Aspen Ideas Fest: Life, the Universe, and (Almost) Everything

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by: Joel Makower

How to do justice to the Aspen Ideas Festival, from which this post is being written? How to summarize, or even mention, the nearly 150 sessions — plenaries, tutorials, conversations, screenings, and demonstrations — taking place over the past seven days? Or the more than 180 speakers and moderators? Not to mention the serendipitous schmoozing.

It's a daunting, likely impossible challenge — akin to bringing home a single shell plucked from the sand as a means of describing your weeklong adventure at the beach.

Last year, I described the event as "TED meets Davos at 8,000 feet." That doesn't do it justice, but it's still the best I can muster.

So I'll forego attempts at "covering" something that is inherently uncoverable in favor of plucking a metaphorical shell out of the sand.

But which shell? Alan Greenspan talking about our energy future? Sydney Pollack and Nora Ephron discussing Frank Gehry? Ray Anderson (Interface Inc.) and Lorraine Bolsinger (General Electric) talking about corporate environmental leadership? Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer talking about the judiciary? Janine Benyus talking about biomimicry? Norman Lear and Ben Bradlee talking about the future of news and entertainment? Bill Clinton or Karl Rove "in conversation"?

Naw. I'll go with E.O. Wilson, talking about "Saving the Creation."

Biologist Edward Wilson, for the uninitiated, is one of America's most prominent scientists and the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, "On Human Nature" and "The Ants," as well as other celebrated works. Biomimicry guru Janine Benyus, with whom I had the pleasure of sitting during Wilson's talk, calls him the "Darwin of our era."

This wasn't Wilson's first appearance at the Ideas Fest. The day before, he participated in a smaller "tutorial" with two renowned colleagues: Tom Lovejoy and M.A. Sanjayan. That session, simply titled "Life on Earth," took a deep dive into our planet's loss of biodiversity, a session that was as daunting as it was depressing; several members of the audience appeared close to tears at the state of our vanishing species and the rate at which biodiversity, which took about 3.5 billion years to evolve, is being eroded by human activity. "Science and technology, combined with a lack of self-understanding and Paleolithic obstinacy — have brought us where we are today," is how Wilson puts it.

Wilson covered some of the same ground on Saturday, but what stood out was how much he — and we — don't know about our planet.

Simple things, like the number of species that exist. Scientists have identified as many as 1.8 million species to date, but they acknowledge that the actual number could ultimately be as many as 10 million — or even 100 million. "We simply do not know," says Wilson.

What we do know is astonishing. One example: the nematode roundworm is the most abundant animal on earth. Indeed, 80% of all living creatures are nematodes. If we were to somehow strip away all of the planet's land mass, but leave the nematodes, their abundance would allow us to still see the outline of the continents, according to Wilson.

And what we're learning is equally astonishing. Biology is opening up new technologies, and biodiversity — the abundance of species — is one principal emphasis. Thanks to rapid DNA sequencing, scientists can hack the genetic code of some species in hours instead of days. Says Wilson: "It has just begun, and we have no idea of what lies ahead."

Along with the new technologies are new techniques for engaging our citizenry — and especially our youth — about the scientific underpinnings of world in which they live. For example, a growing number of institutions are conducting "bioblitzes," a means of organizing young people (among others) to document the biodiversity in their own back yards and communities — discovering new species, in some instances.

All of which is far more than an academic exercise. One of the central problems of the century — lifting the world's poorest out of poverty — represents, in many respects, a biodiversity challenge: How do we make it worthwhile for them to be stewards to the vast array of species to which they've become accidental heirs? asks Wilson. Perhaps ironically, the poorest of the poor and the world's richest biodiversity are concentrated in the same parts of the globe.

"The solution," says Wilson, "must flow from the recognition that one depends on the other. The poor have little chance to improve themselves in a devastated environment. Conversely, the natural environment cannot survive the pressure of a land-hungry people who have nowhere else to go."

Wilson says his other big challenge is to bring together the scientific and religious communities to "set aside our differences in order to save the creation. The defense of living nature is a universal value. It doesn't promote any religious or ideological dogma, and it serves the interest of all humans."

It's a tall order, to be sure. And in the end, Wilson's quest to forge an alliance among the Darwinists and the Intelligent Designers in the name of Mother Earth may be as daunting a challenge as any. But it seems clear that scientists and clergy will have to work together on all this, if we humans are to have a prayer of a chance.

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