The Wide Scope of the 'Encyclopedia of Life'

Robert Siegel talks with E.O. Wilson about the Encyclopedia of Life. Wilson is part of the new project, which is a collection of information and multimedia about every living thing on the planet.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The "Encyclopedia of Life" - a project that was formally launched this week -has been described as an interactive zoo. But that description just doesn't do justice to the scope of this multimedia reference work in progress. This gives a new meaning to encyclopedic. It would be an online documentation of the 1,800,000 identified species. If you want to see what that documentation might look like, you can go online at the Web site E-O-L for Encyclopedia of Life dot org. There's some sample pages. My favorite is Kiwa hirsuta, the yeti crab.

One of the people who inspired this project is the eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson - who knows among many other things about as much about ants as anyone in the world - and he joins us from his office at Harvard in Cambridge. Welcome back to the program. Let me ask you first, why you're interest in this? What is the aim of making this "Encyclopedia of Life?"

Mr. E.O. WILSON (Pulitzer Prize Winner; Biologist, Harvard University): I've been promoting it for many years primarily because if we put all together right, we'll have - we'll know everything about everything. At least we'll know everything known about human beings, about everything and we'll be able to keep it up to date. This is made possible by technological advances - that is this being the accumulation of new knowledge added to what we've known - accumulated over several centuries, and in the course of which the offer would spur. There's exploration of Earth, which is a very little know planet in terms of its life.

SIEGEL: Yes. I mentioned 1,800,000 species - the number I've learned this week. But I gather that there are many unidentified species that were just…

Mr. WILSON: Yes. I would put - this is just a wild guess but it's just as good as any - of that - still was 10 percent of our - some species of animals - especially the very smaller invertebrate animals - bacterium, micro organisms and fungi. Overall are known to science. We don't know how many species there are on planet earth - even to the nearest order of magnitude. And that is a shocking short ball in biology.

SIEGEL: You mentioned the bacterium, which raises a question for me. What are the entrance requirements for the "Encyclopedia of Life?" That is to - do bacteria count, for example?

Prof. WILSON: All organisms are invited.

SIEGEL: All organisms are invited?

Prof. WILSON: Yes, sure. You know, bacteria are particularly poorly known because they're so difficult to culture in the laboratory. And as a result, we perhaps know about 10,000 kinds of bacteria but there are - just to give you a sense of how little we know about this planet - there are somewhere in the vicinity of five to 6,000 kinds of bacteria in a single handful of soil. And of those we know over truly nothing.

SIEGEL: As you mentioned, this discipline of classification was equips in the last century by work in microbiology. Is the active classification itself - is the compendium itself are the end of the work? Or is it a means to other discoveries and insights about that?

Mr. WILSON: The latter. It's the beginning of knowledge. If you don't know what the species are and where they are, and you have a means of getting the knowledge that has been accumulated about them, then you don't really have any full - anything approaching a full idea of what life on earth is. And you're short of clues for making discoveries at every level.

I like what the - one Chinese saying has about such matters and it's the beginnings of wisdom is getting things by their right name. But taxonomy is vastly more than that - or systematics. It is discovering species initially. But then, far more than that, it's the means by which we encode and index everything known about every form of life. And when you put all that together, what do you have? You have the totality of the knowledge of biology. So, we're moving laterally - so to speak - with this new initiative, the "Encyclopedia of Life."

SIEGEL: Well, if we now have identified at this point 1,800,000 or so species and - there's an interesting coincidence, which is that 1.8 million is just about the current number I'm of entries in Wikipedia. Which is the result of many people contributing many things over the recent years and some of them are pretty short little items. So, the task you have here - to actually have these fleshed out entries each for every species - obviously, is going to take a lot of effort, some time, I assume, and quite a bit of money.

Prof. WILSON: Yes. And it will be more than worth it because right now - in terms of ecology, in terms of the full panoply of organisms on which our life depend, in terms of the pathogens that do or have a potential to cause a disease, and on and on, we are flying blind. For example, humanity depends primarily on 20 species of crop plants for its existence. And in that respect we're - our food supplies are hanging by a thread - everybody knows that. You can have a single disease, an unknown fungus, an unknown bacterium sweep through. But there is something like 50,000 species of plants are alive and could be turned into food crops. We could immensely secure and improve the productivity of the human food supply - and that's just one of many examples of what we could do once we know what the full array of species are.

SIEGEL: So this could be the bible at USDA in 20 or 30 years.

Prof. WILSON: Oh, I would think it would be the bible of almost everybody.

SIEGEL: It does sound that the Internet here is - if not the ideal medium, the only medium I can imagine for such a work. You couldn't have a book this large or an encyclopedia, so…

Prof. WILSON: No, you can't. And the Internet is one of the technological keys to this whole project. We wouldn't have been able to think about this very seriously 20 years ago. Maybe it will still seem like a - well, it still seems like a dream 10 years ago when I started writing about it. The electronic encyclopedia - I remember one very prominent British colleague and a friend of mine wrote me when he saw an article I've written Ion this. What are you smoking, Ed? Well, now I hope that I can persuade in my lesson smoking anything.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Wilson, thank you every much for talking with us about it. Good to talk to you again.

Prof. Wilson: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Professor E.O. Wilson of Harvard University who is very much the inspiration of the project we've been hearing about, the "Encyclopedia of Life." And again you can get a look at a sample of what he's talking about at the Web site, eol.org.

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