Biologist Edward O. Wilson—The Bard of Biodiversity

Saturday, December 01, 2001

Edward O. Wilson
Photograph by Eric Weeks
"Go to the ant, thou sluggard: consider her ways, and be wise," says the Bible's book of Proverbs. It's advice that biologist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard has taken to heart since boyhood, when he grew fascinated by the complex social behavior of these insects. His 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis sparked fierce controversy after he suggested that human behavior is shaped by the same evolutionary forces that guide the actions of ants and other animals. Wilson's latest project, outlined in The Future of Life (to be published in January 2002 by Alfred A. Knopf) is a blueprint to protecting the world's wildlife and wild lands. He discussed this campaign and other causes close to his heart with Discover associate editor Josie Glausiusz.

Why have you devoted so much of your life to the study of insects?
Worldwide, insects are responsible for most of the pollination and are vital for global circulation of materials and energy through all of the land environments, and even parts of the shallow seas. Ants, for example, are the chief predators of other insects, the principal scavengers of small dead animals, and important pollinators and protectors of plants, and they turn more soil worldwide than earthworms.

What would the earth look like without insects?
If all insects were to disappear (there are, according to one estimate, about one million trillion alive at any moment) the land ecosystems would collapse. Decomposition of vegetation would slow dramatically, and detritus would pile up to abnormal heights. Pollination of a large percentage of plant species would cease and with it, reproduction. The vast array of other organisms that depend on insects for food, from tiny bacteria and fungi to birds and other vertebrates, would go extinct. Forests would largely if not entirely disappear. And the remaining vegetation would regress to a far simpler, impoverished condition. If humans were to disappear, the land ecosystems would return in a few centuries to near their original healthy, balanced condition.

Why do you fight to protect biodiversity?
Almost all current biodiversity analysts agree that the extinction of species is proceeding at one hundred to 10,000 times the pre-human rate, while the rate of origin of new species is decreasing. If more serious conservation measures aren't taken, especially in countries with rainforests and coral reefs, we could lose half the species of plants and animals by the end of the century.

How did we fall into such a morass?
Try HIPPO: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, over-population, and over-harvesting of wild species. Humanity didn't mean for it to turn out this way; we just blundered into the crisis by a multitude of small, largely unconscious actions. These include hunting as many animals as could be caught, clearing as much land as could be converted into agricultural fields, drawing down as much water as could be reached, and other survival practices that on a short-term basis have always seemed perfectly logical.

What's the best way to protect biodiversity?
More and larger reserves are the answer, carefully selected by location and biological content and maintained thereafter in such a way as to attract subsidies and other non-invasive sources of income. These include eco-tourism, non-invasive harvesting of medicinals and other wild products, and carefully selective and minimally invasive logging. Above all, we need to ensure that the local governments and people affected would benefit more by conservation than by destructive exploitation.

How have the recent terrorist attacks affected this effort?
I've been deeply depressed. Just when we were getting to the point where the environment was becoming an important political issue, suddenly our country is almost completely diverted. That's not good for the environment. Of course, we have to take action. We can't sit here until they drop a nuclear weapon on us. But I hope we keep our eye on the ball.

You've come out publicly in support of genetically modified crops. Why?
There are genuine risks associated with transgenic crops. One concern is that you can produce super-weeds and super-bugs, and that the plants or bugs may then get out and take over our world. That's a science-fiction scenario which is worth thinking about, like a giant asteroid striking earth, but it's a remote possibility. There are virtually no cases of any modified strain that could go back and out-compete the natural strain in the original environment. On the other side, the world needs a new, "evergreen" revolution to increase food production while reducing environmental damage.

How has your book, Sociobiology, weathered the winds of time?
Animal sociobiology was always fully accepted, and it helped to revolutionize the study of animal behavior. Human sociobiology, the cause of the ruckus, is now generally accepted. As a fuller picture from human behavioral genetics and neuroscience has emerged, the connections between genes, mind, and culture have become clearer. We have begun to untangle the very complex relation between heredity and environment. We still have a long way to go, however.

You have postulated that religion may have evolved by natural selection. How might that have happened?
In general, religion and religion-like faith seem to be a basic part of human nature. Religion has features that enhance survival and reproduction, including the stronger bonding together of tribal groups, and a conquest of the dread of mortality, which is the curse of conscious intelligence. Further, religion appears to have played a very important role in organizing information about the world in mythic form before science undertook more naturalistic explanations.

How then do you explain the modern rise of secularism?
The fact is that secularists tend towards the same tribal behavior as religionists. We saw with amazement how the Soviets quickly built up a whole paraphernalia of religion: their icons, preserved in Red Square, their ceremonies, their sacred literature, their prophets. And members of the American Humanist Association, with which I've been affiliated with the for some time, show the same bonding, zeal in their beliefs, and stress upon a hopeful optimistic view of the future as traditional religions do. They're just not as good at it.

Are you yourself religious?
I am religious by nature but find my inner peace from commitment to the conservation and celebration of Earth's fauna and flora—including Homo sapiens. While I respect the metaphysical views of others, I see little evidence of God in the horrors and beauty of the world as we now understand them. Nor do I worry about an afterlife.

Both secularism and fundamentalism seem to be thriving. Which way to do you see religion evolving?
I think that the belief systems of traditional religions will continue to evolve to a more and more secular state. That's because religions must square with the most solid advances of science, those that contradict old dogma. And they have continuously done so, since the Enlightenment. That is the way science and religion are most likely to be reconciled.

If you could travel back in time, what would you change about this planet?
If I could go way back, I'd have humanity reach at least its current level of self-understanding and appreciation of the environment before our species moved out of Africa. How great it would be to explore and embrace the untrammeled living world without destroying it.
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