eye, single cells of microorganisms will be growing and reproducing there, or at least dormant and awaiting the arrival of liquid water to kick them back into activity.

An extreme example is the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, whose soils are the coldest, driest, and most nutritionally deficient in the world. On first inspection the habitat seems as sterile as a cabinet of autoclaved glassware. In 1903, Robert F. Scott, the first to explore the region, wrote, "We have seen no living thing, not even a moss or lichen; all that we did find, far inland among the moraine heaps, was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing." On all of Earth the McMurdo DryValleys most resemble the rubbled plains of Mars.

But the trained eye, aided by a microscope, sees otherwise. In the parched streambeds live twenty species of photosynthetic bacteria, a comparable variety of mostly single-celled algae, and an array of microscopic invertebrate animals that feed on these primary producers. All depend on the summer flow of glacial and icefield meltwater for their annual spurts of growth. Because the paths of the streams change over time, some of the populations are stranded and forced to wait for years, perhaps centuries, for the renewed flush of meltwater. In the even more brutal conditions on bare land away from the stream channels live sparse assemblages of microbes and fungi together with rotifers, bear animalcules, mites, and springtails feeding on them. At the top of this rarefied food web are four species of nematode worms, each specialized to consume different species in the rest of the flora and fauna. With the mites and springtails they are also the largest of the animals, McMurdo's equivalent of elephants and tigers, yet all but invisible to the naked eye.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys's organisms are what scientists call extremophiles, species adapted to live at the edge of biological tolerance. Many populate the environmental ends of Earth, in places that seem uninhabitable to gigantic, fragile animals like ourselves. They constitute, to take a second example, the "gardens" of the Antarctic sea ice. The thick floes, which blanket millions of square miles of ocean water around the continent much of the year, seem forbiddingly hostile to life. But they are riddled with channels of slushy brine in which single-celled algae flourish year-round, assimilating the carbon dioxide, phosphates, and other nutrients that work up from the ocean below. The garden photosynthesis is driven by energy from sunlight penetrating the translucent matrix. As the ice melts and erodes during the polar summer, the algae sink into the water below, where they are consumed by copepods and krill. These tiny crustaceans in turn are the prey of fish whose blood is kept liquid by biochemical antifreezes.

The ultimate extremophiles are certain specialized microbes, including bacteria and their superficially similar but genetically very different relatives the archaeans. (To take a necessary digression: biologists now recognize three domains of life on the basis of DNA sequences and cell structure. They are the Bacteria, which are the conventionally recognized microbes; the Archaea, the other microbes; and the Eukarya, which include the single-celled protists or "protozoans," the fungi, and all of the animals, including us. Bacteria and archaeans are more primitive than other organisms in cell structure: they lack membranes around their nuclei as well as organelles such as chloroplasts and mitochondria.) Some specialized species of bacteria and archaeans live in the walls of volcanic hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, where they multiply in water close to or above the boiling point. A bacterium found there, Pyrolobus fumarii, is the reigning world champion among the hyperthermophiles, or lovers of extreme heat. It can reproduce at 235°F, does best at 221°F, and stops growing when the temperature drops to a chilly 194°F. This extraordinary feat has prompted microbiologists to inquire whether even more advanced, ultrathermophiles exist, occupying geothermal waters at 400°F or even higher. Watery environments with temperatures that hot exist. The submarine spumes close to the Pyrolobus fumarii bacterial colonies reach 660°F. The absolute upper limit of life as a whole, bacteria and archaeans included, is thought to be about 300°F, at which point organisms cannot sustain the integrity of DNA and the proteins on which known forms of life depend. But until the search for ultrathermophiles, as opposed to mere hyperthermophiles, is exhausted, no one can say for certain that these intrinsic limits actually exist.

During more than three billion years of evolution, the bacteria and archaeans have pushed the boundaries in other dimensions of physiological adaptation. One species, an acid lover (acidophile), flourishes in the hot sulfur springs of Yellowstone National Park. At the opposite end of the pH scale, alkaliphiles occupy carbonate-laden soda lakes around the world. Halophiles are specialized for life in saturated salt lakes and salt evaporation ponds. Others, the barophiles (pressure lovers), colonize the floor of the deepest reaches of the ocean. In 1996, Japanese scientists used a small unmanned submersible to retrieve bottom mud from the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, which at 35,750 feet is the lowest point of the world's oceans. In the samples they discovered hundreds of species of bacteria, archaeans, and fungi. Transferred to the laboratory, some of the bacteria were able to grow at the pressure found in the Challenger Deep, which is a thousand times greater than that near the ocean surface.

The outer reach of physiological resilience of any kind may have been attained by Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium that can live through radiation so intense the glass of a Pyrex beaker holding them is cooked to a discolored and fragile state. A human being exposed to 1000 rads of radiation energy, a dose delivered in the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dies within one or two weeks. At 1,000 times this amount, 1 million rads, the growth of the Deinococcus is slowed, but all the bacteria still survive. At 1.75 million rads, 37 percent make it through, and even at 3 million rads a very small number still endure. The secret of this superbug is its extraordinary ability to repair broken DNA. All organisms have an enzyme that can replace chromosome parts that have been shorn off, whether by radiation, chemical insult, or accident. The more conventional bacterium Escherichia coli, a dominant inhabitant of the human gut, can repair two or three breaks at one time. The superbug can manage five hundred breaks. The special molecular techniques it uses remain unknown.

Deinococcus radiodurans and its close relatives are not just extremophiles but ultimate generalists and world travelers, having been found, for example, in llama feces, Antarctic rocks, the tissue of Atlantic haddock, and a can of ground pork and beef irradiated by scientists in Oregon. They join a select group, also including cyanobacteria of the genus Chroococcidiopsis, that thrive where very few other organisms venture. They are Earth's outcast nomads, looking for life in all the worst places.

By virtue of their marginality, the superbugs are also candidates for space travel. Microbiologists have begun to ask whether the hardiest among them might drift away from Earth, propelled by stratospheric winds into the void, eventually to settle alive on Mars. Conversely, indigenous microbes from Mars (or beyond) might have colonized Earth. Such is the theory of the origin of life called panspermia, once ridiculed but now an undeniable possibility.

The superbugs have also given a new shot of hope to exobiologists, scientists who look for evidences of life on other worlds. Another stimulus is the newly revealed existence of SLIMEs (subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems), unique assemblages of bacteria and fungi that occupy pores in the interlocking mineral grains of igneous rock beneath Earth's surface. Thriving to a depth of up to two miles or more, they obtain their energy from inorganic chemicals. Because they do not require organic particles that filter down from conventional plants and animals whose ultimate energy is from sunlight, the SLIMEs are wholly independent of life on the surface. Consequently, even if all of life as we know it were somehow extinguished, these microscopic troglodytes would carry on. Given enough time, a billion years perhaps, they would likely evolve new forms able to colonize the surface and resynthesize the precatastrophe world run by photosynthesis.

The major significance of the SLIMEs for exobiology is the heightened possibility they suggest of life on other planets and Mars in particular. SLIMEs, or their extraterrestrial equivalent, might live deep within the red planet. During its early, aqueous period Mars had rivers, lakes, and perhaps time to evolve its own surface organisms. According to one recent estimate, there was enough water to cover the entire Martian surface to a depth of five hundred meters. Some, perhaps most, of the water may still exist in permafrost, surface ice covered by the dust we now see from our landers--or, far below the surface, in liquid form. How far below? Physicists believe there is enough heat inside Mars to liquefy water. It comes from a combination of decaying radioactive minerals, some gravitational heat remaining from the original assembly of the planet out of smaller cosmic fragments, and gravitational energy from the sinking of heavier elements and rise of lighter ones. A recent model of the combined effects suggests that the temperature of Mars increases with depth in the upper crustal layers at a rate of 6°F per mile. As a consequence, water could be liquid at eighteen miles beneath the surface. But some water may well up occasionally from the aquifers. In 2000, high-resolution scans by an orbiting satellite revealed the presence of gullies that may have been cut by running streams in the last few centuries or even decades. If Martian life did arise on the planet, or arrived in space particles from Earth, it must include extremophiles, some of which are (or were) ecologically independent single-celled organisms able to persist in or beneath the permafrost.
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Interviews & Essays

An Exclusive Interview with Edward O. Wilson

Science & Nature Editor Laura Wood spoke with Edward O. Wilson on the telephone.

Barnes & Noble.com: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me.

Edward O. Wilson: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my book.

B&N.com: What is the concern about the future of life?

EOW: My concern, and that of all biologists working on biological diversity, is the accelerating loss of natural ecosystems and the species they contain. If environmental trends of the present continue unabated -- and we prayerfully hope that will not be the case -- then as many as half the species of plants and animals will be gone by the end of the century. So if I can add something more, "So what?"

B&N.com: You mean, why do we care?

EOW: Yes, why do we care?

B&N.com: Right, don't people say extinctions happen all the time?

EOW: They do. That's a very good question. Don't extinctions happen all the time? They do, but before the coming of humanity they were at the rate of very roughly one species dying out per million per year. Human activity -- mainly through destruction of habitat, pollution, introduction of alien species, and overharvesting -- have driven the extinction rate up to approximately one thousand per million at times. So like a spendthrift householder eating into the capital, the world's biosphere is headed for bankruptcy. If I might go back to the question Why should we care? I will get slightly more long-winded.

B&N.com: Why should we care? deserves a long-winded response.

EOW: My answer would be three compelling reasons. First, the opportunity costs -- to use an economist's term -- of losing species: Each species is a masterpiece of evolution and has unique genetic information that fits it to particular niches in the environment -- anatomy, physiology, behavior -- and that information is scientifically priceless. Furthermore, the actual products yet to be discovered, especially pharmaceuticals, new crops, is also without price. The second reason for caring is that diversity of living forms increases the stability of the environment. It has been shown recently that with the increase in the number of plants, for example, the ecosystems they contain recycle more energy, produce more, and are more resistant to environmental catastrophes, such as floods. The third reason that I spell out in the book is aesthetic and spiritual. Almost everyone in the world would agree that destroying a large part of the rest of life -- creation, as theologians would call it -- is not a good thing. So where do we go from here?

B&N.com: Your last statement leads into another issue that I've been thinking about and which you address in your book. Environmental issues are often couched in terms of a left-right political polarization, and you posit that we need to get away from that and also that the stereotype is not necessarily true. I'm from Oklahoma. Oklahoma is very Republican. My father is a Republican. We went to Colorado -- ever since I was tiny -- three or four times a year. My father loves nature and certainly shares the aesthetic experience you describe. I think that that's something we need to recognize more instead of devolving into an "us versus them" posture.

EOW: That's exactly right. I don't think there's any difference between Republicans and Democrats in the love of and need for nature. Recent research has even shown that our need is a deep psychological one, and hospitals are designing the postsurgical ward to allow patients to view natural and seminatural environments from their rooms. This has proved to increase the incidence and speed of recovery after surgery. There are a number of similar remarkable effects that have been discovered after exposure to nature and natural environments. But just to expand on the point you made, one of the purposes of writing this book was to try to help depoliticize environmental issues, especially in respect to conservation. It is a sad circumstance that somehow conservatives have come to be viewed -- and many of them view themselves -- as opposed to conservation action, while liberals are viewed as the champions of conservation action. This is a false dichotomy, because activists for the environment are just as prominent among conservatives, including many business leaders, for example, as among people who identify themselves as liberal. We have in common a desire and a need to preserve the natural environment in this country and the planet as a whole.

B&N.com: I couldn't agree with you more. What is important is getting people on board and accomplishing what we can right now. I wanted to highlight the points you made in the book about nongovernmental organizations, in particular the Nature Conservancy. In Oklahoma, the Nature Conservancy bought a cattle ranch and turned it into a tall-grass prairie reserve complete with buffalo. So this group uses capitalism and private property -- often bashed as institutions that are inherently antienvironmental -- in an environmentally constructive way. Since private property is private, there's no law to stop you from buying a ranch and putting buffalo on it and turning it into a nature preserve. And many of the other NGOs are working with world governments, and economic institutions are to be helpful to the environment.

EOW: The conservation scene, especially on a global basis, has changed completely in the last ten years. The reason that it's done so, as you've just indicated, is the advances made by some of the major conservation organizations. The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund are among the major institutions that are innovating in ways of measuring the problem worldwide and finding solutions on a large-scale basis to solve it. What I wanted to emphasize in the book is that though the picture is grim, it is now changed in terms of the number of environmental triumphs and new practices. One of the reasons it is changing is that now we have a grip on the problem. Ecologists and economists increasingly know where the worst damage is being done in the world, where the most species are being lost. They are finding ways to solve that problem. They are getting a price tag on it and a timeline. This changes the picture very substantially, because we have long since passed the time when doomsaying alone will accomplish very much. Now people in responsible positions understand there is a problem. They want to know: how big it is; where it is; what the consequences are; how it can be fixed; how much it is going to cost; how long it is going to take; and what are the consequences of not fixing it and what are the consequences of fixing it. In a nutshell that is what has begun. I think we're in the early stages of turning around the global conservation of biodiversity problem.

B&N.com: That's very important. It's easy to feel defeated and overwhelmed. It's true that people are well informed that there's a problem and then might start feeling overwhelmed because it seems so out of control. It's hopeful that there is already being developed a much more sophisticated, targeted, and doable effort.

EOW: Well, that's the American way -- not to be fatalistic and not to give in to a sense of hopelessness. America has led the world in part because it regards all problems as solvable. This is a solvable problem. The great challenge of the 21st century is getting the rest of the world up to a decent standard of living while carrying through as much of the rest of life on earth with us as possible. It's as simple as that. And we can do it. We know how to do it now. We have the first parts of the solution, anyway, and we should get on with it. It's not going to cost that much. In the book I show estimates in the range of $30 billion for the entire planet.

B&N.com: That's really not that much when you look at the scale of governmental budgets, and we are talking about the entire international community.

EOW: And we are talking about saving a large part of the diversity of life on earth. So it's doable -- that's the point. It can be done. I think we now should reconsider how we approach the whole issue of conservation, both in this country and abroad, and think of the practical and spiritual reasons we can all agree on. It then becomes a problem of how best to accomplish the goal. That we have not had before.

B&N.com: That gets us to the moral and spiritual issues. People can be motivated by practical issues, but I think that moral imperatives and spiritual feelings -- the aesthetic sense you mentioned before -- are incredibly powerful motivating forces. There is a plan that we can do and now we need the will to achieve it. So do you see an increase of this moral sense, spiritual sense related to the environment?

EOW: I do, and I'm encouraged. Religious leaders still have a long way to go, grappling with the problem themselves and formulating moral precepts about it, but the interest among religious thinkers and leaders in the last few years has grown rapidly enough to suggest that it is about to have a major effect. Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish groups, among others, are beginning to pick up on conservation as a major ethical issue. Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church with some 250 million members, has declared the destruction of natural environments and extinction of species by human activity a sin. I rather like that.

B&N.com: So it seems to me that one of the main things you want to leave readers with is a sense of optimism and hope. Is that true?

EOW: That is true. It's a dire problem that needs to be more widely understood. There are serious consequences for the future in every realm of life and the natural environment. It is, on the other hand, a problem that scientists, economists, and others are getting a grip on, getting to understand, and taking the measure of.

B&N.com: Human beings do want to be inspired. People love doing the "right" thing. And you can see that happening with the environment, and that's where we need to get -- a broad-based general consensus.

EOW: It's exactly that quality I'd like to see enter the mainstream of American life. It comes down, too, to the need for people to understand that we have to have a long-term and global view. Global welfare and security in the 21st century is local security writ large. We no longer can be insular in anything, and so we cannot be insular in respect to the environment.

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Reading Group Guide

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“An elegant manifesto. . . . A nuanced and evocative explanation of just why biodiversity matters.” –The New Yorker

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Edward O. Wilson’s The Future of Life, an impassioned call for the protection of the earth’s biodiversity by one of our greatest living scientists.

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2005

    Well Written and Relevant

    The Future of Life by Edward Wilson is an informative and well-balanced novel with a powerful message about the impact human beings have had and are continuing to have upon Earth. The book is great for those with a love of the environment, and even better for people who do not understand the value of, or place any importance on the natural world. Wilson describes the bottleneck the human race is facing as caused by an ever-expanding population and ever-dwindling natural resources. He maintains that corrective action must be taken to curb the mass extinctions currently taking place as a direct result of humanity passing through this bottleneck. However, Wilson does not stop are merely stating the problem. He spends the last chapter of the book, appropriately titled `The Solution¿ describing the path and policies that humans must adopt to reverse the trend of destructive exploitation of the natural world. Wilson takes care to explain both sides of the issue, and doesn¿t use the book as a platform for blaming capitalism for destroying the environment. In the first chapter, `The Bottleneck¿, he writes about the stereotypical `Economist¿ and ¿Environmentalist¿ viewpoints and states that both are overly dramatized. Throughout the book, he presents arguments that balance the need of aiding the economy and the environment, as seen by the statement: ¿No one can be expected to leave a reserve inviolate if it is his source of food and fuel. A patch of forest fenced off and patrolled is a cruel insult to hungry people shut out, and unworkable in the long run¿ (168). He then explains methods for making conservation profitable for those who must practice it directly. The chapter ¿How Much is the Biosphere Worth¿ addresses this issue well. Wilson makes it clear that a forest is worth far more than the lumber it is harvested for, as with the example of the Catskill Watershed that provides water purification for New York City, a service worth billions of dollars. The final chapter, ¿The Solution¿, contains a thorough description of past, present, and future methods for conserving the biodiversity of the planet. Wilson discusses the growing influence of nongovernmental organizations like Conservation International and their efforts to protect greater stretches of wilderness. He then lists eleven key elements that humanity needs to implement to save the biosphere, from ¿complete the mapping of the world¿s biological diversity¿ to ¿use biodiversity more effectively to benefit the world economy as a whole¿(162-3). Taken together, these elements are certainly a tall order, but they do a thorough job of addressing the key issues raised by Wilson. On a technical note, the novel is not always easy to read. Many passages are written in the passive voice, making comprehension of some of Wilson¿s ideas more difficult than they might be otherwise. Also, some of his claims on global warming and extinction are stated as known fact without a mention of a source: ¿ More frequent heat waves, violent storms, forest fires, droughts, and flooding damage are the spawn of the historically unprecedented pace of climate change¿ (68). It is hard to determine the source of other data that is pulled from studies and academic papers but not directly cited in the text because the facts are not footnoted, and are simply listed by page number in a notes appendix in the back of the book. Aside from these few weak points, the book is strong, and the majority of his arguments are backed up and illustrated well. A good example is the discussion of deforestation as taken from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The data cited says that the ¿worldwide rate of clear cutting [of tropical rainforests] has been close to 1% per year. Where all tropical rainforests occupy approximately equal to the lower forty-eight United States, they are being removed at the rate of half the state of Florida every year¿ (59-60). Wilson¿s

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2005

    The Future of Life doesn't look so good...but it doesn't look so bad either...

    Edward O. Wilson is no doubt a scientist before a writer. The first sentence of The Future of Life reads, ¿The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientist and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered.¿ I believe that Eddy uses such intelligent and complex diction because he wants to come across as intelligent and complex. Sadly, his goal is reached but the use of this elevated diction only acts to create a barrier between the reader and himself. Even though Wilson is an educated scientist, he could have restated this opening sentence in a much simpler manner that would have been received much easier by the reader. ¿Life is so complex and full of beings that many species still remained undiscovered.¿ If Wilson were to write in this way, perhaps I would have taking a better liking to him and consequently have listened with more receptivity. Looking beyond his diction however, Eddy does a fairly good job in the first chapter of filling the reader¿s mind with all sorts of unthinkable species and forms of life. He even explains a little about extremophiles, species adapted to live at the edge of biological tolerance. At the end of chapter one, Wilson uses the technique of ethos, an appeal to our emotions. He goes on to explain how the majority of cells in our body belong to bacterial and other microorganismic species, and how this is the ¿biospheric membrane that covers Earth, and you and me.¿ The last sentence of this chapter attempts to play our emotions by writing how tragic it is to lose a major part of this biospheric membrane before we can learn what it is and how it can be savored and used. If I didn¿t know better, I¿d say that poor old Eddy is attempting to get us to do something about our lively biosphere before it¿s too late. Now why wouldn¿t he just come out and tell us this instead of using a cheap trick to win us over? In chapter two, Wilson strikes gold when he writes about the economist and environmentalist. He writes, ¿Perhaps the time has come to cease calling it `the environmentalist¿ view, as thought it were a lobbying effort outside the mainstream of human activity, and to start calling it the real-world view.¿ When I read this sentence, I immediately thought to myself: this guy is good. Maybe we should stop categorizing things as ¿environmentalist¿ because all it does is make the idea of environmentalism seem like a radical, out-there kind of view instead of the logical, popular view that it should be. Even though Wilson hits some good points in chapter two, at the end of the chapter his ships crashes into a couple of rocks before safely landing. He writes, ¿It [environmentalism] is the guiding principle of those devoted to the health of the planet. But it is not yet a general worldview, evidently not compelling enough to distract many people away from the primal diversions of sport, politics, religion, and private wealth.¿ Here Wilson is trying to get across to the reader the importance that environmentalism does not but should play in our world. The error in this sentence however comes when he chooses to use the word ¿distract¿. I¿m not sure if he knew what he was implying when he used this word, but I do know that if he did not specifically choose this word, then he made a major mistake. If Wilson was trying to emphasize the importance of environmentalism, why would he write that it ¿distracts¿ us? Granted he does write that it is ¿evidently not compelling enough to distract many people¿, but why would he choose the word distract? It would have been much more effective and logical for him to write, ¿¿not compelling enough to interest people instead of their usual interests of¿¿ The other rock that Wilson¿s ship scrapes is found in two unnecessary words that he chose to include: I believe. It¿s quite

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2010

    A Very Sophisticated and Compelling Read

    I had the option of reading this book for extra credit at school. Most of the other books were uninteresting and they dragged on and on. However, this book was a great read and everyone should invest their time to read this!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2003

    A must read - even students like it!

    I teach college environmental science courses & I have my students read The Future of Life. The response I get from them is truly amazing - they actually liked having to read this book! For those not familiar with Wilson's other works (Biophilia, The Diversity of Life, etc.), his writing style is unlike anything I've encountered in scientific literature. It is actually pleasurable to read. This is often surprising to my students and keeps them reading. On top of that, his writing is relatively balanced - this is another reason my students like it so much. They expect to get a sermon, but instead are provided with perspectives from both sides of this issue. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in gaining a better understanding of biodiversity issues in our world today.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2012

    This book is a beautifully written account of the circumstances

    This book is a beautifully written account of the circumstances currently affecting life on earth. The author, a scientist, writes in a way that allows a lay person to understand, yet at the same time challenges the reader to improve their conceptual ability to comprehend the complexities of life and its inter-relation throughout the biosphere, especially the issues we are facing as to our very existence. Wilson also gives us what is likely the most realistic plan for addressing serious environmental issues. This is an amazing book and I highly recommend that it should be one of those that you pass around immediately after finishing it. The book is literary art, acutely educational, while simultaneously providing optimistic solutions for the future of life on this planet. A paraphrased excerpt: In order for everyone on earth to have an American lifestyle we would need 4 planet earths to provide those resources.

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Great book

    the whole time i was reading this book i could picture the author/biologist talking to be about his life's studies. I read a good portion of this book while sitting on the back patio and couldn't put it down. I woke up early a couple days just to read this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2005

    This book was truley mind-numbing!

    I was bewildered at the fact that it was mandatory to read The Future of Life as an Oakland University rhetoric student. The first thing that came to my mind was, ¿This is an English class, why do I have to read a science book? The concepts George O. Wilson was trying to express were biodiversity, the negative effects humans have on the environment, and endangered species. After considering those concepts one might think I would be thrilled to read it, yet that is not the case. The current focus of my rhetoric class is the environment I am ashamed that they recommended this book for the basis of that focus. I believe that the scientist Edward O. Wilson would make a great textbook-writer. Being a critical reader, I try to utilize what I am reading to draw my own conclusions. While reading this book, I could not even remember the point of the previous line I just read, let alone make any conclusions. I remember actually falling asleep at least five times while reading this book. Am I ashamed to admit that? No. I received some of the best sleep in my life turning the pages of this ¿textbook¿. The reason why I consider it a textbook instead of a novel is because it is the type of book that everyone should read, but doesn¿t necessarily want to. For example, Wilson was very informative on his information of how the world is considered to be a ¿bottleneck¿. In that chapter, he emphasizes how big a factor population is. I appreciate the information however, the format in which he delivered it reminded me of a textbook. Not to mention the novel had a glossary, notes, and an index. All it needed were critical thinking questions, and bolded vocabulary words, and I would have really been convinced that it was a textbook. Giving the book the benefit of the doubt, I believe that you should be a scientist in order to appreciate this book. This book would probably hit close to home for scientist since they probably know all of the information already. Unfortunately, it is entitled The Future of Life, so that means that everyone ¿living life¿ should see it as being necessary. This means that it should not just be written for the scientist and science-lovers, but by every human being. I believe that it is important for any book to be well-organized and cover the basics in writing. I took more time red-marking the book than really getting into the information. There were so many logical fallacies and grammatical errors. The first I can point out is on page 25, where the author started the sentence out with ¿But¿, and on page 122, he starts his sentence out with ¿And¿. You might think that jumping from page 25 to 122 means that I can¿t effectively substantiate his errors. However, that just shows that he had 97 pages to correct his mistakes, only he didn¿t do it. Included with all of the ¿buts¿ and ¿ands¿ were a plethora of run-on sentences. It is difficult to appreciate literature, no matter the text, when it doesn¿t follow basic grammatical rules. There were also many logical fallacies. Instead of pulling out my hair, and spotting them throughout the book, I just sampled from one chapter. In the chapter How Much is the Biosphere Worth, I found plenty. The first is false dilemma. On page 106 it read, ¿To supplant natural ecosystems entirely, even mostly, is an economic and even physical impossibility, and we would eventually die if we tried.¿ Wow, are we really going to die? There was also one on that same page where he starts his sentence out with ¿Most environmental scientist believe that¿ This is misrepresenting a group. Who exactly are these scientists, and am I suppose to believe you just because you refer to them? It is very hard to be convinced of an argument when logical fallacies are present, and this book didn¿t do a great job at leaving them out. The book also lacked organization and effective style. It was hard for me to follow a lot of the information because of the way that is was organized. In one chapter he jumped to

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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