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E.O. Wilson

Interview: E.O. Wilson
Father of Sociobiology

April 5, 2001
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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(At the time of this interview, Edward O. Wilson also sat down for a joint interview with
Dr. Ernst Mayr. Several passages from that interview have also been included here.)

In all modesty, Dr. Wilson, how would you describe your most important contributions to science?

Edward O. Wilson: I'll give it a shot. There's no point in being falsely modest. Every scientist thinks about their contributions all the time, and it isn't just vanity. It has so much to do with strategy.

Deciding when you reach the point of diminishing return in one direction and you really ought to be picking up your gear and moving over to another sector on the advancing front. So I have, in a sense, been an opportunist. The one common thread in my scientific career has been the devotion to one group of organisms, the ants, which I set out to learn thoroughly for the pleasure of it, but also developed for the richness of new material and opportunities for discovery that they could provide. Given that as a kind of anchor, and given evolution as a grand organizing theme for developing research programs, I began with the relatively simple program, actually in my teens, of studying ants and their classification and a little bit of the natural history.

I suppose the earliest discovery I made was in 1942 at the age of 13. Because I happened to be living in the middle of Mobile, near the dock area, I found the first colonies ever recorded of the imported fire ant, which has now spread all over the United States. The State of Alabama asked me to do the first survey. The ant was spreading out then from Mobile, and so my first papers were on the imported fire ant. I was able to -- on the basis of the observation I had made at 13, in 1942, and then the ones that I was making in 1949 -- piece together the arrival time and the rate of spread in the earliest expansion of what is now one of the leading insect pests in the country. So that was a rewarding experience.

Then I developed a much stronger and more abiding interest in systematics and biogeography. I was greatly stimulated, in my sophomore year at the University of Alabama, by reading Ernst Mayr's Systematics in the Origin of Species.

At the University of Alabama, I had the great good fortune of falling in with a group of students that were all returned veterans -- this was 1946 -- from different parts of the country who had come to the University, because there were so few spaces in other colleges and universities that the veterans were spreading out across the country. We all had a common interest in natural history, and we all worked together: one (was) a specialist on beetles, another on salamanders, another on snails, and I was working on ants. We took these trips all through the state and down into Florida, exploring together and doing nothing but talking natural history and talking evolution. It was a great experience.

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That led to serious work in systematics as I proceeded on into graduate work, and then to studies in the caste system of ants, which are all-important in understanding the evolution and diversity of ant species, of which there are about 10,000 known in the world. So at that point, beginning my graduate work, I developed the first evolutionary history of the origin of caste systems in the ants, using a combination of the differential of growth in the larvae of the ant, and of the size frequency distribution: how many big ones and little ones there are in a colony. I put all that together over a large number of species of ants to work out the first pathways of evolution that had ever been done. That was my first contribution.

Did that require museum collections?

Edward O. Wilson: Yes. That required collections of ants from all over the world, and I was able to complete it after I had come to Harvard, because we have the best ant collection in the world at Harvard, and it showed me right from the beginning, as a young graduate student, the enormous value of collections. That got me into the Harvard Society of Fellows.

It gave us three full years to do anything we wanted. So in effect, what I said when I got it -- it was a glorious opportunity, 1953, I was 24 -- I said, "Do anything! Go anywhere!" and immediately I was off to the tropics, which is where I always wanted to go, to luxuriate in the maximum diversity centers of the world, fauna and flora. Sort of like an art student, a scholar of art history, being allowed to visit the great museums for the first time. So off I went to Cuba and Mexico, and spent time working in the rainforest, becoming familiar with the biology of the fauna and flora, and particularly the ants. Then immediately afterward, after passing through Harvard and shaking some hands and collecting checks, I headed for the South Pacific.

There, I followed in part the route followed by Ernst Mayr when he was working on birds, some 30 years before. I climbed, in one case, the same mountain range, and part of it that had never been climbed before. I worked through places like Fiji and New Caledonia and Western Australia, and went on to Sri Lanka, and for a long period of time studied ants in the field.

It's astonishing to read, in your autobiography, just how much territory you covered. You covered a vast amount of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Edward O. Wilson: It's possible to collect a superabundant group like ants, many times faster than, say, collecting mammals or birds. That's an advantage, working these abundant little creatures. You can get the database far more quickly. That's essentially what I did in the South Pacific. When I came back, I put together the theory of taxon cycling, which is not a universal process, but a cyclical process occurs when species are spreading into new parts of the world and splitting into new species and replacing other species and so on.

Was the taxon cycling your first big theory?

Edward O. Wilson: No. Actually, the first big theory was the evolution of the caste systems of ants. This was the second synthesis. It was an original theory based directly on my field observations through the South Pacific and then the systematics work I was doing at Harvard with the ant collection.

At that time, I became absorbed in the idea of the equilibrium of species. That was so obvious, that a species spread into an area -- say Asia and New Guinea -- other species, old species, were retreating, becoming rarer and rarer, but it seemed that there was some kind of a balance. That was very much in the air, anyway. There were a number of authors -- Simpson was one of them, Mayr had mentioned something along these lines -- who were talking about faunas coming into balance, and one assemblage of species maybe replacing another.

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Philip Darlington, here at Harvard University, had gone farther in this direction I think than anyone, and he was the entomology curator. I interacted with him. It was very much on my mind. Then, in 1959, I met Robert MacArthur, a brilliant young ecologist who was then at the University of Pennsylvania; he went to Princeton afterward. We formed a friendship and a close collaboration. We put together my notions of equilibrium, the relation between species -- the data came from many authors -- and then talked about an equilibrium model. MacArthur, being a mathematician and ecologist, was the one who first conceived the crossed immigration and extinction model of reaching an equilibrium in the species, which seems so simple today, but it was a real new idea.

Was that exciting for you, that sense of discovery?

Edward O. Wilson: It was. It was actually Newtonian. MacArthur and I went on, and we had long conversations and just went into the book.

We went on with connecting up what we could think of and discover about immigration into islands and extinction of species, connecting it up, what was known with ecology, which was then emerging into a new phase based upon demography, the life and death of organisms. So here we were, for the first time, able to start at the level of individual organisms and individual species -- living, reproducing, dying at a certain rate, interacting with one another as species that aggregate, and then dispersing -- as a result of having actually produced models that were predictive about what the outcome would be, in terms of diversity on islands. It was crude. It was very crude, and it's been largely replaced by more sophisticated models, but that, in essence, was the theory of island biogeography.

Those insights, and the ability to compose models like that, must have given you enormous confidence to take on even broader, more complex problems, which has become a hallmark of your career.

Edward O. Wilson: Well, that's exactly what happened.

I am by nature a lateral thinker and an imperialist. I'll admit it. That is to say that if something is working at one level or one area, I like to say, "Well, maybe it will work at a broader area or across a larger span of time or biological organization." So (I was) encouraged by that success, it's true, and it was very successful. It really had an impact on ecology, and also on the study of biodiversity, and ultimately on conservation biology, because obviously, the processes of immigration of new species and extinction of resident species is fundamental in understanding the preservation of biodiversity in reserves and in the world generally.

Is that the part of this work that's had the greatest practical application?

Edward O. Wilson: That's right. Oddly, MacArthur and I didn't think of that at all. We hadn't really touched on it when he died of cancer in 1972. He was 42 years old. A great loss, but I soldiered on. In the late '60s, I decided that the time had come to design an experiment.

I wanted to make evolutionary biology experimental, and no one had thought of making biogeography experimental. How could you make biogeography experimental? And it dawned on me -- because I was doing all this field work, more from the experience of natural history -- that we weren't going to be able to experiment with New Guinea or Fiji, or even a small island in the West Indies. Because what I had in mind was to eliminate all the species in a place where they could be eliminated without any real damage to the total fauna, and then study the return of those, and see how that accorded with the basic patterns predicted by the theory of island biogeography. And it dawned on me that whereas you have to have an island the size of Cuba, say, for a real population of woodpeckers or small mammals, that a very small island, like a mangrove island in the Florida Keys, would be an island for tiny insects where thousands of a species could live.

I arrived at the Florida Keys by looking at maps, detailed maps. I went up and down the East Coast, looking at different islands -- rocky islands and sandbars and so on, and then I finally came to the Florida Keys where I had done field work before -- and it dawned on me. There are these thousands of little mangrove islands in Florida Bay.

In fact, there is an area called the Ten Thousand Islands, and my idea first, which I started in 1965, was to go down to the Dry Tortugas and survey and map every plant and animal on those little sandy islands off Key West and then wait for a hurricane to wipe them clean -- because we know every time that a hurricane passed through there, they were wiped clean of life -- and then I would go back and study them. We actually got that started. We even had a couple of hurricanes conveniently occur that season, but I realized that that wasn't going to do it. So I had to figure out a way of eliminating all these little arthropods.

Weren't the hurricanes efficient enough?

Edward O. Wilson: We didn't get them frequently enough, and you couldn't control it. We couldn't have controlled experiences. We had to do better than that. We had to find a way of eliminating all the arthropods, essentially all animal life, from a small key, maybe 50 to 75 feet across. About this time, I had the great good fortune of being joined by Dan Simberloff, who had been trained in math. He had just become a naturalist at this point, in order to do this experiment. Dan and I plotted how to set this experiment up. Without going into too much detail, it was quite an adventure, our mishaps, our false starts, lining up an exterminator, getting the right technique.

We pulled it off. We actually followed the recolonization of an empty island, in fact a whole series of them, with controls, and that was the first experiment in island biogeography. And although the data had certain limitations -- we couldn't really figure out the turnover rate exactly -- we did affirm the main conclusions of the theory of island biogeography. The closer the island is and the smaller it is, the more quickly it fills up. The farther away it is, the larger it is, the more slowly it fills up. We learned a lot about the colonization of our islands in that experiment. It was very satisfying.

Some molecular biologists in those days used to deride natural history, comparing it to stamp collecting and so forth. When you introduced experimental techniques into natural history on this grand scale, what impression did that make on your more skeptical colleagues?

Edward O. Wilson: I never bothered to find out. We were in the full rage of molecular biology then. So many of the most successful ones thought there would never again be anything worthwhile in natural history, but I was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1969, at a fairly early age, so I must have had some support from them.

I remember one memorable occasion in which I met the great physicist, (Paul Adrien Maurice) Dirac. I just enjoyed sitting down with him for a while. He was a kind of a taciturn fellow, and I didn't know what exactly to say to P.A.M. Dirac. Finally, I mentioned -- because we were in Florida at the time of the experiments and the theory -- and immediately got his attention. That was wonderful describing that to him, because I think I convinced him that you could do this type of work. At any rate, that now was that phase, and in the '60s -- well, in the late '50s already -- I'd seen another direction to go in, and I was cultivating that simultaneously, and that was chemical communication. In the late '50s -- this was right at the beginning also of my work on island biogeography with MacArthur -- chemists were developing a microanalysis. They were, for the first time, able to identify organic compounds at the microgram level. Which meant, also for the first time, we could take a single insect and identify the exocrine gland substances that it had in it. I knew, because I had begun doing that work at that time, locating the glandular sources of the substances that the ants used to communicate. I was having a considerable success in the laboratory with that. I was discovering one thing after another, partly because nobody else had picked up on it yet, and I had that little window of time when I could really make a discovery, almost every time I went in a lab. Here was a grand opportunity, not only to locate the source of the glands -- like alarm substances from the mandibular glands and trail substances from poison glands and so on -- but we could identify the substances.

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So I collaborated with a couple of chemists in the early '60s, and we actually started identifying some of these substances. Bill Bossert, a mathematician here at Harvard, he was a graduate student at the time. He joined me, and almost entirely through his skills developing diffusion models, and with what we knew about pheromones, we developed the first real quantitative theory of pheromone evolution: what size molecules would be needed for what amount of privacy and communication and so on. We developed that, and we also developed the models of diffusion; that is, how much of the substance was needed, how far it would spread and what pattern and so on. That was a nice result.

Natural history has made tremendous progress as a formal discipline, with real hypothesis testing. How has that changed the relationship with molecular biology?

The second half of the 20th Century was marked by the "triumph of the molecule" as it were. This was the era of molecular biology. But it was also the era of extremely reductionist and intensely focused biology that was problem-oriented, and therefore was concentrated typically on a single species at a time. The people who succeeded in that method of science did so brilliantly, but they lost all sense of the diversity of life, and they lost all sense of evolution. Therefore, they lost all appreciation of what was referred to, dismissively often, as traditional biology, what had gone before.

In the second half of the 20th Century, that spanned pretty much my career as a biologist. I lived through that era and I was, in one sense, disadvantaged, and in another extremely fortunate. Disadvantaged because I was in a field that was being marginalized by the community of biological scientists, undersupported, and generally underappreciated. I was at a great advantage, however, in that it was also a time when evolutionary biology was emerging as a powerful new science, and in the hands of a quite small population of people. My generation of scientists then was able to engage in the improvement of a subject in a way that allowed a very large share of the discoveries per person. Great opportunities to make discoveries! All we had to do, it seemed, was walk into the lab, or go into the field, and think a little bit, and you came up with new things.

For example, in addition to predictive theories that have actually worked out in my own experience in the field of conservation and ecology very well, in the theory of island biogeography, there was the entire new field of pheromone studies opening. That allowed me personally to collaborate with chemists at the dawn of the era in which it was possible to identify not just grams or milligrams of purified substances, but micrograms, so that we could analyze trace amounts of pheromones being released by a single insect. And that opened a whole new vista of study, and quickly led to reconstruction of the evolution of chemical communication, including the social insects, where it's tremendously important.

As time went on and we came up to the 21st Century, in a sense, the molecular biologists began to run out of things to do and they rediscovered diversity. By this time, evolutionary biology has grown quite sophisticated in many sectors along the advancing front, and in the hands of a relatively small number of people doing it. So when the molecular biologists discovered that it would frequently take ten or twenty people to conduct a single experiment, at that stage of the science, they began to look about and they rediscovered evolution. So the situation today is that molecular biologists are collaborating very extensively with evolutionary biologists and we have the best of both worlds.

You've had an extraordinary history of collaboration with people in very different disciplines who have supplemented your own abilities. You were listed as second author on many of these publications. Your name, Wilson, comes late in the alphabet, but there are many instances in which a more egocentric senior scientist would have insisted on being listed first anyway.

Edward O. Wilson: I went out of my way to promote the career of junior faculty, a new junior scientist coming and collaborating with me, and beginning their career when they did it. The main reason -- I guess the only reason I can give -- is that I couldn't stand having a bad conscience. So that was it. So I did that, but it didn't take any credit from me personally, I don't think. And also, I owed. I owed particularly my mathematical collaborative, like MacArthur, Lumsden, and then subsequently in the late '70s, George Oster.

He was a splendid applied mathematician, when we worked out the first full theory of the evolution of caste systems in the social insects in terms of adaptation and optimization. How many? What would be the ideal number of major workers and minor workers to have, and how long they should live? And so on. That was done then.

I have very limited mathematical ability. When I came to the era of island biogeography, I realized that it was very important to base things, or to use mathematical modeling as a mode of reasoning, even if you couldn't make things as precise as you could in molecular biology or physics. You needed to be able to do mathematical modeling in order to reason in at least qualitative ways. So actually, as an associate tenured professor at Harvard, I sat through two years of mathematics as sort of like a -- I don't know -- a 45-year-old bookkeeper putting himself through Parris Island boot camp, because I didn't like mathematics that much, but I learned enough. But my main strategy afterward was to collaborate with mathematicians whenever I needed to work on the theory.

You read William Hamilton's famous paper on kin selection in the mid '60s. You were one of the earliest people to recognize its significance. Did that instill in you, or confirm in you, the importance that mathematical models were going to play in any broader theories of evolutionary biology?

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Edward O. Wilson: It did, emphatically. I picked up on this in the middle of my work on island biogeography and chemical communication, which was pretty well filling all my spare time, so I hadn't really thought hard about using genetic models of this kind. I'm not quite sure whether I could have pulled it off, because of my background. Hamilton was a very good mathematician, and he had a particular interest in matrix analysis of kinship. He just developed that. What Hamilton did in 1964 was a brilliant stroke. It is not appreciated that the reason why it was so good was not so much the basic idea of kin selection. Darwin had that in rudimentary form, and Haldane supposedly had come up with something semi-quantitative. What made it great was that Hamilton applied it to the social insects, and particularly the social hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants), and he showed that the biasing of genes, the relationships, due to the hymenoptera's special sex-determining mechanism, makes it more useful under certain conditions to raise sisters than daughters.

There is a fascinating passage in your autobiography where you describe going down south on a train, reading the Hamilton paper, and how every inch of your psyche is resisting it at first.

Edward O. Wilson: I worked through Hamilton's quite difficult paper. He could have written in a simpler way. It was difficult mathematics, and difficult, somewhat tortuous reasoning, but I worked through it, and I saw that, indeed, he had made a major new insight. I resisted it, because I didn't believe that there could be such a powerful force, and one so simple, operating in the evolution of the social insect. And also, I was arrogant a little bit, you know. I thought I knew more about social insects than anybody else. I might have, and here was somebody I never heard of before that may have made the most important discovery, at least of the decade, in the study of social insects. But I yielded after a while. I thought that, "Yes, this had to be correct," and my reaction ever since has been that of Huxley, hearing about Darwin's theory of natural selection: "How stupid of me not to have thought of that!" But my hands were very full. I excused myself. My hands were very full at that time in island biogeography.

The train trip in which I read Hamilton's article was on the way down to the Keys, and I also was doing pheromone research, that is, chemical communication research.

However, by the end of the '60s, I saw the enormous need to pull together everything we know about social insects. It was scattered, and what we knew was scattered through hundreds of journals and dozens of languages, and there was no unifying theoretical theme. It was only descriptive. By that time, I had become convinced that the new field of population biology, which I was helping to develop with MacArthur and Richard Lewontin at Harvard and some others in my age group -- that is, to work out the principles of the biology of whole populations, like genetics population ecology -- now I saw that societies were populations. They had many of the characteristics of populations, and their qualities were determined substantially by the same principles of birth and death and reproduction and dispersal of great parameters that determine the qualities of population. That somehow, social organisms should fit in on that, and that this would be the framework to pull together everything we know about social insects. That is what I did, and published in 1971 the book entitled The Insect Societies. That really was the introduction of sociobiology, not 1975 with a book that had the title Sociobiology, but The Insect Societies in 1971.

At the end of this book, having brought all of these principles together, coherent and whole, and organizing what we knew about social insects up to that time, I had a concluding section entitled, "The Prospects for a Unified Sociobiology," and forecast it would be moving on into other organizations: the vertebrates, including the primates. I published that book, and then I started thinking about that.

Curiously, your book, The Insect Societies, didn't produce anything like the storm of controversy that your later work, Sociobiology, did.

Edward O. Wilson: That's because I didn't mention people. I went up to the rhesus macaque. My student, Stuart Altman, was working on the sociobiology of rhesus macaque, he even had a similar idea. I said in that close of the 1971 book, when we have a general theory that can use the same language to embrace termites, the social insect, and rhesus macaque monkeys, we would really have a new science of sociobiology.

When I finished that book, I don't know what I was planning to do then, but then one idea kept gnawing at me which was, "What the heck, might as well add the vertebrates." There were a whole large number of people working in the world on vertebrate social behavior. How would they react if an entomologist said he's going to include all the vertebrates within the insects and try to write a book on sociobiology?

That must have been an enormous undertaking.

Edward O. Wilson: Well, it seemed that way, but...

It turned out that the vertebrates are far simpler, and the literature is far easier to get into than was the case with social insects. Social insects was bibliographically an extremely difficult job, but not so for the vertebrates. To my pleasant surprise, I found that when I started recruiting vertebrate sociobiologists, behavioral biologists, to give me literature and help and so on, they were enthusiastic that somebody would try to put all of this together, and so it went. In 1974, I had finished the book, and now a new thought was gnawing. I thought of stopping at the chimpanzees, and I know now that if I had stopped at the chimps, there would have been no controversy. Probably then or possibly then, the ideas of sociobiology would have seeped their way into the social sciences in a less toxic manner. It wouldn't have caused the tremendous reaction that did ensue. But at the time, I said, "I can't leave out Homo sapiens as a primate, as a species. I've got to encompass it."

Were you at all nervous about doing this? Darwin, we know, was apprehensive about publishing The Origin of Species.

Edward O. Wilson: I wasn't as scared as he was. I just never realized that a storm would erupt over that. He was afraid of the religious response, and I didn't know or care about the Marxists or the current dominant ideology.

So you were caught really by surprise.

Edward O. Wilson: I caught them by surprise, (by) including humans, and I saw right then and there that this could be very important, to include humans in this. I caught them by surprise, and then they caught me by surprise because I didn't expect to be blindsided, literally, from the left. I won't go into all of that, except to say that it was a period in which the whole subject came close -- that is, as it applied to humans -- came dangerously close to being politicized. It was politicized. The animal part was enormously successful. It resulted in a couple of new journals, a very substantial increase in the studies of animal social behavior. It was accompanied by an explosive growth of behavioral ecology, a closely related subject which included solitary animals and their behavior. At one point, the Animal Behavior Society voted Sociobiology: The New Synthesis the most important book on animal behavior ever, even got more votes that Darwin's book. But I think so many of the social scientists, philosophers, and particularly those who were defending a Marxist ideology, considered it the worst book on human behavior in history, or one of them, and it was a tumultuous period in which what they considered the dangers of returning biology to the consideration of human behavior were too great to be tolerated.

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It's surprising, re-reading that last chapter of Sociobiology now, 25 years later. It seems so innocuous. It's hard now to see what the fuss was all about. Was it the political climate of the time?

Edward O. Wilson: Oh, that is exactly right. 1975 was the last year of the Vietnam War. It was also the twilight of the New Left in the academy, which had become almost dominant and very violent in several respects in the '60s. It involved a minority of students and professors, but nonetheless, they were so vocal and demonstrative that they tended to rule the learning climate in the academy. It was a very unfortunate trend. The main antagonists -- Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin for example, and several others who organized the movement against it -- their idea was to strangle it in the crib. So their language was extremely strong.

Didn't that backfire on them later?

Edward O. Wilson: I think it quickly backfired.

Today, 25 years later, gradually the malodor drifted away, and today it is one of the most popular subjects, particularly going under the name "evolutionary psychology." There is an entire library of books it seems, almost every year, published. It never was rejected as heavily as the criticism seemed to indicate -- that is, the conspicuous criticism. I made a count not too long ago of books published from 1975 to '95 -- in my library, which is nearly complete -- on human sociobiology, and in that period, the books favorable, predominantly favorable, ran something like 20 to one against those that were unfavorable. The ones that were unfavorable were often paid a great deal of attention to because everybody likes a fight.

Nowadays, they have just about gone to nothing. So I think that struggle is largely over.

You really have triumphed with the passage of time. Some of your worst critics have become researchers in the field.

Edward O. Wilson: What was new about sociobiology -- and it finally began to dawn -- was that, for better or for worse, right or wrong in its basic presumptions, for the first time, biology was in a really serious way coming up to the social sciences. That will only happen once, and that was another reason why there was so much trouble. The social scientists weren't prepared for this. They didn't understand it, or they think they saw fundamental flaws in it. They thought it was unhealthy. They thought it was hegemonic, and a great many of them still feel that way. That is one reason that I wrote my book Consilience, was to try to show how knowledge might be unified, and in a manner that would mean coalition and cooperation and joint exploration of the big remaining gap, rather than translation of the great branches of learning -- the other great branches of learning -- into scientific language and scientific rules of validation. Many who resisted Consilience resisted Sociobiology for the belief that somehow the scientists who didn't really know what they were talking about were coming into the social sciences, humanities, and trying to take over in a destructive way. I hope that Consilience might have moderated that response.

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.

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

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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.

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.

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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

You're really quite extraordinary as a scientist in having won two Pulitzer Prizes for your writing. Often, people will group you with other scientists who have distinguished themselves in popular science writing, like Stephen Jay Gould or perhaps Richard Dawkins. You're somewhat unusual, though, in that you never set out to write popular books. You just write books that are very readable. Where do you think this gift for language and writing comes from?

Edward O. Wilson: I don't know. It's a talent.

If I were a religious person, (I'd say) it was God-given that it was there. It was there when I was a nine-year-old. I just discovered it, and I could write better things than other kids in the class, and more feelingly. The written word just attracted me enormously. Why I didn't become a typical Southern writer, I don't know, and maybe through my scientific career, there was a Southern writer trying to get out. I never became a writer just to be a writer. What I did was to use the talent to present the subject matter I was working on in science in a maximally dramatic and clear manner. More recently, I have been experimenting a little bit with creative writing, and that entails a substantial lyrical content that other scientists rarely experiment with in non-fiction, but again, it's always in the service of the subject.

E.O. Wilson Interview Photo
For example, most recently, because most of so much of my activity lately is in biodiversity conservation and the conservation movement and conservation science, I have tried to produce prose that is as evocative as possible in seizing the attention of the reader and getting the reader to feel the same sense of wonder and concern and a caring sense of stewardship about these organisms that I am describing.

Your talents as a writer have opened your works to many people who wouldn't otherwise have read them, and they've also done a tremendous service to the causes you've supported.

Edward O. Wilson: I thank you for that. At the same time, scientists who are good writers have an unfair advantage over other scientists, a terribly unfair advantage. It worries me. If you have two people with competing theories, and it hasn't been settled which way they're going to go, your talented writer is going to hold the high ground for a long period of time, even if he is wrong.

Looking back over your career as a naturalist, what do you see as the most challenging problems for the natural sciences in the future?

We're at the beginning of an era where, increasingly, the intellectual power of biology as a whole, including the molecular technology, the genomics technology, is being addressed more and more. If you look at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, you see more and more attention paid to the question of diversity in evolution.

And thus, among the great problems in biology facing us, is first to get enough genomics mapped to detect patterns and develop new understanding across many, many species that will give us a hint as to how the genome evolved, or the general rules, the processes. And then, the biologists at the molecular cell level have launched upon the great unknown sea of proteonomics, of how the proteins are created, in what time schedules, and how they interact, and we've just begun that. As that develops, we're going to be using evolutionary biology all the time, and adaptationist hypotheses, to predict and look for phenomena in the ways that proteins evolve, and the way they interact in the developmental process. That's one great new direction you can look to in the next ten or 20 years. Another is in ecology, particularly the community ecology. How communities are put together in the course of evolution, and the assembly of ecosystems -- what the rules are and what the constraints are -- in order to explain the amount of biodiversity it can get sustainably. So that too, is to be founded in natural history. And then, finally, to shorten this, I've gone on much too long, there is the great problem -- it's an applied problem, if you will, but it's enormously important -- of saving biodiversity. All the evidence shows that biodiversity is quickly going down the tube and we could lose half the species on earth in a century if major changes aren't made. So this is a problem that has to be faced jointly by the biologists, especially the naturalists, those who know where the biodiversity is and how it lives, on the one side, and then leaders in the corporate and governmental world and other branches of science willing to contribute to devising ways to conserve what we have left of biodiversity.

On behalf of the Academy of Achievement, thank you for such a wonderful interview.

Edward O. Wilson: Thank you very much. As a conversation, it was excellent.




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