Knowing How to Pick a Fight

Feature / by Steve Olson /

Paul Ehrlich believes in provocation and speculation, forcing us to consider: If not for the provocateurs, would we pay attention?

Ehrlich’s lifelong research on the population dynamics and genetics of checkerspot butterflies led to the powerful concept of co-evolution, which describes how two or more species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. Later, Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, applied this principle to humans to assess their impact on the environment. Photograph by Mark Mahaney

“One of the things I’ve learned in the intervening nearly four decades is that predictions about the future are difficult,” Holdren responded. “That was a statement that, at least at the age of 26, I had the good sense to hedge by saying ‘almost certain.’”

Ehrlich would not be so circumspect. People need to be provoked to take action, he believes. If that requires enlivening the facts with a dash of speculation, so be it. For some, this approach is refreshing, if frightening. “I’ve seen him inspire so many people,” says his Stanford colleague Gretchen Daily. “People come up to him in the middle of nowhere and say, ‘Your work really changed my life.’” But, as Ehrlich well knows, efforts to predict the future carry great risks. Your warnings can be ignored, Cassandra-like, despite accumulating portents of trouble. You can become known as an inveterate pessimist, one step removed from a sign-toting wingnut. And you rarely have the bitter satisfaction of being able to say, “I told you so.” “The trouble with almost all environmental problems,” as Ehrlich has said, “is that by the time we have enough evidence to convince people, you’re dead.”

When he was a boy growing up in New Jersey, Ehrlich learned how to collect butterflies at a summer camp in Vermont. For most kids, camp is quickly forgotten, but butterflies soon became an obsession for the teenage Ehrlich. He began catching them in his neighborhood, and then whenever he went on trips. Soon his bedroom began filling up with specimen drawers. “My parents warned me when I took girls to my room that the butterflies might give them the wrong impression,” he says.

In the summer of 1947, when he was 15, Ehrlich took the train to New York City and tracked down Charles Michener, then the curator of the butterfly collection at the American Museum of Natural History. Could he have a job preparing specimens at the museum? This brash young job applicant “was obviously going to be successful,” says Michener, now 90 and still active at the University of Kansas. But budgets were tight, he recalls. “Instead of money we had these tropical butterflies that were very pretty, but scientifically useless because they had no labels. We paid him by giving him those.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Ehrlich majored in what he describes as “liquor and women”— to this day he is a popular drinking companion, especially among scientists looking for good political banter—but he paid keen attention in the classes that interested him. He also shared an apartment with two World War II veterans, and the trio used to have long conversations about the state of the world and the books they were reading. In particular, two volumes published in 1948 had an immense influence on Ehrlich. In Our Plundered Planet, Fairfield Osborn, the head of the New York Zoological Society, wrote that “humanity, in great and growing numbers, is crowding upon most of the habitable areas of the Earth”— this at a time when the population of the planet was one-third what it is today. Osborn wrote of “a day of atonement that is drawing nearer as each year passes.” In The Road to Survival, William Vogt echoed Osborn’s warnings with dire predictions of a “meeting at the ecological judgment seat.”

Despite an undistinguished undergraduate record, Ehrlich was accepted into the graduate program at the University of Kansas, partly because Michener had become chairman of the entomology department there. He was politically active as a graduate student—he remembers with pride leading a movement to desegregate the city’s restaurants. He was also busy socially. Known on campus as the “guy with the big voice,” he was often in the center of animated discussions, debating anything from Marxist philosophy to Darwin to the finer points of merlot. It was at a social gathering, a bridge game, that he met fellow student Anne Fitzhugh Howland, an undergraduate studying to be a scientific illustrator. She was “the most beautiful girl on campus,” according to Ehrlich, and the attraction was mutual—they were married a few months later. “I wanted to get married at two in the afternoon on December 18,” he says. “Her mother wanted us to get married in June. So I compromised and we got married at four in the afternoon on December 18.”

Ehrlich dove into his first serious scientific work at the University of Kansas. While writing his dissertation on the taxonomy of butterflies, he earned money on the side by contributing to a research project on the effects of DDT on flies. The project resonated with Ehrlich—he had noticed in New Jersey that butterflies were losing their ability to reproduce because of spraying for mosquitoes. He became intrigued by what happens when populations split into smaller groups, whether because of random environmental events or because of human intervention. The evolution and extinction of subdivided populations became the basis of research he still does today.

Ehrlich’s personality as a scientist also began to assert itself at Kansas. He had a knack for befriending people who would later rise to the top of their fields—Michener eventually became one of the world’s foremost authorities on bees, and Robert Sokal, the young faculty member with whom Ehrlich worked, became a leader in statistical biology. Over a bottle of wine or at the local pub—Ehrlich’s favorite place to network—he has cultivated countless friendships with the world’s scientific elite. “Because he’s quick, people make the mistake of thinking he’s a smart-ass,” says Thomas E. Lovejoy, a conservation biologist who has known Ehrlich for more than three decades. “But he’s not—he’s one of the sweetest guys in the world.”

During a postdoctoral fellowship in Chicago, Ehrlich went to Stanford to interview for a job and was offered the position on the spot. Soon thereafter he and Anne moved to the campus that would become their home for the next 50 years, where they would establish the Stanford Center for Conservation Biology, coauthor eight books and dozens of papers, and become not just faculty members but a campus institution. All that, however, came later. First Ehrlich inherited the thankless task of teaching the introductory evolution course. He set aside the last few lectures of the course to talk about the future of human beings. The lectures grew so popular that he began to receive invitations to speak around the Bay area. The ideas in those talks formed the basis for The Population Bomb.

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