When Dr. Wilson began his career in evolutionary biology in the 1950s, the study of animals and plants seemed to many scientists a quaint and outdated hobby. Molecular biologists had their first glimpses of DNA, proteins and other invisible foundations of life. Dr. Wilson has done his life's work to put evolution on an equal footing.
"Future generations will forgive our horrible genocidal wars, because it will fall in history. They will forgive us all the follies and damages of previous generations. But they won't forgive us for so carelessly throwing away much of the rest of the life in our care. "
Edward Osborne Wilson was one of the great biologists of the 20th century, a classical naturalist drawn to wild places. “Here is a nest of the infamous fire ant. He was the world's foremost expert in ant biology. But his wit and talent went far beyond insects. He was a deep thinker who developed major theories in ecology and evolution. He became an unlikely celebrity, taking center stage in two 20th century science controversies. During his career, he won almost every major science award - and two Pulitzer Prizes.
“I would like to say a word about saving biodiversity - the rest of life. "
The New York Times sat down with him in his office at Harvard in March 2008 for this interview to discuss his life and how his love of science grew out of his love for the natural world.
“I believe that a child is by nature a hunter. I started with a butterfly collection when I was 9 years old. And I imagined myself as an explorer, and I decided that I would lead an expedition and collect bugs. And I started it, and I never stopped. "
His first expeditions led to the description of hundreds of new species. His breakthroughs in the study of insect social behavior and communication have changed the way we think about ourselves.
Some people have called you a modern day Darwin.
"Putting false modesty aside, how does that fit in with you?" "Of course he, being the pioneer and a man of almost unbelievable acuity, I think he is second to none. But among the current living people, I think I am the best approach. "
The beginning of Wilson's career was marked by conflict and controversy. The 1950s and 1960s were turbulent years in science. The discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson forever changed biology. Tensions arose between proponents of the new discipline of molecular biology and classical biologists, whose focus on whole organisms and species seemed old-fashioned. Perhaps no place was better chosen than Harvard. Edward Wilson and James Watson clashed.
Wilson insisted that all of that old biology had to be gone because now the future of biology lay in molecular biology. And the sooner we get there, the better. And he was very rude about it. I took it very personally, because I admired the man. He was only a year older, but here was someone who had made a truly historic breakthrough. I called it the Caligula of biology. And he could do whatever he wanted, and everyone would cheer. Over time, the two eminent scientists reconciled a little, sometimes tearing each other apart in public and sometimes appearing together on television.
In the 1970s, Wilson became the center of a political storm when he pioneered a new discipline called sociobiology. He extended his ideas on social behavior from insects to animals and then to humans, propelling himself to the center of the debate on nature versus education.
If he could explain the behavior of ants, Dr. Wilson extended his reasoning. He should be able to explain the behavior of other animals: iguanas, newts, seagulls - maybe even people. Dr Wilson and his like-minded colleagues came to refer to this project with a word that had floated around the world of animal behavior since the 1950s: sociobiology. In 1975, Dr Wilson published " Sociobiology: The New Synthesis" . It will become his most controversial book
“This is the fundamental principle of sociobiology. Genes for particular social behaviors exist, and they have been propagated by natural selection. But scientists are deeply divided over the scientific and social implications. "What he did was shake the dovecotes of the social sciences and, in general, extreme political left. Everyone had decided that the human brain is a blank slate, and that everything is determined by history and by contingency. And anyone to say there was a biologically grounded human nature wouldn't be worth much. What you were doing was opening the door to racism or gender discrimination. Worse yet, in a letter to the New York Review of Books, some denounced sociobiology as an attempt to reinvigorate the tired old theories of biological determinism - theories, they argued, which "provided an important basis for promulgation. from sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenic policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.
The opposition to sociobiology within Harvard was particularly fierce. The slingshot was led by Richard Lewontin and Steve Gould. They set out to completely discredit sociobiology.
“We don't know anything about why some people are more aggressive than others, some people are more entrepreneurial, in fact why some people have more musical ability than others. There is no evidence that these individuals differ in their genes. For Wilson, the criticism took on a more concrete form at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My turn has come to give a talk. There was this group. They rushed onto the stage. They grabbed the microphone. One of the young women came up behind me, grabbed the pitcher of ice water and poured it over my head. I thought it was very interesting. I think I'm going to be the only scientist to have been physically assaulted in recent years for an idea. "
Seeing the controversy, he set out to approach it directly. Even moderately centrist newspapers - Time magazine, for example - came to accept that this was some kind of extreme belief in the human genetic basis of behavior. J
"So I sat down and wrote the book 'On Human Nature,' which was to explain the human aspect as I saw it, including a lot of new evidence."
I won the Pulitzer Prize.
As part of his campaign, Dr Wilson wrote a series of books that influenced his fellow scientists while gaining a large following. “ On Human Nature ” won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1979; "The Ants ", which Dr Wilson wrote with his longtime colleague Bert Hölldobler, won him his second Pulitzer, in 1991.
Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. Her life at home was difficult. Her father was an alcoholic and ultimately committed suicide. But these difficulties have been associated with a natural love of the outdoors. “My dad had jobs that took him to a lot of places, to several towns in Alabama, then to Pensacola and so on. I went to something like 15 or 16 schools in 11 years of schooling. I was single and only child, so I had antlers to myself, so to speak. And I felt like an explorer every day I went out. Wilson lost an eye in a fishing accident as a child. The resulting lack of depth perception made some observations difficult. But he could hold the bugs up to his good eye. “I brought black widows home. My parents actually allowed me to breed black widow spiders in large jars on the porch at the back of our house.
Were you religious when you were a child?
“Well, I was a Southern Baptist, sure. And of course, I was pious, because everyone was pious. And like everyone else in Southern Alabama, racism was in order. It was part of the culture that was unchallenged. When I got to college, I discovered evolution, and I combined that with the natural rebellion of a 17 and 18 year old - I moved away from fundamentalist Protestantism.
So do you believe in God?
“I am not an atheist, because I think it would be foolish to deny, dogmatically, the possibility of some form of higher intelligence. But religion is simply an expression of tribalism which includes the belief, the hope, the desire that this particular tribe be blessed by God. Satisfied with this explanation, I then find it much easier to speak with the tribal leaders, also known as priests, rabbis and pastors. "
His 2006 book, “ The Creation, ” was specifically addressed to Christians. “I have become very friendly with evangelical leaders as a result of my call for cooperation between scientists and environmentalists to engage in saving the Earth's biodiversity. "
At the time of this interview, Wilson, 79, was busy in his lab at Harvard, performing in an episode of " Nova " on PBS and writing books. He looked forward to the publication of his first novel, a political allegory set in an anthill. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his efforts to preserve the planet's declining biodiversity. “What we have to keep in mind when considering the rest of life on Earth is that we are losing it. And that's the part that can't be brought back. We are destroying species and ecosystems, which are millions of years old and invaluable to humanity and future generations. And we don't know how quickly they are disappearing. How to wake up things? So I wrote an article called “Encyclopedia of Life”. And it took very quickly. A lot of people have said, yes, this is the way to do it. Electronic encyclopedia with a website for every species of organism in the world, although there were 100 million of them. The Encyclopedia of Life was launched in February 2008. It was only the latest in Wilson's many efforts to raise awareness of the loss of species.
How would you like to be remembered?
“As Darwin's successor. [laughs] Like having carried the torch, at least for a short while.
In the end, Dr. Wilson's ambitions earned him many criticisms. Some condemned what they saw as simplistic accounts of human nature. Other evolutionary biologists attacked him for reversing his views on natural selection at the end of his career.
But while its legacy may be complicated, it remains deep. “He was a visionary on many fronts,” said Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, former student of Dr. Wilson and professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis, in a 2019 interview.
As Paula J. Ehrlich, CEO and President of the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, said: “Her courageous scientific orientation and poetic voice have transformed the way we understand ourselves and our planet. "