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If you like Edward O. Wilson's story, you might also like:
Gary Becker,
Lee Berger,
Norman Borlaug,
Francis Collins,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Linus Pauling,
Oliver Sacks,
Richard Schultes,
John Sulston,
James Watson,
Tim White and
Tom Wolfe

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E.O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson
Profile of E.O. Wilson Biography of E.O. Wilson Interview with E.O. Wilson E.O. Wilson Photo Gallery

E.O. Wilson Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Father of Sociobiology

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  E.O. Wilson

If you had a chance to rewrite the last chapter of Sociobiology now, knowing the controversies that ensued, would you have written it differently? Do you think it would have made any difference?

Edward O. Wilson: Interesting question. I would have written it differently. I think I would have written a much longer chapter, and of course, I would have been ignorant of so many things we know today in terms of how biology and culture might interact. I didn't start studying that until about four years afterwards anyway, myself, but I certainly would have taken a very cautious tone, and I would have put in a lot about the political dangers on both sides. I would have tried to bulletproof myself from the left, and at the same time, I would have made concessions to the left about the high risk of misuse of any kind of biology on the right. I think that would have defused a lot of it, but I think there would have been a strong controversy. There wouldn't have been the one coming from my colleagues here quite as strong anyway, because that would have disarmed them.

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Considering how much you were quoted out of context, it might not have made much of a difference.

E.O. Wilson Interview Photo
Edward O. Wilson: That's true. Even today. My latest major life effort is biodiversity conservation. A book called The Future of Life, I just sent it off to the publisher about a month ago actually, and the response from my editor was, "You mention genetic engineering, and you are favorable to it in principle because you think that the increase of productivity of land already under cultivation, the introduction of a second green revolution, will take the pressure off the wild lands and be a positive force, genetic engineering for saving biodiversity." That's the argument I give in one paragraph. And my editor, who is a very smart woman, said, "You're in a mine field again, because the whole world, and particularly Europe, is in a complete frenzy over what they see as the dangers of genetic engineering." So I said, "Boy, I'm not going to have another sociobiology event." I had a considerable library on genetic engineering. So I wrote a much longer section, cataloguing all the things that everyone saw as a possible risk, evaluating them, coming out on the side of genetic engineering, but making it clear that the risks did exist and that we should all know what they are.

So you've learned some valuable lessons from the sociobiology days.

Edward O. Wilson: Oh yeah. I'm battle-trained.

Could you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and the sources of your own interests in science?

Edward O. Wilson: I guess it has become almost like a platitude, but I like to say I had a bug period like every kid. I just never outgrew mine. I had a kid's natural inclination to explore the environment, and if there was a wild environment nearby, all the better. It was all the more exciting, and just somehow in ways I just don't know -- I couldn't explain without, I suppose, psychoanalysis -- this took deeply in me. Part of the reason was I was an only kid, partly because I could see in only one eye. This one was injured when I was a small child, and I only saw in one eye. So I tended to look very closely at things that were very small. That I have trouble judging distance too, that might have enabled me to look for bigger organisms. I guess I evinced talent, because quite early I was picked up by teachers in these small schools in Alabama who encouraged that interest.

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They recognized your writing ability quite early on. Do you have any of those old essays that you wrote?

Edward O. Wilson: Yeah. I dug out a couple of them. They're awful, but maybe not so bad for a nine-year-old.

They probably have little sparks of your later style.

Edward O. Wilson: Yeah. Actually, that's quite true, in that I just thrilled at the idea of telling a story about an animal and so on, but I became counselor at a Boy Scouts camp at the age of 14, and that encouraged me a lot, because I was the youngest counselor, obviously, but I was a kid that the Scout Council of Mobile had heard of who knew a lot of natural history at 14. So I got into that environment and spent a summer, and then the next summer I was a nature counselor for the camp at Pensacola, as a resident expert and little professor. I had all the other scouts, including boys older than I was, out hunting snakes and frogs, and we were having a ball identifying them and talking about them and going on hunting trips and so on, and I guess that really may have turned me into a professor, an academic, because I saw how the love of nature and exploring the wild and so on fitted nicely into education. I even thought you might even make a living at it.

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I had lucky experiences in college with colleagues and professors who kept encouraging me, and pretty soon, I found myself with a large number of similar people, graduate students who had similar backgrounds and the same kind of interests.

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