Biologist. Entomologist. Professor. Author. Explorer. Philosopher. Visionary. Edward O. Wilson, who has been called one of the world's greatest living scientists, defies categorization. His contributions to that which we know about the natural world are immeasurable. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Wilson has, through his teachings and writings, exposed nature's glories and frailties with immense elegance and clarity.
He is a man who views the study of science as an excuse to wander the outdoors, who describes himself as a lover of little things and who views the biospheric membrane that covers the Earth as a miracle. He has succinctly organized our ecological plight into its most important components: biodiversity lost through species extinction, an environmental footprint already too large for the planet to sustain, the effects of population stress and habitat destruction.
Unlike most, however, who simply identify the problems, Wilson examines them from many perspectives—history, ethics, economics, politics, technology—and wraps them around human behavior.
"If the rest of life is the body, we are the mind," he states in making the case for stewardship. Solutions, he claims, begin with morality and ethics and he places responsibility for success or failure on the level of cooperation among the "three secular stanchions of civilized existence: government, the private sector and science and technology."
As a prelude to his much-anticipated closing keynote address at EnvironDesign®7, we talked with Dr. Wilson about his beginnings, influences and hopes for our future.
You are widely known as the father of biophilia. Do you think you are, and did you coin the word?
Wilson: Yes, I did. The word biophilia had been used occasionally as a term in psychology. My use of the word has been adopted, I think, generally, in the past 20 years, and it means an innate affiliation with or an attraction to other forms of life. That seems unremarkable except for the fact that the evidence is mounting that biophilia is a complexity of what could be called human instincts. Its existence has, in some forms anyway, been established well enough to become a growing subject of study in preventive medicine.
It seems almost common sense to say that we humans have an innate need to associate with nature and yet, as you say, it's a very complex subject. Has its study been one of your life's goals?
Wilson: I got into the study of biophilia 20 years ago because I had a sense that the instinct exists. And, if it exists, then it could be a powerful argument for the conservation ethic. As you say, most people would call it common sense. But, 20 years, or perhaps more accurately, 30 years ago, the general opinion about human instincts among social scientists and many psychologists was that human instincts did not exist. Or, if they did, they were extremely simple and limited.
By the 1980s, however, the evidence was mounting for the existence of human instincts as the structure of human nature and the genetic basis of it was beginning to be demonstrated. So it was natural, with the interest I had both in human instinct as a subject of study and conservation of nature, to consider where the two might meet. The result was the idea of biophilia and the book of that title.
Did we really think, before the 1980s, that the human race was that uncomplicated?
Wilson: Actually, yes. As Steven Pinker has pointed out in his excellent book, The Blank Slate, the prevailing thought among social scientists and psychologists was that the human mind is a blank slate, and that everything that we know and feel is taught to us out of our culture. There's an enormous difference between a blank slate on the one hand and the idea of human nature as a complex system of instincts that interact with our culture and environment on the other. The latter view has now prevailed, I believe decisively, and it makes human beings and nature both much more interesting than they would be if we were indeed blank slates.
You describe yourself as an entomologist. how and where did you get your passions for nature?
Wilson: Yes, I'm an entomologist by trade and that's what I started out to be. When I was nine years old I had my bug period and I just never grew out of it. As my training and career progressed I stayed anchored in entomology, which I believe I do to this day, with a special interest in studying ants and other social insects.
Eventually my interests broadened and I became increasingly attracted to and involved in the study of evolution, ecology, human nature and in the origin of social behavior. I've cast a broad net, but I almost always return to my passion.
As you look back on your life, what are some of the most significant milestones that have led you to where you are today?
Wilson: I always, when I'm asked a question of that nature, mention a very brief tour in a tough military academy when I was a small child where I was inoculated by the southern military culture. I didn't pay much attention to school, but worked hard enough to get by. I also went into the Boy Scouts where I received my real education. They have a powerful routine that educational psychologists would do well to study, one of self-learning and step-by-step testing, allowing a person—the student, the scout—to proceed at his own pace. I flourished in that environment of being allowed to work on what I wanted to work on and mark my own progress with different ranks and merit badges. Sometimes I think that maybe the public school systems ought to be built that way.
Finally, two years' residence in Washington, DC, when my father was there as a public federal employee, brought me within walking distance of the National Zoo and only a short trolley ride from the Smithsonian Institution. That is where I dwelled when I was a nine- and 10-year-old, and that had a huge impact.
So, to put it in a nutshell, it was exposure to the great institutions, museums, zoos—and exposure to a beautiful environment. The ability to be pretty much free as a kid to roam and make my own way at my own pace, and then be aided by an organization like the Boy Scouts, which socializes and trains boys in self reliance—those were what I would call good elements to create a scientist. When I published Naturalist, my memoir, I received hundreds of letters from other scientists and naturalists who told me that they had strikingly similar backgrounds.
When and how did you begin thinking about environmental concerns, such as ecological destruction?
Wilson: It started for me in 1953 when I made my first trip to the tropics in Cuba and Mexico and I saw the devastation of the environment there. It was the end of my dream that the tropics consisted of, in large part, natural forests and other wild elements. In fact, that was still true at that time for countries like Costa Rica, Madagascar and The Philippines, which still had most of their forests. But Mexico and Cuba were countries that had already been devastated, especially in the lowlands. And this woke me up.
However, I didn't really worry about it until years later when I published an article on the great importance of biodiversity and the rate at which it was being destroyed. By the 1970s, I joined several other scientists, including Peter Raven and Paul Ehrlich, who had already made it part of their calling to bring the world's attention to the problem.
In your most recent book, the future of life, you are very adroit at defining people who come from polar opposite viewpoints such as the economist versus the ecologist. Are you as sympathetic to both perspectives as you appear to be, or are you just trying to be ultimately fair?
Wilson: Both, although I hope I don't sound like a namby-pamby centrist. What I am is a pragmatist. I feel that some of the great problems we have in society and the environment seem insoluble because of polarization. One need only mention abortion, or development versus preservation. Both sides of any issue usually have a strong moral reason for their position. Extremists tend to go over the top and just become dogmatic and unyielding. However, most people who hold different positions are well meaning and you can usually find a broad overlap between them. The answer is, in my view, to define the problem and then get both sides to examine it and agree on a solution. That is the way I believe democratic societies can and will evolve.
In the case of development, the solution is clearly to save the natural environment and devise ways of doing it that are economically profitable. That's not an impossible task at all. For example, the tropics, where most of the damage to natural environments and species extinction occurs, are home to people with very low per capita income. Eighty percent of the population of the world lives in developing countries, many of which have some of the largest remaining forest and coral reefs and other natural environments.
One point of entry to a solution is tourism, the biggest industry in the world today—somewhere between $700 and $800 billion a year. A growing segment of that is ecotourism. People in industrialized countries love to visit natural environments with wild animals and new habitats and will spend a large part of their disposable income to do so. You only need a few thousand tourists spending a few thousand dollars each to visit one of these small, impoverished countries, say on the west coast of Africa or Central America. They bring a large flush of money into the economy and employ a great many people at salaries well above what they could obtain by other means. Tourism is now the leading industry of Costa Rica, a fairly prosperous little country. Surinam, on the north coast of South America, has recently turned around its logging practices to stress conservation and is now developing non-invasive sources of income, including tourism.
You have said that we now understand and have a grip on the problems of biological improvement and that the solutions begin with ethical decisions. Do you regard our current leadership in this country as capable of making these ethical decisions?
Wilson: I think they're capable, but they're not doing it. There are people in the administration, notably Colin Powell, who led the recent American initiative to preserve and develop, in non-invasive ways, the central African forest. This is an example of what the administration or any U.S. federal agency can do with a relatively paltry amount of money, a few tens of millions of dollars, and yet make a big difference. I believe that after we get out of this wartime period that we're in, most national leaders will begin to start thinking in longer terms about how to make peace in the world, and especially in these developing countries where the greatest resources of biodiversity exist. Once they see it that way, I doubt if there are very many among our political leaders who could not be brought around to a much greener viewpoint. Even if you put it strictly in terms of national security and international market development, it's the smart thing to be green.
Have recent world events, such as 9-11, the iraqi situation today or the downturn in the economy significantly altered your thinking about any of this?
Wilson: Yes, they've intensified it. I believe that this country and Europe are going to have to start engaging in long-term thinking about the environment. The Europeans are much more inclined to do it now, and the U.S. will follow suit in time.
What the tragedy of 9-11 and the economic downturn have done is push the environment almost entirely out of the arena of public affairs. The environment held virtually no interest for any of the political candidates in the 2002 election, and even the conventional subjects such as pollution and climate warming get very little attention from political leaders in the current atmosphere. I know a lot of environmental scientists and professionals are hoping that we'll come out the other side of this current war crisis with a desire to develop long-term international relations that will increase stability and, if that's done wisely, will have a large green element to it. I feel pretty sure that it's got to be that way.
The question is, will the national leadership see it that way? I certainly wish that Mr. Bush were a book reading man. I have had the chance to talk to some conservative Republican thinkers, and I find that when I put the environmental issues in terms of a definable problem and don't talk it down or assign blame, solutions are possible.
You seem to have a tremendous sense of urgency about all this but, also a tremendous sense of hope. Would you say that describes how you feel?
Wilson: I tend to be an optimist—a cautious optimist. I have a lot of faith in people at every level of education and position. People generally have a caring nature and they really do yearn for a more stable, beautiful and interesting environment. Polls show that the public cares about the environment a great deal and they rank it a very high priority. That includes not just the environment where they live, but the preservation of natural environments. And, consistently in polls, they even go so far as to indicate that they would be willing to accept some increase in taxes just to protect the natural environment. These are facts which are generally ignored by political leaders, because they are not as powerful in opinion-making as national security and economics.
Your book opens with an affectionate and evocative letter to henry thoreau. Are you grateful for being alive now, or would you have rather been a 19th-century contemporary of thoreau?
Wilson: I've thought about that a lot. I would have liked to have been the younger son of a noble family in England in the second half of the 19th century. In other words, not burdened with the responsibilities of the period, given a good education, and with sufficient income to become one of the explorers of the natural world at the time when it was still largely intact and it would be possible to explore previously unknown parts of the planet, and discover new faunas and floras.
I think that's a valid dream to have in the 21st century, in the sense that there's so much of the world left to explore. We don't know the vast majority of insect species, still. They're out there undiscovered.
You quote estimates that the true number of living species range between 3.6
million and 100 million or more, while only 1.8 million have been discovered and given a formal scientific name. That's astonishing.
Wilson: Right, and so the world remains to be discovered. It's possible, today, as a professional scientist or as an ecotourist, to live the life of Thoreau or Darwin or one of the other great 19th-century explorers on this planet.