The idea to count all species on earth came out of a need to spend a billion dollars wisely. I was attending a small dinner sponsored by Nathan Myrvold, head of research for Microsoft. Nathan held an informal dinner annually during the TED conference because many of his friends were among the technologists, media folk, entertainers, executives, artists, and trend-spotters that the TED conference gathered. At this dinner about eight of us sat around and gabbed about nothing in particular. Jeff, the guy who sat across from me, had an interesting job. He was a money manager for extremely wealthy individuals. At least one of his clients had an extremely large pot of money in a personal philanthropic foundation. “You know,” said Jeff, “it’s really hard to give away a billion dollars.”
I’ve hung around very rich people enough to know that they have the ordinary problems we all have and they have special problems few of us have, but I had never heard of this problem before. “Tell me what’s so hard about giving away a billion dollars.” “Well,” said Jeff, “if you don’t give the money away fast, it just accumulates faster because of aggressive investments, and if you give it away fast, say hundreds of millions at a time, the cost of giving it away well consumes most of the money.”
Hummm. I could see his point, but it was not a problem I had thought about much. The conversation moved on to other things, like the sexual practices of dinosaurs, how to make better electronic money, what not to do when flying a helicopter, and the likelihood that a submarine being auctioned off on Ebay really worked.
For some reason as I listened to stampeding flow of ideas my mind continued to dwell on Jeff’s question. I thought it deserved some kind of response. And for some reason an answer popped into my head. “I know what to do with a billion dollars,” I interrupted.
“What you want to do with a billion dollars is use it to pay for the identification of every living species on earth. You spend the money quickly in a few years training barefoot taxonomists, grad students living in developing countries, regular biologists, and they go out and collect and catalog every creature that lives. This does several things: it spreads the money all over the globe into corners where money rarely gets to, it spreads the good of discovery all over the globe, and it creates the beginnings of a new biology because for the first time we would know all the parts of the living biosphere.”
People at the table nodded their heads in approval, and the conversation drifted onto other things. In the context of the evening this was just another wild idea, one of a score that night. Indeed, but the end of the dinner, even I had forgotten about it.
But several days later Stewart Brand emailed me to say that he was struck by the idea. “What idea?” I wondered. Stewart explained that he really thought that a global census of life was an important and brilliant thing to do. It’s not a census, I said. It’s an inventory of all species. “Would you mind writing up your idea? I think it is not only a good idea, but I think we can really make it happen. Would you like to make it happen?”
I paused there. Let me think about it. I mean the last thing I needed was to take on making a list of every living species on earth. This would be an immense undertaking equal to sending a human to the moon. It was a billion dollar idea, and I knew a big part of the job would be roping in a billion dollars. That’s not my forte. How serious did I want to treat this idea? Did I really believe it?
My main worry about the idea was that it was obvious. I was sure that professional taxonomists must already have such a program up and going. “Well, write it up, and we’ll find out,” Stewart suggested. So I wrote up a long memo explaining why cataloging every species on earth was an important thing to do, how this basic knowledge would become the foundation of all ecological work, all natural history too, and how the conservation of species around the world requires it. I emphasized why knowing “all” is vastly different that just knowing “most” and I suggested how we could really do “all” by inventing new tools.
We circulated the manifesto and Stewart and Ryan meet with some biologist friends like John McCosker, and much to my amazement they told us that no, there was no program to do all, and that yes, an all species inventory was a great idea whose time had come, and that academic taxonomy was so tradition bound (everything was done the way Darwin did it a hundred years ago) that we as outsiders had a much better chance of pulling it off.
So we looked at each other, shrugged, and said, okay, let’s do it.