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Edward O. Wilson
Interviewed by Paul D. Thacker
Posted February 1, 2002 · Issue 119
Edward O. Wilson sprang onto the national scene after
writing Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The work charged that
genetics shapes the behavior of all animals including humans, a
controversially conservative thesis. During one scientific
meeting, a demonstrator dumped a pitcher of water on his head,
saying, "Wilson, you're all wet!" Margaret Mead declared during
another meeting, "We are talking about book burning." Meanwhile,
Steven Jay Gould began an assault in the New York Review of
Wilson later wrote in his memoir, "When I had ideas that seemed
provocative, I paraded them like a subaltern riding the
regimental colors along the enemy line." His response to critics
was On Human Nature, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. He
won another Pulitzer for The Ants in 1990, along the way picking
up a National Medal of Science award, numerous honorary degrees,
and the Crafoord Prize, an award from the Royal Swedish Academy
of Science for disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prize.
In his last book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, he
unified under a small number of natural laws many disparate
fields of learning. His latest book is The Future of Life.
Throughout this grand adventure, Wilson remains that most
strangest of birds, an academic whose childlike curiosity puts
him equally at ease in both science and the humanities.
You've written around two dozen books. Why did you decide to
focus on the environment this time?
This has been my main concern all along. In some ways,
Consilience was written to try to change the intellectual
landscape, to try to move biology and the need for preserving
the biosphere close to center stage for intellectual concerns in
the academy as well as public policy. So this book is designed
as an extended essay - easily read - to present a global picture
on biodiversity: how much there is, how we're exploring it, how
fast it's disappearing, why it's disappearing, what will be the
multiple costs to humanity, and what we can do to save it.
You once wrote the world is "drowning in information, while
starving for wisdom." Won't this book just reiterate what we
already know about how bad the environment is?
I bring various subjects up to date, a 230-page dispatch from
the frontline of biodiversity research and conservation. This
matter is vital to the human condition. Among the themes are the
estimates of our planets biodiversity. Probably only 10 percent
of species is now known. And the discovery of new species is
occurring at an accelerated pace, such as new species discovered
in deep ocean vents. This was the discovery of a whole layer of
bacteria and fungus that are self-sufficient at depths of two
miles or more.
Also, one of the unusual features of this book is the final
chapter called "The Solution," where I review what is happening
around the world in global and national conservation
organizations that may be capable of turning the tide.
So what is the solution?
Economic policy and science will be important. Religion will
also play a major role as increasing numbers of religious
leaders and thinkers begin turning to the environment and
especially the preservation of the biosphere as a central issue
of their ministry. And so this is what The Future of Life is all
How fast is the extinction rate?
The estimates coming from two different ways, and a third which
is consistent with these, show that we are seeing doomed to
early extinction about 1 percent of species a year. That's based
on the best studied groups, vertebrates and flowering plants. We
don't even know what the rate is for other groups, like insects
Why have we only discovered 10 percent of known species?
Using the old-fashioned methods of exploring, collecting then
identifying and describing - the Linnaen classification - is
very laborious and slow. For example, I just finished and am
publishing next year a monogram that gives a detailed
classification and all the biological knowledge we have for some
625 species of ants, making up 20 percent of the ant species in
the western hemisphere. Off and on, this took up twelve years of
You're considered the world expert on ants, yet it's taken over
a decade publish this information on new species. Did you
discover all these yourself?
The majority of these are new to science and some of them I
discovered myself. There have been few experts on a whole group
of organisms since the time of Linnaeus, some 250 years ago. In
the second half of the twentieth century, when the whole process
of exploration and discovery could have been speeded up, we had
the molecular revolution, and exploration in biodiversity was
slowed proportionately. It's been marginalized in academic
biology and given very little support. That's beginning to
change now, and this is part of the whole issue of biodiversity.
Thanks to the revolution in genomics and in bioinformatics -
computer based access of genetic information including digitized
images of specimens - I figure we can speed up the exploration,
description, and analysis of the world's biodiversity by as much
We're doing this interview over a phone, and people are going to
read it on a computer. I sometimes wonder whether all this
technology so divorces us from nature that we no longer value
it. . . .
I see your point. Let me read you a passage from my book where
I'm speaking apostrophically with Thoreau about exactly this
In order to pass through the bottleneck, a global land ethic is
needed. Not just any land ethic, that might happen to enjoy
agreeable sentiment, but one based on the best understanding of
ourselves and the world around us that science and technology
Surely the rest of life matters. Surely our stewardship is the
only hope. It would be wise to listen carefully to the heart and
act with all rational intention and all the tools we can bring
to bear. Henry, my friend, thank you for putting the first
element of that ethic into place. Now it's up to us to summon a
more encompassing wisdom.
The living world is dying and the natural economy is crumbling
beneath our living feet. We have been too self absorbed to
forsee the long-term consequences of our actions and we will
suffer a terrible loss unless we shake off our delusions and
move quickly to a solution. Science and technology led us into
this bottleneck. Now science and technology must help us find a
Can we now be the wiser, beyond where you were, Henry? For you
here at Walden Pond, the lamentation of the morning dove and the
green frogs calling across the predawn water were the true
reasons for saving this place. For us, it is an exact knowledge
of what that truth is, all that it implies and how to employ it
for the best effect.
There are a number of conservationists who would have problems
with these ideas.
This is true. There is an ongoing conflict between a very
conservative school of conservationist, the primitivists, who
think we have to return to the Earth and change our economy and
technology radically. Then there are those who agree with the
position that I take: that we have to turn the juggernaut.
Instead of diminishing our advances in science and technology,
we have to use these advances to find a way to save the rest of
University science is so money driven today that it's hard to
find pure ecologists. I mean, how do you convert the natural
history of sand flea into a patent that generates department
That's true. That happened particularly in the last 50 years as
ecology and biodiversity studies were marginalized. On the other
hand, they are beginning to come back and conservation biology
is the fastest growing science in terms of your people entering
the field and positions becoming available. So it's beginning to
But even research in the tropics isn't about saving the rain
forest, it's about finding a new pharmaceutical.
Sure, and there are some people who only see science as a means
to make money. But that's only one argument that can be used to
support saving species: the utilitarian argument. And I don't
hesitate to use it. When I'm talking to a group of conservative
thinkers who are business people, I put that up front to get
their attention. Then there are two major arguments that should
always be coupled to that first one. One is the necessity of
having natural ecosystems: the natural economy as opposed to the
What is a natural economy?
The natural economy is the services provided by the natural
ecosystems of the world including purification of water,
maintenance of the atmosphere, production of soil. . . . All of
this is free. You don't get a bill for it at the end of the
How much money is this?
A group of economists and biologists estimated that, for fiscal
year 1997, these services came to 33 trillion. All free, and
greater than all the national gross products in the world
What is your third argument?
The third can be called - I hope I'm not using too broad a
word - spirituality. The moral argument, something that I hope
we can all agree upon. I think virtually every thoughtful
person, whether a fundamentalist or secular humanist, can agree
that there is something morally wrong in destroying what
scientists call the "biosphere" and what religious people call
the "creation." It's an overwhelming moral argument backed by
the precepts of most religions, but also by the conception that
this is the world we have evolved in and to which we are well
The new evidence coming in shows that we are innately attracted
to the diversity of life and natural environments. Even if you
are locked up in a city in front of a computer, you need it.
Even New York City has Central Park.
Exactly. I was once in the penthouse of a very wealthy friend
overlooking Central Park and telling him how the ideal human
environment has been worked out through surveys from people
around the world. Given a choice people will complete their
habitation by choosing a precipice overlooking a savannah, next
to a body of water. And I took great pleasure in pointing this
out to my friend, pointing to the features in Central Park. God
knows what he paid for that place, but he had to agree with me.
What is the importance of spirituality in your life? Are you
religious at all?
In a purely spiritual sense. I believe there are some precepts
that exist which we should consider unbreakable, and there are
certain aspects of our environment and relationships with other
people that are essentially sacred. Not in a theistic sense, but
something that is regarded with a great reverence. And within
all these we find an aesthetic and emotional experiences that
are deep and very satisfying. So that is what I mean by
You once said that you like to think of yourself as a "southern
writer who got detoured into science." To most people the idea
of scientist and writer sounds contradictory.
Just the opposite. To be a good writer, of nonfiction at least,
you have to think clearly, to express yourself clearly. And
that's exactly what science is. The best scientists are the ones
who think clearly, at least about the subject they are focused
on. And they are generally people who can express very clearly
what they are working on.
But the writing gets lost in jargon.
Now they may have completely immersed themselves in the
necessary technical language because that is where you get
precision. Technical language is not meant to obfuscate, not
among real scientists; it's meant to gain precision. So you get
all these exactly designed terms for clarity of expression. Now
if you work broadly, like I do, then you're likely to speak
clearly in a language that a large number of people can
understand. There's no distinction between [science and writing]
Mentioning the South, how did that environment shape you and how
has it changed?
Certainly, I was shaped by the environment of Alabama for a
couple of reasons. Growing up an only child and moving about
frequently, I had a much larger dose of natural history and
boyhood exploration. This really bonded me to nature and made me
decide that I wanted to be an entomologist when I was only nine
My forebears in Alabama go way back, pre-Civil War, and Mobile
is what I consider my hometown. A great deal of this area is
unchanged. Alabama has not undergone the type of population
growth and land conversion that many Southern states have,
although when I was growing up, it was already an ecologically
devastated state. For example, the magnificent long leaf pine
that stretched all the way from the Carolinas to Texas had been
largely cut. Even back then, they were down to 1 percent left of
the original forest. As a college student, I would go into these
areas that had been cut at the turn of the century, and they
were all second growth. So today there hasn't been a great deal
of change in Alabama, although the pressures are growing.
I go back to Alabama frequently. I work with the Nature
Conservancy and I've often spoken about the magnificent
environment of Alabama and the need to conserve it.
So your book talks about the future of life, but what is the
future of Ed Wilson?
I'm 72 and in good health. I'm hoping to work in basic research
and spend a large amount of time on the global conservation
movement. I'm on the board of three of the major global
conservation groups and I lecture and consult a great deal in
this field. I find this an exciting time to be alive in this
movement. Things are beginning to pick up and we might be able
to come up with solutions for many of these places in the world
where biodiversity is most at risk.
Paul D. Thacker is a freelance journalist who lives above a
pizzeria in Jersey City. He spends most of his time worrying
that he is slowly becoming a character in Spike Lee's movie Do
The Right Thing.
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