corporations, often under the auspices of international promoters of development such as the world’s multilateral development banks. All are recklessly destructive of nature and in an orgy of environmental brutality, clearcut the forests, burn the trees, and plow up the land to grow more food or graze more cattle, even before any scientist has had a chance to find out what lives there. In the name of growth, progress, and development, and with a colossal self-confidence, we humans are now messing up even the last wild lands and damming the last wild rivers, oblivious of the irreplaceable biological treasures that are being destroyed.

In short, our twentieth-century civilization still pretty much reflects the shortsighted seventeenth-century pragmatism of Cotton Mather (1663–1728), the witch hunter of Salem, Massachusetts, who proclaimed: “What is not useful, is vicious.” But who is to say what is useful and what is not, especially about species not yet discovered that, unknown and unstudied, fall prey to plow or cow? And who can predict the value of a monkey, a butterfly, or a flower? Or of intact ecosystems, to which we are inseparably linked, whether we acknowledge this or not?

Mankind depends on plants for food, fiber, drugs—and a livable world. But more than that, our children will want nature to experience while growing up—to explore, love, and enjoy its beauty and diversity. Corn and cows, concrete and cars are not enough to sustain and empower a human psyche that until only a few generations ago lived in daily contact with a variety of plants and animals, a psyche that, winnowed and sifted by natural selection, is genetically programmed to respond positively to nature and its patterns (Iltis et al., 1970; Wilson, 1984). By destroying so much of the natural environment, we humans are now destroying crucial parts of our own psychological as well as physical habitat. For those in the know, it is a gloomy picture indeed.

Like most taxonomists, I am by nature a born collector, first of stamps, then of plants—a botanical adventurer excited by the prospects of finding species no one has ever seen before. Unlike some botanists, I have never had a compelling interest in increasing the world’s food supply. After all, is it not now obvious that the world hunger problem cannot be solved by growing more food, but only by growing fewer people, and that more food will always result in still more people, who in turn will devastate ever more nature, inevitably exterminate ever more plant and animal species, and in the long run, make life for themselves and their children ever more difficult? It is then quite ironical that by hunting for the evolutionary origin of potatoes and maize, I was involved in the discovery of two new species of agricultural significance, both splendid examples of wild biodiversity directly useful to humans.


In December 1962, Don Ugent (now a botany professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale) and I were collecting wild and weedy potatoes and associated plants in the Peruvian Andes for the University of Wisconsin Herbarium at Madison (Iltis, 1982).

For a month we had studied potato populations in the mountains east of Lima to determine how the modern cultigen might have evolved. In fact, its exact origin

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