Fwd: Edward O. Wilson- Interviewed by Paul D. Thacker

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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
    for instance.

    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
    my time.

    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
    as 100-fold.

    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
    can provide.

    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
    way through.

    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
    turn around.

    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
    market economy.

    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]
    at all.

    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
    years old.

    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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