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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: 7 / 8)

Father of Sociobiology

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  E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson Interview Photo
As a young person, you were also a runner. In your autobiography you say that at one point you tried to break the world's record in the mile. We've heard that in looking at graduate student applications, you were always favorably disposed to long-distance runners or endurance athletes of some kind.

Edward O. Wilson: That's right. I certainly wouldn't have pushed someone just because he or she was a distance runner, but that counted. It meant, as you say, endurance, self-discipline. I remember one of my students, who will go unnamed, had not that good of a grade record. She would not have been admitted, I think, to the very small population of new Ph.D. students in evolutionary biology here at Harvard, but I read a letter from her major professor, and it said, "Ms. X is unusual, she has a lot of grit." This letter came from Texas, and I said, "That's the kind of person I want. That is a person who loves a field and has grit." She was extremely successful, and she now has an excellent position in biodiversity studies.

What do you think your own experience as a distance runner taught you?

Edward O. Wilson: Let me say at the outset, I turned out to be spectacularly mediocre.

It was with distance running, and making my best effort at it, that I discovered (that) at the end of the day, maybe biology is destiny. In other words, there was a limit. There is no question, there was a limit in me and, I think, others -- some very high, some in the middle, and some quite low -- in any kind of physical effort, and it may turn out eventually in any kind of a mental effort where then achievement in mental effort depends substantially on context and opportunity and other character traits. But in the late '40s, I was spellbound by the notion of -- you know, I was just a kid, I was a teenager still -- I was spellbound by the notion of the four-minute mile, the unattainable goal, that humans couldn't break it. It was a period when there was a Swedish runner named Gunder Hagg, who was coming up for the '48 Olympics, who had come up within a second of it. He was my hero, because here was someone who had made supreme effort to attain the ultimate and may be on the edge of doing something historic like that. So I believed at that time, quite contrary to being a genetic determinist, that there was something about excellence in athletics -- in some forms of athletics, but particularly in this one -- that depended upon character and self-determination and ability to endure pain, and I always wanted to be an athlete.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I wasn't big enough to be a football player. I wasn't tall enough to be a basketball player.

So running was the only thing left?

Edward O. Wilson: Yes, that's right. Besides, it felt so exciting.

You know, I was a loner, a solitaire, so this is the perfect sport for that. Those were very romantic days in which no one knew what the human limit was. No one knew what individual limits were. That still was the case when I became a jogger -- before the big running craze in the '60s -- and had one more go at it, trying for master's running, and discovered that my limitation that I found in myself at the college age was still there, adjusted for age, almost mathematically predictable what it would be when I would reach my maximum ability, which I think I did. So I did not become Roger Bannister. He beat me to it, and if I had been given the opportunity for a thousand years, I never would have made it.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

You gave up on the goal of running the four-minute mile, but you transferred all of that self-discipline and training methods to your work. Were you looking for kind of an alternative athletic outlet? All of your scientific work has been an intellectual marathon.

Edward O. Wilson: Yes, that's right.

I saw what I could succeed in. I never considered myself very bright, and I always thought of myself as mathematically mediocre. So I figured that probably, like your college runner who has difficulty breaking a ten-second hundred -- well, breaking an 11-second, shall we say, 100-meter -- realizes that their best shot is to rely less on strength and speed and more on self-discipline, planning, and long hard work. Yes. That's the way I do science.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

That ties in with wonderful advice you have given to young scientists on how to optimally plan your career. You say things like, "Look around laterally. Don't follow the center line."

Edward O. Wilson: That's right. The advice that was once given by a historian of geology summarizes a lot of it. He says...

No one ever becomes a general by joining the army at the end of the war. In other words, look for areas that are not yet opened up, and be a marathoner in a sense, or be prepared to run alone for a long period of time without anybody clapping or giving you any rewards for doing it, in order to be the first into a new area. It is probably the best way -- and certainly in the 21st Century -- of succeeding in science. But I learned a lesson in life when doing badly at distance running, and that was, I guess, humility. Whenever I feel I can fly by flapping my arms or anything, intellectually or any other way, I remember the long hard miles and hours and hours of trying that resulted in my discovery that I was hereditarily not going to be a good distance runner. I have to remind myself repeatedly, hereditarily, it is very likely you won't do very well in this or in that, don't move in that direction where you have doubt. Find out what you really love to do and where you might succeed. You don't have to be the very best, but move in that direction. Pick that field, and life will be a lot more satisfying.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

That is the advice I like to give students who are just starting out. I must have had 2,000 students over the years I was at Harvard -- 41 years teaching -- who came into my office and said, "I'm beginning to get worried. I'm a beginning sophomore and haven't decided what I want to do." That's the advice I try always to give them.

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This page last revised on Nov 27, 2007 20:24 EDT
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