E.O. Wilson on ants and God and us

Harvard professor and double winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Edward O. Wilson has been called "the father of biodiversity." After a childhood fishing accident blinded him in his right eye, he concentrated on ants and small insects — "the little things who run the world" — which he could pick up and bring close to his good eye.

In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, he set out the controversial theory that social behaviors, from warfare to altruism, have genetic components. In 1996, Time named him one of the nation's 25 most influential people.

At 79, he has a new project — The Encyclopedia of Life (www.eol.org), an ambitious global effort to document and make available via the Internet all 1.8-million named species of animals, plants and other forms of life on Earth.

St. Petersburg Times education reporter Donna Winchester caught up with Wilson after his appearance at Eckerd College, where he spoke Thursday to a group of biology and environmental studies students. Here is the full transcript of that interview (a selected bibliography appears at the bottom).

Q. Your first passion was ants. Over many decades, your research on ants has taken you all over the world and has led to the discovery of hundreds of other species. How has your work helped form your views about how animals and humans evolve, and what has it taught you about human nature?

E.O. Wilson: The work on ants has profoundly affected the way I think about humans. Not that ants are in any sense much like humans, or any kind of a model for them; how could they be if all the colonies are females, and if they constantly are at war with one other? But the study of ants has informed science a great deal about the origins of altruistic behavior – that's what binds the colony together – and about the impact of a dominant animal group on the environment.

Ants are the dominant insects of the world, and they've had a great impact on habitats almost all over the land surface of the world for more than 50-million years. So they're very interesting as subjects for ecological study, particularly about how abundant creatures affect the globe – which of course is something that we're doing – and therefore anything we can learn from that might shed light on the general principle.

Q. In your groundbreaking 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, you applied evolutionary principles to understanding the social behavior of animals, including humans, and argued that all animal behavior, including our own, is influenced by genes and never entirely of free will, a concept you called the "genetic leash." You were accused of racism and misogyny, among other things. Have the ensuing 33 years changed your views on this subject? Do you think subsequent research, your own or others', has vindicated you?

E.O. Wilson: The answer is no and yes. That is, I would have surrendered the view that human nature exists – that was the question, basically – and that human nature requires some kind of hereditary structure to it. Otherwise, people would just become whatever you taught them to become, and that was patently false 30 years ago.

This view that there is a hereditary human nature has been thoroughly vindicated by studies ranging all the way from the human genome to anthropology, and opposition of the kind that was so heated, primarily from social scientists and far-left thinkers, now has disappeared for the most part.

Q. Have you had the chance to confront any of your detractors, or have you received any apologies from them?

E.O. Wilson: No. There were surprisingly few. In the 1970s, it was mostly a group concentrated at Harvard, and I never understood what they were trying to do or say. They included Stephan J. Gould, the well-known writer, who died six years ago. He just sort of got quiet about it and just let it go and never said anything to me. One other, Richard Lewontin, is still there but has stopped talking about the subject. They just grew silent.

Q. Do you think perhaps they simply misunderstood what you were saying?

E.O. Wilson: They did, deliberately so. They wanted to defend a particular ideological viewpoint. Lewontin even had a name for it. He called it socialist science. There were very few scientists in that group, not more than a half dozen in the world, who were very vocal, and they were the ones who were most vigorously attacking the idea of a genetic human nature. Lewontin was promoting the idea of socialist science, which was science that was consistent with Marxism and had a blank-slate view of the brain.

There seemed at the time to be a belief that the desired political end was more important than the science itself. I remember one famous Marxist scientist, he wasn't involved in the attack on sociobiology, who said, "There are some things more important than science." For him, the revolution and freeing mankind from capitalism were more important. Those individuals saw that as the salvation of the world.

Q. In addition to coining the term "sociobiology," you're also responsible for the word "consilience," the idea that things connect to each other, allowing them to find commonalities within their own species and with other life forms in the biosphere. As the world moves increasingly toward specialization and fragmentation, do you think consilience is still important, and if so, is it still achievable?

E.O. Wilson: It's important and it is achievable. You've just identified an important paradox in the growth of knowledge. Scientific knowledge doubles about every 15 years, so there is an enormous amount of it. Scientists tend to be highly specialized, and increasingly so, because they have so much material to master just to be in one particular subject.

But the paradox is that while this is happening, we are finding ways to connect all the information. Consilience has almost become a necessity, because otherwise knowledge would become so disorganized that nobody could make much of it. We wouldn't have any way of searching through it, making connections and devising new science and new policy.

So consilience, I think, is here to stay. It's getting stronger at the same time that individual scholars become more specialized.

Q. You were brought up Southern Baptist but now consider yourself a secular humanist. Can you explain your religious beliefs, how they evolved, and how they've influenced your work?

E.O. Wilson: It's very simple. The biological evolutionary perception of life and of human qualities is radically different from that of traditional religion, whether it's Southern Baptist or Islam or any religion that believes in a supernatural supervalance over humanity. In the case of fundamentalism, that also includes the view that humanity was specifically designed by God in his own image and that we are here sort of at his service.

The evolutionary viewpoint introduced by Darwin in 1859 was genuinely revolutionary because it contradicted that in every important respect. It showed that organic systems can build – and do build – by themselves through a process of change and natural selection.

Q. And where do you stand personally on the God question?

E.O. Wilson: I tend to believe that religious dogma is a consequence of evolution. Religious belief and the firm adherence to it – and the intense dislike of apostates, people who abandon it – has a very important biologic origin, probably through natural selection, namely the cohesion of the group and the persuasion of people to be more altruistic. So in my view, most dogmas concerning the creation are myths of creation and are not believable. They're just different from one religion to another.

When the question comes up, "If it's not true, why does practically everybody believe in God?" the answer is that it's true in a Darwinian sense. That is, it provides cohesion, it provides personal peace and rites of passage, and it promotes altruism, which are all invaluable and necessary for the survival of human societies.

Q. And so is it correct that you consider yourself neither atheist nor agnostic?

E.O. Wilson: That's correct. I'm not an atheist, because who am I to say there is no such thing as a supervalance? I just think that most of what we think about God is something we've invented for the benefit of humanity. I'm not agnostic, someone who believes the truth is unknowable. Who am I to say we will never know the truth? I have called myself a provisional deist. That is to say I'm willing to consider the possibility of an ultimate cause. But we haven't really come close to grasping what that might be.

Q. The United Nations has projected a huge population explosion – 9-billion people living on Earth within the next 40 years. You've expressed concern that this boom will coincide with a worldwide decline in arable land and water, creating what you've described as "a human population bottleneck." You've warned that the goal of the 21st century will be "to settle humanity down before we wreck the planet," yet you also appear hopeful that we can survive. What has to happen to ensure that survival?

E.O. Wilson: What may be happening right now: a fundamental shift in paradigm. Not that people will abandon their religion and their hopes for immortality and the belief in a supreme being, but rather the recognition that the Earth has limits, that we're reaching them, that we are going to have problems that could grow to catastrophic levels if we don't get busy and face them. This is getting to be such a general view of the condition of the world, from climate change to the using up of water, to the exhaustion of fossil fuels to the steep decline of worldwide arable land and the increasing competitiveness for resources among countries, which has been in history the commonest cause of war.

Our perception as a species is maturing, and therefore, I believe to the extent that this paradigm is embraced, we will solve the problem. But it's slow to come. There's a lot of inertia. There are only a few major political leaders who have understood what the overall problem is. I don't know where President-elect Obama stands. I hope he is among those who are congenial to this viewpoint. He hasn't had a chance to address it yet publicly. But there are others who have gotten the idea and they're beginning to promote it publically pretty well.

I think Gov. Schwarzenegger of California is one of them. Ironically for many, Newt Gingrich is another as he's shown in his recent book, Contract with the Earth. And there are journalists who are hammering this, influential journalists like Tom Friedman of the New York Times, whose book Hot, Flat and Crowded is a wonderful description of the necessities of having a new paradigm.

Q. What about Florida Gov. Charlie Crist?

E.O. Wilson: I don't know enough about him. But Florida certainly is a test state. Florida is too beautiful for its own good. Too many people want to come here and use its resources. How Florida manages its resources – how it limits overcrowding, the exhaustion of its water supply, the conversion of too much of its magnificent agricultural land – the decisions it makes in the next few years will be critical. It would be a lot easier to let development go unimpeded, although Florida has made some real progress in planning for the future. But to the extent to which it's allowed to proceed unimpeded, the harder it will be to recover down the line.

Q. You've also said that the only way Earth can be saved is if science and religion join forces. Can you explain what you mean by that?

E.O. Wilson: Unlike some authors who are extremely strident – I call them the military wing – I don't think the way for scientists, for secular humanists like myself, is to approach religion with that spirit. I believe that Dawkins, and those who adhere to what I call the Dawkins school of thought, underestimate the power of religion, the power of its social function.

Even as we may disbelieve the creation myth, it's better to recognize that most of the world is religious, and in fact highly religious, and that people in these religions are by and large wonderful people. That's certainly true in the Evangelical society, which has been the focus of so much controversy. I know so many of those people. I grew up Evangelical. It just seems to me inordinately sloppy and selfish to just assault them and their beliefs frontally. Much better it is to do what I've done, which is the classic step in conflict resolution: finding common ground and putting aside for the moment fundamental disagreements. Put them aside for a while and then ask for help.

Scientists better than anyone have understood what's happening to the Earth. Religious believers in the country, 75 percent of Americans at least, are beginning to understand what's happening, and they're increasingly concerned. So this is a common ground on which we can meet. There have been meetings between scientific leaders and Evangelical leaders. I was invited for a meeting with the leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City.

I've given talks on the whole subject at Sanford University at Birmingham, which is called the Ivy League of the Southern Baptist Conference. I've discovered that these wonderful people mean to do well, they mean to solve the problems as much as scientists and secularists. We can put aside our differences for a while because we do have a crisis situation on our hands.

Q. You've criticized what you consider the failure of today's colleges and universities to adequately prepare young people to be leaders. What is the chief failure of our institutions of higher learning and what should they be doing instead?

E.O. Wilson: Actually, the problems begin big time in high school, maybe with roots in the grammar schools. We're not teaching science properly. We're not making it interesting. Too much today is still taught in a 19th century manner of laying out certain amounts of information – how a cell divides, the major systems of the body – and memorizing it. A lot of memory is still required, but biology has progressed to the point where it's a spectacular panorama of exciting things that are going on in the real world that relate to the lives of these students.

The right way to teach, I believe I've discovered in my 42 years teaching beginning students at Harvard, is to teach top down. To teach relevance, to teach connections to their personal experience and desires. Top down means you don't start with the bits and pieces and promise the students you'll eventually connect them. They don't want to hear it that way. You start at the top with the big questions that every kid recognizes.

The questions you can seize them with right away include ones that they already care about. For example, "Why must we die?" There's a lot of biology there, and they're all ears when you start talking about that. They've got Aunt Nellie who's in the hospice and Cousin Jack who's got cancer. They're all thinking about this, about their own mortality. That opens up a whole flood of biology to teach that's all interconnected.

Another one is, "What's the meaning of sex?" By that I don't mean that you're going to give them sex instruction, they should have been given that back in grammar school. But it's a whole subject that has probably never been asked before. Why are there genders? What's the function of it in the living world? Most people can't even begin to think about it let alone talk about it. They're not avoiding it, they just don't know how to answer.

When you deal with it, then immediately you are deep into big issues of biology. Another thing, which I use all the time to introduce heredity is to ask them to take a look at themselves. I'll say, "How many of you can roll your tongue?" As it turns out, a certain percentage cannot. Or I ask, "How many of you have an attached earlobe?" Bingo. Now they're looking in the mirror and saying, "Gee, I've got two genes of this or that." I show them how to calculate what percentage of the class has recessive genes and before long even students who hate math are busily figuring out these ratios. That's the way to teach biology. Then down the line, after you've hooked in them this way, you're able to teach them the two laws of biology.

Q. Your passion for preserving biological diversity in the living environment led to the founding of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. What can you tell me about the foundation's work and what it has achieved so far?

E.O. Wilson: The foundation is designed primarily to innovate and promote science education, particularly with reference to biodiversity and conservation. The group of people who founded it saw that as an area that was most ignored by foundations that were supporting science. Education was a critical area. Right now, a team within the foundation is developing a new Internet textbook and raising money for that. This is to do away with written textbooks and to replace them with a series of 100 or so modules dealing with all subjects in biology that go across the main issues of biology.

There is a lot of animation to exhibit principles, a lot of key figures like Nobel Prize winners describing what's going on in the subject in which they work. Teachers can select those modules different modules to gain the attention of particular students.

For example, a group of student from West Texas, none of whose families believe in evolution, might need a different set of modules than say a group from New York City. That is the way, I think, to teach biology. It would be vastly chapter. College biology textbooks are selling for $120, $130. That's got to stop. Everybody knows that, but nobody knows how. These publishers have a profitable thing going on.

It's like the big gas guzzlers. In the automobile industry, they don't know how to get away from it. Publishers have the whole production apparatus geared to produce big textbooks. An organization like the Wilson Biodiversity Foundation is in a position to start from scratch and not be hampered because it's nonprofit to produce a product which in the end would not be entirely free but that would be far cheaper.

Q. At the 2007 T.E.D. Conference, an annual gathering of big thinkers in technology, entertainment and design, you were asked to make a wish that could change the world. What was your wish and how is it playing out?

E.O. Wilson: I asked for something that I had already suggested three years prior, The Encyclopedia of Life. I asked for the creation of an encyclopedia with an extendable number of pages for each species or organism on Earth that would contain everything known about that species. So the Encyclopedia of Life would be everything we know about all forms of life, all 8-billion species.

It would be something that people could feed information into, even amateurs, because the information would be screened by experts. It would be free and would therefore provide all biological information to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. When I suggested it in 2003, it met with some opposition. Some people said, "That's ridiculous, it just can't be done."

By 2006, not only did we have the funds lined up to start it – several tens of millions of dollars through the MacArthur Foundation – but it was already started. A consortium had begun. Now it's taking off. It's unstoppable.

Q. You seem as excited about this project as I imagine you were about your earliest projects. How have you maintained your enthusiasm and curiosity for life and research over the span of nearly eight decades?

E.O. Wilson: I'm an enthusiastic person. I just love doing new things. If I have a new idea, I try not to just throw it out and move on. I think a person who has a new idea has a responsibility to see it through. I remember once a great physicist said, "If you have a bright new idea, do not publish it, do not show it, until you have committed yourself to working it out. Why spoil the fun and credit of someone else who might deserve it more?" And that's my attitude.

You have the idea, but it's no good unless it become reality. You deserve no particular credit unless you helped make it become a reality. That's what I've done with each of the major projects of my time. Often, making it real is more exciting than having the idea in the first place. Having the idea is all about "what if?" That's not exactly where creativity exists. The creation of excitement comes from seeing the reality begin to appear.

Q. So what can individuals do to make a difference on the footprint they are leaving on Earth?

E.O. Wilson: I think what people can do is get more interested in the environment. It's very interesting as a subject. All you have to do is start expanding your attention from things you already do, whether it's gardening or fishing or taking your family to a national park. Expand that interest and make that knowledge part of your basic citizenship. Americans have been very slow to do that simple thing.

They're good citizens. They're loyal and hard working and willing to sacrifice for their country. But they really haven't picked up on the environment yet as part of that citizenship. Once they have done that, they'll find more enjoyment in being a citizen.

A selected bibliography

• Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975, Harvard University Press. Voted by officers and fellows of the international Animal Behavior Society as the most important book on animal behavior of all time, it became the object of bitter attacks by social scientists and other scholars who opposed its claim that human social behavior has a biological foundation.

On Human Nature, 1979, Harvard University Press . A Pulitzer prize-winning book in which Wilson argues different characteristics of humans and society can be explained from the point of evolution.

The Ants, 1990, Harvard University Press, with Bert Hölldobler. A sweeping survey primarily aimed at academics detailing the anatomy, physiology, social organization and ecology of ants that earned Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998, Knopf,

An explanation of Wilson's theory that all knowledge, from the humanities through the social sciences to the natural sciences, can be unified, and that this "consilience" will involve the collapse of at least some of the social sciences into biology.

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, just published Monday, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., with Bert Hölldobler

A treatise on how the study of social insects – among them ants, bees, wasps and termites – has led to important advances in understanding how life as a whole has progressed from simple to complex forms.

About the scientist

Edward O. Wilson's career as an author began in 1967 with The Theory of Island Biogeography, which set the stage for all subsequent discussion of the decline of ecosystems. Eight years later came his fifth book, the revolutionary and controversial Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. He has written, co-written or edited 20 books. Among them are On Human Nature (1978), for which he won his first Pulitzer Prize; The Diversity of Life (1992), named by the New York Public Library as one of the outstanding books of the 20th century; and Naturalist (1994), which earned him the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for science.

Wilson is the recipient of the National Medal of Science, the International Prize for Biology, the gold medal of the World Wildlife Fund, and the Distinguished Humanist Award from the American Humanist Association. In 1990, the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded him the Crafoord Prize, ecology's approximation of the Nobel prize.

Alarmed by the loss of species around the world during the latter half of the 20th century, Wilson has become a powerful force in the conservation world. "The loss of biodiversity," he has said, "is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive." Convinced that despite the advanced state of our knowledge in many domains of biological research we are ignorant of perhaps 90 percent of the species of organisms on Earth, he continues to challenge individuals to educate themselves by asking, "How can we save Earth's life forms from extinction if we don't even know what most of them are?"

Toward that end, he has launched his latest project with help from a $10-million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation: The Encyclopedia of Life. The project of naming and cataloging species will continue over the next decade through the creation of Internet pages containing text, photographs, video, sound, location maps and other multimedia information supplied by thousands of experts around the globe in a moderated wiki-style environment, free to users everywhere.

He remains one of the world's preeminent scholars and naturalists as well as a leading authority on ants.

Go to www.eol.org to view the Encyclopedia of Life, a work in progress.

E.O. Wilson on ants and God and us 11/14/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 8:47pm]

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