Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



Section I. Perceptions; Chapter 1 in The Changing Prairie: North American Grasslands (A. Joern & K. H. Keeler, editors).


Copyright 1995, Oxford University Press. Used by permission.


The expected catastrophic extinction of species (already under way in many places) will alter the planet’s biological diversity so profoundly that, at the known rate of extinction, it will take millions of years to recover. Yet few ecologists study extinction. Indeed, very little ecology deals with any processes that last more than a few years, involve more than a handful of species, and cover an area of more than a few hectares. The temporal, spatial and organizational scales of most ecological studies are such that one can read entire issues of major journals and see no hint of impending catastrophe. The problems that ecologists face are so large; how do we contemplate processes that last longer than our research careers and that involve more species than we can count, over areas far too large for conventional experiments? The problems are also complex; understanding ecological processes at these large scales is far more of an intellectual challenge than is the stupefyingly tedious sequence of the human genome. The problems are also more important. With complete certainty, I predict that human genomes will be around in fifty years to sequence; with somewhat less certainty, I predict that there will be ten billion of them, dying from many causes each of which is orders of magnitude more important than the genetic causes the human genome sequencing will uncover. If we do not understand ecological processes better than at present, these ten billion humans will be destroying our planet more rapidly than we are now.