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Is humanity suicidal? - Edward O Wilson - Summary and Analysis

edward o wilson- humanity suicidal summary
© 'Insatiable' by Theodore Bolha

      “Is Humanity Suicidal” is an essay written by Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard professor who has devoted his career to ecological and environmental studies. Wilson’s article which reads like a story was first published in New York Times Magazine, May 30 1993.  It is a wakeup call regarding the pathetic state of the environment of the present day world. He gives a red alert to the human beings and asks them to change their ways in order to save earth and themselves.

     Wilson begins the article by taking the readers to an imaginary world where he asks them to fantasize that life exists on one of the moons of Jupiter, namely, Ganymede. He goes on to say that the aliens living there are closely watching and tracking all human activities.  That is, those aliens can see us from there and has with them the records of all the changes that happened on earth.  They have mapped the spread and evolution of organisms and the millennial climate cycles.  They have also records of the depletion of the green cover, formation of huge carbon clouds, and of all the harm resulting from the rise of homosapiens as a geophysical force. 

     There were numerous species on the Earth since its origin.  Some are gone forever.  The most notable of the existing species is the Homosapiens who gained a huge control over the earth and most of the things on it.  This species has doubled its population unlike others.  Being the dominant species, it has used the nature and its resources badly.  Human food habits are discussed by Wilson in detail and he comes up with the shocking results of human consumption. Human food habits cause pollution of air and water along with lowering of water tables and extinction of plant and animal life forms.   Human greed and indiscretion (lack of judgement) therefore overlooks the fact that every organism in nature is dependent on others directly or indirectly.  On the strength of these findings, Wilson calls the human species ‘an environmental abnormality’.  Thus, the first paragraph gives a clear picture of the planet’s history and dangerous condition in connection with the history of homosapiens.

     Wilson explains the phrase in the second paragraph of the essay in detail.  He observes that intelligence in the wrong kind of species is the source of trouble in the biosphere. He uses the juggernaut theory of human nature to support his view. The juggernaut theory holds that people are programmed genetically to be so selfish and a sense of global responsibility comes too late. Wilson notes that human beings could hardly rise above family and tribal concerns. That is, the preference that they give to the world is most probably the last.  Their sight does not go beyond one or two generations.  They are more concerned with everyday lives and suffer from ‘myopic fog’ (here, inability to see into future).  This was good in early stages of human evolution but such shortsightedness in the last 2000 years was highly destructive.  Population explosion makes the condition of earth worse and affects the quality of human life.  So more and recurrent man-made natural calamities would occur within a short span of time.  Environment-devouring technology will breed huge disasters. Like the French riddle of the lily pad, earth will brim with people and crises leading to total loss.  Wilson ends the discussion of this point with a question whether human beings are racing to self-destruction or taking off to a wonderful future.   

     Wilson discusses two attitudes and schools of opinions available for the puzzling human condition. The first he calls exemptionalism argues that human species will find a solution.  For the ideologues of this school population growth is good for economy and there will be alternatives for land and water shortage: desalination and reclamation of deserts.  They see extinction as Nature’s way.  Human beings are only one such exterminating agents.  Resources are also enough in their view if there is a slight control.  The other school is environmentalism and it sees humanity embedded in the intricate patterns of nature.   It is impossible to free completely from nature.  Confidence in alternatives of the past is undependable. Earth's vital resources are almost exhausted, global environment debased. Space is available but none of them is congenial to human life like Mother Earth. According to this school human species will perish like a confused pod of pilot whales on alien shores. At the end of the discussion /Wilson places himself firmly on the side of the environmentalists and eco-feminists.  He locates the connection between male dominance and abuse of earth.  But he is still hopeful of a change and positive turn away from this suicidal trip. This is the Century of the Environment (20th century).  States have started addressing the reality and taking measures.   Greening campaigns are launched. Bio-diversity and afforestation are taken seriously. There are welcome changes in the land management practices.  

     Speaking about biodiversity and extinction, Wilson observes that majority of extinctions are never observed. Species vanish before they can be discovered and named. But rate of loss could be calculated indirectly. When the area of the habitat is cut to a tenth of its original cover, the number of species eventually drops by roughly one half. He observes that extinction overtakes the production of new species. During the past 500 million years, there have been five great extinction spasms comparable to that caused by human expansion.  Continuing the discussion he mentions the ecosystem services by of other organisms: cleaning the water, turning soil into a fertile living cover and manufacturing the very air we breathe.  Wilson through a rigorous discussion proves that exemptionalism is doomed to fail because preservation without complete knowledge of intricate relationships in nature can only end up like that.   He prefers the the environmentalist vision for its closeness to reality. 

     By way of conclusion, Wilson makes it clear that environmentalism is aware of the fact that humanity is entering a bottleneck (crisis) unique in history for which population is one cause.  There is hope and scope if population is controlled, resources are properly managed, environment is stabilized and surviving ecosystems are micromanaged. 

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