The Library of the Amazon
Timothy Ferris

In the vast Library there are no two identical books.
- Jorge Luis Borges, ``The Library of Babel''

Hell is truth seen too late.
- John Locke

The rain forests are disappearing, as everybody knows. Twenty-seven million acres of Amazon forest, an area equal to that of New York state, went up in smoke in 1988 alone, while another twelve million acres was cut for timber; a tenth of the Amazon canopy is gone already. Elsewhere in the tropics the situation is worse. A century ago, half of India and a third of Ethiopia was covered by forest; today the figures are fourteen percent for India and less than two percent for Ethiopia. Eight out of every ten trees in Ghana have been cut down, as have three quarters of the Ivory Coast's. In all, perhaps a third of the world's tropical forests have fallen victim to fire and the chain saw, and the rate of destruction is accelerating. In the Amazon basin, an ocean of green nearly as large as Australia, we are witnessing the decimation of the last great rain forest in the known universe.

Massive deforestation brings many ugly consequences - air and water pollution, soil erosion, malaria epidemics, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the eviction of indigenous Indian tribes - but most serious, in the long run, is the depletion of the variety of life. If the burning of the Amazon warrants greater concern than did, say, the deforestation of ancient Greek hillsides to build fortresses and triremes, or the conversion of ninety percent of North America's virgin forests into firewood, shingles, and railroad ties, it is because tropical rain forests are so biologically diverse. Although they cover only seven percent of the earth's land surface, rain forests harbor more than half the world's species of plants, insects, and animals. A pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than are to be found in all Europe's rivers; a twenty-five acre stand of rain forest in Borneo may contain over seven hundred species of trees, a number equal to the total tree diversity of North America; Manu National Park in Peru is home to more species of birds than is the entire United States; and a single Peruvian tree was found to harbor forty-three species of ants, a total that approximates the entire ant endowment of the British Isles.

Hundreds of thousands of these species are being extinguished as the forests disappear. Most perish before they have even been identified, much less catalogued and studied. The magnitude of the loss is literally incalculable; as the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson writes:

The worst thing that can happen during the 1980s is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us.

Many people are working to curtail the destruction of the rain forests, but so far they have met with little success. The obstacles are mostly economic. Settlers from the slums of Rio de Janeiro who homestead a few acres in Rondonia can nourish the hope of delivering their children from the iron jaws of poverty. A Malaysian logger can turn a substantial profit by clear-cutting a swath of forest and selling the time to Japan to be milled into plywood crates and concrete molds. A banker in Sao Paulo can burn off a tract of land the size of a Texas ranch, seed the scorched earth with grass, graze cattle on it, and realize millions of dollars' worth of government-subsidized loans, tax credits, and write-offs in return for having ``developed'' the land.

With the scent of money in the air, few are deeply moved when urged by northern-hemisphere ecologists and academics to forsake their profits and leave the lovely forests alone. If pressed to address the issue, the profiteers note that such protestations smack of hypocrisy. We in the industrial world, they observe, would not be buying rain forest hardwoods had we not cut down our own trees long ago, nor would Indians in the jungle be slaughtering jaguar, ocelot, caiman, and otter if we did not provide lucrative markets for their skins in Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo. They have a point.

Therefore I want to make a case for preserving the tropical forests that is based neither on high-minded expressions of ecological awareness nor sentimental affection for the plants and animals that are being exterminated, but on the hard-headed economic interests of those who live in the nations that have the forests. What these people want, by and large, is more money. They could use it: The annual per capita income in Brazil is under two thousand dollars, and most nations with rain forests are far poorer than that, and I am not going to sit here at the keyboard of a five-thousand-dollar computer and write that they should not try to do better. The question is which course of action - destroying the rain forests, or preserving them - will provide a more prosperous future for themselves and their children. The answer, interestingly enough, opens out onto a new view of the relationship between mind and nature.

The present approach to rain forest management produces wealth for a few, for a short time. Farming burned-off tracts of Amazon rain forest seldom works for long: Less than ten percent of Amazonian soils are suitable for sustained conventional agriculture; most are exhausted by the time they have produced three or four crops; and many of the thousands of homesteaders who migrated from Brazil's cities to the wilds of the west, responding to the government's call of ``land without men for men without land,'' have already had to abandon their depleted farms and move on, leaving behind fields of baked clay dotted with stagnant pools of polluted water. Nor have the ranchers's fortunes been much more sanguine, except when ranching is support by government giveaways: To graze on steer in Amazonia takes two full acres; most of the ranchers operate at a loss, yielding paper profits purely as tax shelters. As for logging profits, they are real enough, but fleeting - the rain forest, once destroyed, has nothing more to offer - and in any event the real money is made not by the local hands-out friends in the government but by the industrialists of the northern hemisphere, who chuckle over cocktails in New York, Tokyo, and Berlin about how they gulled the rubes in the sticks.

The thrust of my argument is that the rubes are being taken - that they're selling their assets too cheaply, hawking for pennies resources that soon will be worth billions of dollars, cutting deals that make the sale of Manhattan for twenty-four dollars worth of trinkets look shrewd. And I'm not talking about intangibles, like the value of walking on a clean forest floor, breathing the cleansing oxygen of the trees, or listening to birdcalls echo across the canopy. Nor am I going to make the case for tourism, though the long-term financial potential of wilderness tourism is not to be sneezed at. No, I'm talking major profits, hovering on the horizon early in the next century, to be made from the rain forest. If it's still there.

To make my case, I must first call attention to a few developments in computer science, information theory, and genetics.

Throughout the history of science, the way in which we think of nature has been influenced by the tools we use to investigate her. The clock, apex of high technology in Isaac Newton's day, encouraged clockwork conceptions of the solar system. From the steam engine, emblem of the industrial revolution, came thermodynamical models that stressed work, efficiency, and the eventual ``heat death'' of the expanding universe. And so it is with the computer. Computers are data-processing machines; all they do is manipulate bits of information. Since they do this very well - scientists use computers in an enormous range of applications, from modelling thunderstorms and binary stars to replicating epileptic seizures - one wonders whether natural systems themselves are in some sense information-processing systems.

Like its predecessors, this new outlook is not purely philosophical in its implications; it has practical consequences, too. Specifically, you can make money from it. Just as our forebears earned fortunes from the chronometer and the steam engine, tomorrow's fortunes may be made from information. If that sounds like pie in the sky, consider the word-processing program I am using to write this book: It was developed just over a decade ago by two entrepreneurs working out of a garage on borrowed computer time; last year their company had sales of three hundred million dollars, zero debt, and an eighty-million-dollar annual profit. There's nothing intangible about that, even though the program itself amounts to little more than a few hundred lines of code.

Once we start down the road to thinking about nature in terms of data and computation, two characteristics of computers loom large as potential revolutionizers of our conception of nature.

The first is that computers use algorithms. An algorithm is a calculational procedure with an indefinite number of steps, in which the direction taken by each step is conditioned by the outcome of the previous step. All computer programs are algorithms; every time a programmer writes a line of code that says, ``If X is greater than Y, then do Z,'' she is using an algorithm. Algorithms differ from the calculus that traditionally has dominated scientific equations, and the differences have interesting implications for the scientific world view.

The distinguishing characteristics of algorithms are well illustrated by the class of computer programs called cellular automata, invented in the early 1950s by the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann. The ``cells'' in such a program are computational entities. Each cell is assigned a set of instructions - an algorithm - that tells it how to respond to the behavior of adjacent cells. A programmer can, for instance, treat the dots on a computer screen as cells, and write a program that tells each dot to turn red whenever a majority of neighboring dots is green, and to turn blue whenever the adjoining majority is yellow; the result is a richly and endlessly changing pattern of color on the screen.

The egalitarian behavior of cellular automata, in which patterns emerge not be decree of a central authority but by the constant voting of many equal entities, has obvious parallels with living systems, from ant colonies and flocks of sparrows to cohorts of stock market traders. Researchers in the field of computer science called ``artificial life'' use such algorithms to program computerized flowers that grow and blossom like real flowers, and computerized flocks of birds that fly like real birds; they hold ``artificial 4-H contests'' and give prizes for the most lifelike program. The conduct of cellular automata also resembles the way the brain works: Cells in the cerebral cortex, where conscious thinking takes place, are not all hooked to some master organ; there is no one part of the brain that controls all the other parts. Instead, they respond to changes of the [electric] potential of adjacent cells. Our thoughts and sensations result from the myriad firings of billions of cells, like patterns emerging on the screen of a computer running a von Neumann program.

Small wonder that scientists debate whether the brain is a computer. I am not going to get into that debate; as I was saying earlier, science does a poor job of answering questions about what something ``is.'' My point is simply that computers offer us an enriching way of understanding life and thought and other natural processes as well. And the history of science and technology demonstrates that fresh understanding can lead to fresh profits; that's why corporations invest in research and development.

The other influential characteristic of digital computers has to do with the fact that they divide the perceived continuum of nature into discrete bits of information. Inasmuch as this process works - you can model the explosion of a star or the growth of bean roots on a computer, and if you do the job properly the model will predict how a real star explodes and real roots grow - one is impelled to ask whether nature might be regarded as made, not so much of atoms and molecules, but of information. This is the great contribution of the computer to contemporary scientific thought, and I will have more to say about it in the next chapter. Here, though, I want to concentrate on the value (financial as well as intellectual) of conceptualizing biological systems in terms of their information content.

Every living thing harbors a wealth of information. The DNA molecule, the basis of all life on Earth, is above all else a mechanism for storing information. DNA data tell embryonic humans how to grow eyes and hands, embryonic sharks how to make sharkskin, chicks in their shells how to form feathers and beaks. By analyzing the structure of the DNA molecule, we can estimate how much information each plant or animal contains. These numbers turn out to be quite large. A humble single-celled microorganism contains about a megabyte of data, an amount that exceeds the content of all the words in this book. The DNA of a more complex organism contains as much information as thousands of books. That's so much data that just to index it, much less understand it, takes an enormous amount of work: To map every gene in the human DNA molecule, the goal of a federal project called the Human Genome Initiative, is expected to consume the efforts of thousands of scientists for some twelve to fifteen years. As Professor Wilson writes, ``The power of evolution by natural selection may be too great even to conceive, let alone duplicate.''

Some of the data encoded in a creature's DNA have to do with how it gets along in the world: the genes of the spider monkey constitute a textbook in how to swing gracefully through the forest canopy, as our distant ancestors did, while those of the albatross detail how a giant bird can stay aloft on marine air currents for days without flapping a wing. Other DNA data comprise a historical record of how the organism got to be the way it is - how it survived the many challenges it faced in a changing world over millions of years of evolution.

To date we've browsed in only a few pages of the vast genetic library, but even this brief perusal has yielded a lot of useful information. Engineers have drawn inspiration from the infrared receptors on a rattlesnake's nose, from which the heat-seeking guidance of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile was derived; from the long-range echo sounding equipment of the great whales, which can out-perform the sonar sets on nuclear submarines; and from the intricate construction of beaver dams, which outlast human dams. Toxicologists express admiration for the properties of cobra venom, and jetliner navigators say they envy the direction-finding abilities of migratory birds and sea turtles.

The most conspicuous of nature's genetic cornucopias are the tropical plants, each a chemistry set of biodynamic compounds with significant potential benefits for agriculture, energy, and medicine. From the Amazon already has come rubber, indigo, cacao, vanilla, sarsaparilla, chicle, manioc, cashew, and a host of valuable medicines including ipecac, used to treat dysentery, and quinine, the malaria remedy that has cured more people than any other agent yet employed against infectious disease. Curare, an Indian arrow poison made from a plant that grows only in the Amazon, is valued by heart surgeons as a muscle relaxant. The mekraketdja plant is said by the Kayapo Indians of eastern Amazonia to yield a powerful contraceptive. Cocaine remains the local anesthetic of choice for many sorts of eye operations, and has contributed the blueprint for the manufacture of other local anesthetics, among them procaine, the handmaiden of painless dentistry.

In all, fully a quarter of the prescription drugs sold in the United States over the past twenty-five years were extracted from tropical plants. In 1984, American consumers spent twelve billion dollars on these pharmaceuticals. Yet all these profits were derived from fewer than fifty among the millions of plants to be found in the world's jungles and forests. Of an estimated two hundred fifty thousand species of higher plants on Earth, only about five thousand - two percent - have yet been screened for medicinal properties. A five-year study by the National Cancer Institute, which will collect and test twenty thousand samples of bark, roots, leaves, and wood from the trees in Africa and Latin America to identify drugs useful in treating AIDS and cancer, will scarcely scratch the surface. There are perhaps eighty thousand species of higher plants and thirty million animal species in Amazonia alone. Confronting a rain forest, the modern botanist stands as humbled by his ignorance as an astronomer pondering life among the galaxies.

Largely lost already is the fund of botanical knowledge commanded by Indian shamans - the ``medicine men'' so often patronized in first-world novels and movies. ``The Barasana Indians of Amazonian Colombia can identify all of the tree species in their territory without having to refer to the fruit or flowers - a feat that no university-trained botanist is able to accomplish,'' writes conservationist Mark Plotkin, who notes that ``a single shaman of the Wayana tribe in the northeast Amazon, for example may use more than a hundred different species for medicinal purposes alone.'' But the Indians are disappearing. Disease, development, and ecological disruption has wiped out an average of one tribe per year since the turn of the century in Brazil alone; many perished before any outside had even learned their language. And the heritage of the medicine men is dying out among the surviving tribes as well. ``Of all the shamans with whom I have lived and worked in the northeast Amazon,'' Plotkin reports, ``not a single one had an apprentice.''

So the fires of the Amazon are consuming what amounts to the world's richest natural library. Efforts are under way to preserve some species by removing plants and animals from the forest before they can be destroyed, but these exertions, though salutary, are ultimately as pathetic as those of the bibliophiles who fled the San Francisco fire carrying armloads of books. Few rain forest plants and insects can long survive outside their natural habitat, and as for the larger animals, all the zoos in the world support about four thousand species, of which fewer than a thousand can be expected to breed in captivity. It might be possible, using some future technology, to extract the DNA of lost organisms from the baked and hardened clay of what was once a forest floor, but this would be like sifting through the ashes of the Library of Alexandria for traces of the lost works of Aristotle, Berosus, or Menander of Tyre. The only way to preserve the treasurehouse of information stored in Amazonia is to let the rain forest live.

If permitted to survive, the forests could deliver up riches far beyond the current calculus of short-term profit and loss. Some of these profits can come from conventional sources, such as the cultivation of herbs. World trade in medicinal plants, for instance, is substantial and growing: The United States alone imports tens of millions of dollars worth of tropical plants annually; just one plant, the rosy periwinkle of southeastern Madagascar, a source of alkaloids used to treat leukemia and Hodgkin's disease, brings in fifty million dollars a year worldwide. Sustained-yield forestry promises profits that dwarf those realized by clear-cutting; if Amazon forest areas designated for clearing were logged rather than being burned - if seedlings were planted to replenish the forests, and logging were conducted in buffer zones around undisturbed tracts of perpetual wilderness - Brazil could earn an addition $2.5 billion annually from the sale of construction timber, fruits, oils, buts, sweeteners, resins, tannins, and fibers, and its timber profits could stretch on into the future. If instead it continues its present policies, Brazil will repeat the mistakes of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Haiti, Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal and Togo - nations that clear-cut virtually all their forests, and today, as a result, confront widespread soil erosion, disease, homelessness, unemployment, and a collapsed timber market. Profits loom large in many other rain forest commodities as well, in enterprises ranging from biofuels and bioplastics (automotive engineers talk of twenty-first-century cars running on plant-grown fuels and made of plant-grown plastics) to butterfly ranching.

Dwarfing all these potential sources of revenue, however, are the profits to be garnered from analyzing genetic data in an information age. The world is rapidly wiring itself into one huge computer complex, and in this environment the most valuable commodity promises to be hard, fresh data. As Heinz Pagels wrote in 1988:

A new salient of knowledge is being created. . . . Information, be it embodied in organisms, the mind, or the culture, is part of a larger selective system that determines through successful competition or cooperation what information survives. Information can be encoded in genes, nerve nets, or institutions, but the selective systems that promotes survival remains similar.

Information can be transmitted at the speed of light, from computer terminals through fiber optics lines and across satellite networks, to become the common property of scientists, physicians, industrialists, and government leaders around the world. In a great many fields of endeavor, from nanotechnology (the building of molecule-sized machines) to pharmaceuticals, the message is the same - that the wealth of the twenty-first century will be made not in gold, as was the case in the nineteenth century, or machines, as in the twentieth century, but in information.

Early in the industrial age, nations made money from material resources; South Africa, for instance, became rich by trading on its assets of diamonds, chromium, and gold. More recently, fortunes have been made from what might be called nations' cultural resources; Italy turned itself from the poorest to the third-wealthiest European nation largely by exporting such cultural capital as sports cars, cuisine, and couture. To these assets now must be added the even greater potential riches to be gained from biological capital. The wealth of the future, I'm suggesting, lies in the data banks of the natural world.

The Amazonians are sitting on a mother lode of information, and there's no reason why they can't sell it. A royalty on genetic information - like the royalty the American horticulturalist Luther Burbank collected on the apples he cultivated - could make the proprietors of the Amazon rich; they key to a cancer cure is worth far more to the world than a million board-feet of timber. If, instead, they destroy the rain forests, throwing away terabytes of genetic data, they will go down in history as wastrels and fools. The choice is theirs.

Or, more properly, ours, for the more the world shrinks, the more it becomes a commonweal. We would all do well to ask ourselves how we are likely to be judged by our grandchildren. It is one thing to use up oil and precious metals to fly aircraft and drive cars and trucks, to build an industrialized world. It is quite another to squander four billion years' worth of the planet's genetic endowment, to tear great rents of ignorance in the potential learning of our descendants, all for the sake of a fleeting profit in rosewood and ply.

The ``developed'' world was developed by men and women who shared a vision of the future and the courage and determination to make it come true; we live amid their realized dreams, and enjoy the command over nature that ranked high among their aspirations. Now we need new dreams; more of the same won't do. Some can glimpse a future in which the human mind finds fresh resonances in the unspoiled wilderness, where everything alive is held sacred because it all has something to teach us. The Brazil of that future could be a capital of wealth and learning, home of the library of the Amazon, a global nerve center generating new ideas for use in engineering, medicine, and basic research. If we can dream that dream, we can make it happen, and we will earn our descendants' esteem. If we run it into the ground, they will regard us as simpletons, hayseeds, yokels, bumpkins, and clowns. Either way, we're going to get what we deserve.

Timothy Ferris, The Mind's Sky, chapter 14.

Last changed 5 December 1994