Monday, July 21, 2008

The Encyclopedia of Life

My interests are pretty wide-ranging, and they include the natural world in general, and the interactions between geology and biology in particular. In fact, I was once enrolled in a graduate program to acquire credentials to teach earth and life sciences to middle schoolers. Anyway, by an odd progression of chances while I was checking out web sources on conceptual typography (!), I ended up reading the Chronicle of Higher Education's article about The Encyclopedia of Life. This ambitious project to catalogue all of earth's species (disappearing at an alarming rate as we speak), is described on the home page as "an ecosystem of websites that makes all key information about all life on Earth accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world." Right up my little collectivist alley.

I was drawn to the article in the first place by the fact that it was illustrated in the print edition of the Chronicle (I subscribe on the web, but often read the print copy in the library) by one of Ernst Haeckel's drawings--the very same Haeckel I'd blogged about a couple of weeks ago. This image, of Aulacantha scolymantha, from his 1862 monograph on radiolaria, was obtained by the Encyclopedia from a truly wonderful web page called Micro*scope: yet another discovery to make a frustrated bio-geologist's day. This site represents another collaborative effort and provides information and images on all manner of microbial life; it's also collaborative, and partnered with the EoL. If you register, you can get access to terrific (I think, anyway) screensavers, and a massive number of images like this one of a colonial radiolarian (say that three times quickly), by Dave Caron of the University of Southern California:

Now, I'm no marine biologist, but I love this stuff! I can't help but think that studying the incredible variety of forms available in nature would be useful and instructive to artists and designers everywhere.

The Encyclopedia of Life and its partners promise to bring together a Wunderkammer of information and images about the species on this planet. And if you want an idea of how bloody lucky we are to be here in the first place, take a gander at the National Geographic Channel's series, Earth: The Biography. Host Iain Stewart (terrific Scots accent), with the help of magnificent NatGeo footage, not only shows us where we come from, but how many chancy factors are involved. If more people understood these things, and knew more about what's at risk if we screw it all up now, perhaps our grandchildren would have a chance to enjoy it, too.

Addendum, 22 July: It occurs to me that I neglected to mention one important point. The perpetrator of the Encyclopedia of Life project is none other than E. O. Wilson, biologist extraordinaire and my favorite ant guy. He invented the field of sociobiology, out of which came one of my favorite books: Biophilia. He's gone a bit cranky in his old age, hankering as he is now for the Enlightenment, but his newer book, Consilience, is still a good read--especially for those of us somewhat sympathetic to his views. More summer reading, for the biodiversity-inclined.

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