CHAPTER 10
SERENDIPITY IN THE EXPLORATION OF BIODIVERSITY

What Good Are Weedy Tomatoes?

HUGH H.ILTIS

Director, University of Wisconsin Herbarium, Madison, Wisconsin

For someone studying natural history, life can never be long enough

(Miriam Rothschild, British entomologist, television interview on Nova, 1986).

Biodiversity is out there in nature, everywhere you look, an enormous cornucopia of wild and cultivated species, diverse in form and function, with beauty and usefulness beyond the wildest imagination. But first we have to find these plants and animals and describe them before we can hope to understand what each of them means in the great biological—and human—scheme of things.

The classification of biodiversity is the job of taxonomists who, born as packrats and inspired by a compulsion to explore and collect the world’s biological riches, will risk life and limb to solve the great puzzles of biogeography, ethnobotany, and evolution.

But for taxonomists these are paradoxical times. Were Alexander von Humboldt or Charles Darwin (two of our godfathers) alive today, they would marvel at our knowledge and technology, and the relative ease with which we can now explore the most inaccessible places, enabling us to bring back biological treasures even from the darkest jungles of Africa and the greenest hells of Amazonia. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the same roads that allow us to drive jeeps into the rain forests or up the highest tundras of the Andes, and the very technologies that land helicopters on the mist-shrouded mesas of Mt. Roraima in Venezuela’s Lost World, also bring in a flood of land-hungry squatters, ambitious cattle ranchers, and greedy



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