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E.O. Wilson

A legendary advocate for science & the natural world

E.O. Wilson’s long and remarkable career had small beginnings; much smaller than most. Starting from a young age, Wilson was fascinated by insects, and the miniature world whose comings and goings took place largely unnoticed amidst the undergrowth of Alabama, where Wilson grew up. It was the study of ants that became his biological specialty, and for 40 years he worked as an ant taxonomist at the University of Harvard, becoming the world’s leading authority on the subject.

It was Wilson’s intimate knowledge of ant societies that led him, ultimately, to be described as “the father of sociobiology”. This scientific field aims to examine and explain social behaviour in terms of evolution, and was brought onto the international stage by Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Working from initial analyses of ant species, Wilson argued that the social behaviour of all other animals – including humans – could be understood as a result of biological processes, environmental stimuli and past experiences.

Wilson is a scientist first and foremost, but attaching just one label to the man belies his sweeping influence. He has not only transcended fields of study, but created entirely new ones. Ask him any question about ants and he is likely to know the answer, but his name resonates too through discussions of biodiversity, human behaviour, humanism, environmentalism, and island biogeography, to name but a few subjects. He is the recipient of a laundry list of awards, including everything from the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement to the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction (not just once, but twice), and he stands, above all else, as a paragon for our understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

Since his official retirement from Harvard in 1996, Wilson has published over 15 books and continues to work towards a better world as part of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, whose mission statement is to “foster a knowing stewardship of our world through biodiversity research and education initiatives that promote and inform worldwide preservation of our biological heritage”. He also continues to hold the positions of University Research Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard.

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Interview with E.O. Wilson

Your contributions to the human experience are wide-ranging, from environmental advocacy and scientific humanism to the fields of ecology, entomology and sociobiology. What part of your work are you most proud of?

Since you ask, I’ll risk undue pride by listing three: (1) with Robert H. MacArthur, in the 1960s, The Theory of Island Biogeography, a stanchion of modern conservation science; also in the 1960s, with work on ant communication, (2) the founding of the modern study of pheromones and chemical communication; and in 1971, The Insect Societies and 1975, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and finally, in 1978, On Human Nature, (3) the founding of sociobiology and its derivative, evolutionary psychology.

Your passion for insects and the natural world began at a young age. What was it that sparked this passion, and how did it develop into your biological specialty, myrmecology (the study of ants)?

From start (age 9) to near finish (age 89), hunting wild environments for insects has been a constant, inspiring adventure.

How has your study of ants informed your understanding of biology in general? Have you gleaned any particular insights from myrmecology that may enrich our relationship with the natural world?

It’s been reciprocal. Environmental science and general biology gave me a professional incentive to study ants; and the reverse.

What drew you to study Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park and become its Scientific Advisor?

What could possibly be more appealing in every way than an African wildlife park, and more attractive than an invitation to study its fauna and flora?

You have described Gorongosa as the most ecologically diverse park in the world. Could you share with us a few other spots on the globe which perhaps deserve more study and fame for their ecological and biological treasures than they currently receive?

Consider the parks of Patagonia, recently enormously expanded by a gift from Kris and the late Douglas Tompkins to the government of Chile. Also, any park in Africa and tropical America with rainforest.

Raised as a creationist, you have since, in your own words, “drifted away from the church”, now describing yourself as a “provisional deist” but positing that free will may be an illusion. Has this change in your spiritual beliefs conferred upon you a greater appreciation for the wonders of the natural world, and our place within it?

Not really. In my book The Creation I argue for preservation and study of the natural world as logical in both science and religion.

What is your conception of humanity’s role in what has come to be known as the “epic of evolution”, a term that first arose from your writings?

At the risk of offending my religious friends, I’m pleased to call the evolution of life as the greatest story ever told.

To preserve biodiversity, you have called for half of the earth’s surface to be set aside as nature reserves. What can we as individuals do to protect the species that we share our planet with?

I hope I’ve given a reason for not just hope, but secure reason for believing, that we can save the rest of life – all of it.

Who is your own personal natural world hero and why?

Darwin, Audubon, and Bob Ridgeley.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

The rediscovery of Aneuretus simony, on Sri Lanka in 1955, the last remaining species of a group of ants that were abundant in the Mesozoic.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

Please, to the best you are able, don’t save just one species. Save them all.