A Conversation With Quentin D. Wheeler, Sustainability Scientist

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QuentinWheeler-Post.jpgEver since he was seven or eight years old, Quentin D. Wheeler knew that he wanted to explore various species and help to create a living catalog of life on Earth. Well, it looks like he was born at just the right time. Over the past 250 or so years, scientists have discovered and classified about two million species. But, with technological advances, Wheeler -- and the dozens of scholars he assembled last year for a workshop on the subject -- believes we can discover and describe 10 million more in the next 50 years or less. And Wheeler, as the founding director of the International Institute for Species Exploration -- as well as a senior sustainability scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability and a professor of natural history and the environment at Arizona State University -- is leading the charge.

Here, Wheeler discusses why the long-held assumption that there were simply too many species of life on Earth to complete a comprehensive inventory is flawed; how scientists and taxonomists are discovering and describing between 15,000 and 20,000 new species every year; and why, regardless of our best efforts, tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of species will go extinct before we reach the end of the 21st century.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say that I am a taxonomist and then, to avoid being confused with a taxidermist, I elaborate that I discover and describe new species and contribute to the exploration and conservation of biodiversity. If they have not changed the topic to the weather, I often try to bring Linnaeus into the conversation who started species naming and classification in a serious, modern way in the 18th century and whose work I am trying to continue.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

My hope is that we are on the threshold of serious conversation about what we mean by sustainable biodiversity. I organized a workshop with about 50 scientists, scholars, and engineers in New York in November 2010, that I titled "Sustain What? Mission to Explore Earth's Species and Conserve Biodiversity." The first question I put to the group was, given technological advances, whether it would be possible to mount a mission to discover and describe 10 million new species in 50 years or less. The answer was an unequivocal yes. Many had long assumed that there were simply too many species in our world to make a comprehensive inventory possible, but this is not so. We now have before us the real option of knowing what kinds of plants and animals we share our planet with and where they are distributed. This would have three major implications. First, we would have an ecological baseline for the first time so that we could detect changes in biodiversity. Second, we would have evidence for the first time of the full grandeur of evolutionary history. And finally, we would lay open evolutionary adaptations for human exploitation. Life has tirelessly carried out experiments in sustainable living for billions of years and humanity need only study the outcomes in order to discover profound ideas, designs, and models for coping with our own environment in better ways.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Because most people only notice a handful of mostly large-sized species in their daily lives and those few are readily identified and called by name, most people do not appreciate just how little we know about species. Since 1758 we have named about two million species. A conservative estimate is that there are 12 million living species of plants and animals and at least a comparable number of microbial life forms. The work of discovering and describing them has only begun and discoveries we cannot yet imagine are made every day as 15,000 to 20,000 new species are named each year.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Sadly, I think that we are gradually acknowledging the implications of the biodiversity crisis. Since the rise of conservation biology in the 1970s we have allowed ourselves to believe, or perhaps wishfully think, that we could save any species threatened by habitat loss or the encroachment of human populations. Whether this was ever so is debatable, but we can now say with certainty that regardless of our best efforts that many tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of species will go extinct in the balance of the 21st century. We have the power and option of helping determine which and how many survive, but this must be based on learning what species existed to begin with.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Many people have a romantic view that the world is a kind of ecological Eden that was pristine before we screwed it up. The reality, of course, is that the biosphere is even more dynamic than the lithosphere or atmosphere and ecosystems were not always as we first found them. There is constant addition and subtraction of species, shifting of the geographic space occupied in response to climate change and glaciation, and a resiliency that is bestowed by having a great diversity of species capable of rebounding from such disturbances. This clinging to an image frozen in time must give way to an acceptance of a healthy, diverse, and dynamic biosphere that evolves, adjusts, and adapts in the face of change.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I deeply admire colleagues who can hunch over their microscopes and crank out scores of species descriptions as efficiently as Henry Ford built Model A horseless carriages. As a graduate student I spent a lot of time trying to become more disciplined, focused, and efficient in my descriptive work, but the reality is that this did not play to my strengths and inclinations. I have described more than a hundred species in my career and will continue to do so, but I cannot compete with the great taxon experts who I so respect. When opportunity knocks I am constitutionally incapable of yelling "Go away! I'm busy" and sticking to my schedule of descriptions. I am instead addicted to discovery and get a rush every time I stumble onto something that I didn't even know I was looking for. It is a different way of contributing to science, but has led me to the most important contributions that I have made and to collaborations with colleagues I never would have thought to initiate from my own narrow work. In science just as in humanity we need to embrace, celebrate, and encourage diversity. There is so much to learn and do that there is ample room for everyone and their individuated passions. My doctoral advisor, Professor Charles A. Triplehorn, recognized my aptitudes before I did and looking back he nailed it when he told me one day "Quentin, you have the gift of bullshit."

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Linnaeus, whose genius gave us modern classifications, binomials (the two-word scientific names that are the vocabulary of biodiversity), and index cards (his 18th century information science contribution to keep up with the 10,000 species that flowed into his study during his lifetime). Charles Darwin, whose theory of descent with modification gave us a scientific basis on which to interpret the origins of the patterns of similarity and differences that had been studied in nature for centuries. And Willi Hennig, a German entomologist, whose theory of phylogenetic systematics solved one of the great mysteries left unresolved by Darwin: how to reconstruct evolutionary history, or phylogeny, in a rigorously scientific way.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Define different. Much of misspent youth was in preparation for a career as a protozoologist or microbiologist -- although there, too, my interest was in taxonomy. My freshman year at Ohio State University I took an entomology class as an elective and discovered that insects were not only the most diverse group of organisms on our planet, but that doing field work gave you instant gratification because you could see them. I knew that I wanted to explore species from the time I was seven or eight years old and there were never any serious doubts about that. I have, however, dabbled at making 18th-century furniture and have a deep respect for the accomplished cabinetmakers who keep that beautiful craft alive.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

It is really a large number of sites, primarily biodiversity databases and electronic journals where discoveries of new species are reported. Because science is all about discovery, I find it surprising just how conservative scientists are as a whole. We have only begun to feel the impact of the cyber revolution and of electronic publication and communication. I collaborate with colleagues in England and Spain as effortlessly as I do those in the U.S. And I search, access, and read literature so much more efficiently than through most of my early career. There are several large-scale digitization projects that are bringing the past 250 years of knowledge to our fingertips such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library project, the Encyclopedia of Life, and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, to name only a few. This mobilization of existing facts and knowledge, however, is not nearly so exciting as the coming transformation of how we create new knowledge. I am working with several museums and a highly innovative small company, Visionary Digital, to engineer the first network of remotely operable digital microscopes that will soon let me manipulate, study, and photograph insect specimens in major museums of Europe without leaving my office or lab. Species explorers will soon be able to solve problems and answer questions in minutes that today take weeks or months.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"I've Been Around the World in a Plane." The version by Merle Haggard on his CD Unforgettable, released about 2004. There is something about the emotion and honesty in his voice that, when combined with the standards, I find, well, unforgettable.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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