4 Questions for Thomas Lovejoy

Tom Lovejoy became the first recipient of the Heinz Center Biodiversity Chair in August 2008. Before coming to The Heinz Center, he was the chief biodiversity advisor to the World Bank, science advisor to the secretary of the interior, and executive vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. Last month, he participated in a panel discussion at Yale University about Journey of the Universe, a new film, accompanied by a book, that celebrates the sweeping story of life from the Big Bang to today. We asked Tom four questions about his work, the film, and how humans might chart a smooth course as the future unfolds. The film opens today in New York City.

The story of the universe is, in some ways, the story of biodiversity. What sort of deep meaning does the loss of biodiversity hold for humans?

G. Evelyn Hutchinson, the founder of modern ecology, was concerned that the loss of biodiversity—the loss of life forms produced over 4 billion years of natural selection—would constrain the ability of all the life sciences to grow. This is not an ethereal concept. Consider the polymerase chain reaction which most people (if they are even vaguely aware) know as “PCR.” Its ability to replicate genetic material very rapidly has revolutionized forensic and diagnostic medicine, enabled an enormous amount of research, and made the entire human genome project possible. But without the heat-resistant enzyme from a bacterium in a Yellowstone hot spring, Thermus aquaticus, there would be no chain reaction.

The diversity of life on Earth represents an enormous living library on which the life sciences can build. Humanity should value biological diversity like all societies value libraries. But, as E. O. Wilson has said, ours is a time of great irony: as evolution finally reaches a point where it can understand itself, we’re busy destroying the evidence.

As a scientist, how do you feel about making the leap from observer to conservationist?

Dillon Ripley, a former Director of the Smithsonian and Yale University’s Peabody Museum, opined that every biologist with a conscience should spend some time on conservation. That stuck with me. One morning, twenty-five years ago, I announced to the World Wildlife Fund staff that we could think about what we did as “saving the Creation.” Some staff immediately recoiled, thinking I was becoming a creationist. But most came to understand that, rather than a negation of science, it was a way of looking at the mission of saving life on Earth from a different but nonconflicting set of values.

As you and E. O. Wilson point out, we’ve arrived at a time of great irony. And danger. With our place in the universe story in mind, how should humans respond?

The conclusion is clear. We must proactively manage our planet on the scale of our combined impact. That, of course, means we have to manage ourselves—and do so with great sensitivity to issues of ethics and inequity. The question is whether or not we will. The crisis of the planet is, in the end, a crisis of values.

Are you hopeful that we’ll change course?

As I flew over New Haven last month, I saw evidence of how people can change what seems inevitable. Interstate 91 heads straight north toward West Rock, one of the pair of magnificent, reddish basalt formations that inspired the Dutch name “Roteborg” before it became New Haven. I-91 then veers abruptly right to avoid a park. That it does so was the consequence of deliberate efforts from humans.

There is every reason to similarly alter the course we have initiated with the rest of living planet. What a journey that would be. And Journey of the Universe will be a significant part of that process.

Visit journeyoftheuniverse.org to learn more about the project, watch a trailer of the film, and see a schedule of upcoming national events.