Writing in the Washington Post in late November, biologist R. Alexander Pyron declared that efforts to prevent the extinction of endangered species are a sentimental waste of effort:
Species constantly go extinct, and every species that is alive today will one day follow suit. There is no such thing as an “endangered species,” except for all species. The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings. […] Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.
Telling a biologist that “extinction is natural” is like pointing out to a climatologist that the Earth has gone through periods of warming in the past, or explaining to a physician that smokers will die whether or not they quit — narrowly accurate, but ignorant of the scale and pace of the damage in question. Pyron’s colleagues in ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation science were, predictably, aghast. Science Twitter erupted. Biologists took to every available outlet to refute the piece. More than 3,000 scientists (including your humble correspondent) co-signed a response letter to the Post stating, bluntly, that Pyron’s position was “at odds with scientific facts and our moral responsibility.” Pyron himself seemed surprised and dismayed by the response, and he disavowed most of his own op-ed in a statement he posted to the front page of his professional website: “In the brief space of 1,900 words, I failed to make my views sufficiently clear and coherent, and succumbed to a temptation to sensationalize parts of my argument.”
Whether or not 1,900 words is insufficient to express his views, a generous read of Pyron’s essay might find in it an attempt to grapple with the fundamental problem facing people who study the diversity of living things in this era: although we have unprecedented tools to identify, describe, and catalog them, plant and animal species are losing ground to humans at an alarming rate. As often as not, the formal description of a new species is immediately followed by its designation as “endangered.”
The issue is broader than the danger of extinction. Even species considered relatively secure have seen sharp declines in abundance since the beginning of the 20th century, and many others will likely be reduced to precarity as changing climates render their habitats inhospitable. The entomologist Alex Wild, an expert in one of the most diverse groups of animal species, has said that “being a naturalist in the 21st century is like being an art enthusiast in a world where an art museum burns to the ground every year.” Faced with the scale of the problem, the temptation to triage — to define achievable, if painfully pessimistic, conservation goals — is understandable.
The Plant Messiah, a scientific memoir by the botanist Carlos Magdalena, is a resounding rejection of that temptation. Magdalena works at Kew Gardens, the world-renowned English botanical institute, and he has built a career coaxing hope for endangered plant species from tiny samples of seeds or parsimonious cuttings. Kew stewards an enormous living collection of plant diversity in its greenhouses and gardens — and its even more extensive seed stocks. Magdalena splits his time between traveling the globe to identify and collect rare plants for Kew’s collections, painstakingly propagating them, and working with local partners worldwide to reestablish and protect endangered plants in their native habitats.
Magdalena grew up in northern Spain, where he became fascinated with the living world by working on his family’s finca, a tract of forest and bog in the mountains outside of town where they kept a cottage and small farm. After a lackluster experience with structured education in school, he worked short-term conservation jobs and did stints in pubs, restaurants, and landscaping until he found his way to Kew Gardens and fell immediately in love. He talked his way into an internship and then an entry-level position in plant propagation, enrolled in the Gardens’ rigorous Diploma in Horticulture, and went on to become permanent staff.
One of Magdalena’s first projects at Kew involved the café marron, Ramosmania rodriguesii. Native to Rodrigues — an island in the same Indian Ocean archipelago as Mauritius, the former home of the dodo — café marron is a close relative of the coffee tree. It was thought to have been lost to the destruction of Rodrigues’s native forests for farmland, until a schoolboy rediscovered a single shrub in 1980. Kew’s horticulturalists acquired a handful of cuttings from this sole survivor, got one to take root, and propagated a small population by dint of careful cutting and rerooting — but though these captive cafés marrons flowered profusely, none would set the seed needed to revive a wild population, even when pollinated by hand.
Magdalena suspected self-incompatibility. In most flowering plants, a pollen grain alighting on the receptive surface of the stigma, at the very tip of the pistil, must grow a root-like tube down into the length of the pistil to convey genetic material to an ovule, with which it fuses to produce an embryonic plant and the supporting and protective tissues of a seed. In self-incompatible species, a plant’s own pollen will fail to take “root” in the stigma. Magdalena bypassed this response by slicing off the stigma, then applying pollen directly to the wounded tip of the pistil. Over hundreds of such surgical pollinations, on plants kept in different temperature and light conditions, he zeroed in on a protocol to produce viable café marron seeds. From these, Magdalena reared seedlings for “repatriation” to Rodrigues.
Much of The Plant Messiah is pretty well summed up as “James Herriot, but for ultra-rare plants” — a string of stories from Magdalena’s travels to collect plants, teach plant propagation techniques, and promote conservation. In one chapter, Magdalena arrives late at night in a Bolivian village, exhausted and dirty, only to be dragged from a cold shower to demonstrate grafting methods for an eager class hopped up on coca leaves. In another, he loses half of a hard-won supply of seeds from the last surviving Hyophorbe amaricaulis palm to a lab staffer who happens on them in an unsecured refrigerator while looking for a snack.
The punch lines to these stories are sometimes more tragic than funny. Late in the book, Magdalena sets out to raise the tiny waterlily Nymphaea thermarum, which has been found only in waters warmed by a single Rwandan hot spring. Magdalena works his way through his supply of seeds to determine that the young plants need higher than normal concentrations of carbon dioxide to survive to flowering — and only then, when he has a working protocol and a healthy captive population of the little waterlilies, does he discover that their home hot spring has been drained, and the species is extinct in the wild.
Magdalena responds to the logic of biodiversity triage on virtually every page of the book. Much of his argument is the kind of thing R. Alexander Pyron dismissed as sentimentality — Magdalena loves plants and takes their losses personally. “I will not tolerate extinction,” he declares, point-blank, in an early chapter. The Plant Messiah’s storytelling structure and loving descriptions of rare plants are an unabashed appeal to emotion, attempting to light the same passion for the living world in Magdalena’s readers. But under the bubbling enthusiasm there is one rock-solid fact: we don’t know which species we can spare. As Magdalena writes,
We still know so little about what they are capable of. It is like finding a library where the books are written in Chinese, then taking someone to visit who can read only English and Spanish to decide which books are relevant. Or perhaps going into that library and burning the books based on whether you like the cover or not.
The world’s plants (and other living things) are a repository of evolution’s mechanical, material, and biochemical innovations. A rare plant may hold the key to the next invention as universally useful as Velcro, or a molecule to cure human disease, or an adaptation to drought that can be bred into crops. This is, however, not quite an argument for restoring near-extinct species in the wild — the world’s plant diversity can, in principal, be saved in seedbanks and botanic gardens. By the time a plant is as vanishingly rare as café marron or Nymphaea thermarum, its contributions to the living community in which it grows are proportionally tiny. Restoring the plants of Rodrigues means not just planting a bunch of café marron, but also rescuing many other species and clearing out a myriad of introduced invaders that have overrun the island.
Kew assists with just such projects, and when Magdalena exhorts his readers to become “plant messiahs” in their own right, he suggests they join local conservation societies, plant rare native species at home, and campaign against climate change and deforestation — workaday efforts that lack the glamour of the near-resurrections he performs in the greenhouse. But if they differ qualitatively, they also differ quantitatively. Global collective action is what will stem the tide of extinction; not a talent, even a miraculous one, for saving individual species from the brink.
Magdalena attempts, at the start, to deflate his own title by quoting the mother of an inadvertent prophet in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” Even so, The Plant Messiah aims to ignite a movement. Even if the species Magdalena rescues may not be significant building blocks in the larger project of putting the planet’s living communities back together, they can be mascots, symbols to focus and motivate the broader, more difficult work.
A messiah doesn’t serve only, or even primarily, as a single-person source of salvation. A messiah is also an inspiration and a model. The plant messiah’s gospel is simple: we may not be able to save every species from extinction, but that doesn't mean we shouldn’t try.
Jeremy B. Yoder is an assistant professor of biology at California State University, Northridge. His writing has appeared in Scientific American, The Awl, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He also edits The Molecular Ecologist.