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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series #21: E. O. Wilson: Of the Grasshopper and the Ant

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth producer Kim Motylewski and host Steve Curwood profile Edward O. Wilson. The sometimes controversial Harvard professor turned his childhood passion of studying insects into a lifelong career as a researcher, teacher and author of books on animal biology, ecology, human population, biodiversity and a new theory called the "Biophilia Hypothesis."


WILSON: I can stop dead in my tracks. Let's do it right now. (Laughs)


WILSON: And I have, we have before us, as we're looking down on the ground, it looks like sort of a 2-dimensional world, there's not much there in the dead leaves...

(Footfalls on leaves)

CURWOOD: Meet Edward O. Wilson, Harvard's ant man. A population biologist and passionate advocate for the conservation of all forms of life.

WILSON: But I know that if I kneel and start scratching into the leaves, that I will immediately be within arm's reach of up to hundreds of species of the creepy crawlies that I work on, the insects and spiders and millipedes and other small creatures. And I also know that probably some of these are new to science, haven't even been described, at least a very small percentage in this part of the world.

CURWOOD: Dr. Wilson is one of 25 people Living on Earth is profiling for his contribution to environmental awareness. He's made major contributions in the field of entomology, population ecology, sociobiology, and conservation. But his first love is scratching around in the dirt. Dr. Wilson recently took us to one of his favorite haunts near his home in suburban Boston.

WILSON: And I am going to cut, now, down next to this stone with this trowel. (Sound of a trowel cutting through leaves) And I would ask you to not think of ...

CURWOOD: But before he begins his search in earnest, Professor Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller, sets the scene. Put yourself, he suggests, in the place of an ant or a beetle.

WILSON: And your scale of interest is now millimeters. And I will ask you to imagine descending with me down through these leaves, down through this part of the soil in which the leaves are just beginning to be broken up by fungi and insects, and recognize that we are doing the equivalent of descending, if you were now back to human scale, as into an ocean from the surface, down into the unlighted depth. And we recognize, too, that the environment for these little creatures changes radically.

CURWOOD: Professor Wilson is obsessed with this bug's eye view. For him, exploring these unlighted depths reveals the secrets of life. He calls it gazing at the face of creation.

WILSON: I would say that if we spent a long time here and took samples we would probably turn up in the square meter into the tens of thousands of these creatures that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye.

CURWOOD: This splendid diversity of life isn't just an idle fascination for Professor Wilson. It's the foundation of human life on the planet. And therefore, it's political. Recently he's been testifying before Congress on Endangered Species legislation, and personally telling House Speaker Newt Gingrich about the need to protect the country's remaining species of plants, animals, and microbes.

WILSON: In the best known groups, about 1.5% have gone extinct, mostly in the last 100 years, and 22% are rated by The Nature Conservancy, 22% rated as rare, threatened, or endangered. And that should be regarded as pretty alarming.

CURWOOD: Dr. Wilson became alarmed at species loss about 15 years ago. Since then he's been a leading spokesman for conservation worldwide, and his concern is rooted in decades of pioneering field work. He's the world's number one authority on the social behavior, communication, and colonization patterns of ants. And in the 1960s, Professor Wilson, and population biologist Robert MacArthur, developed a groundbreaking theory of island biogeography. It showed for the first time the link between acreage and the numbers of species an area can support. Jared Diamond, a physiologist who studies birds in New Guinea, says the theory caused a revolution as important as the one brought by the modeling of DNA.

DIAMOND: It wasn't just that Watson-Crick came up with the correct model for DNA. In doing so they stimulated the whole explosion of the field of molecular biology. In the same way Robert and Ed not only came up with an important theory of island biogeography, but they stimulated trends in population biology generally.

CURWOOD: Today, Robert MacArthur and Ed Wilson's theory is vital to conservation efforts. It helps wildlife managers figure out how much land groups of animals need to survive. But the achievement that Professor Wilson considers the most satisfying of his career has to do with social behaviors, not numbers. His years of studying insect societies, observing primates in the wild, and wrestling with the meaning of altruism among animals, launched him on a search for a unifying explanation. By 1975 Professor Wilson felt he had it, and he laid it out in the book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. His fundamental idea was that the social behavior of all creatures, including insects, invertebrates, even humans, is strongly influenced by our genes. Sociobiology sparked a storm of controversy: feminists, civil rights advocates and others saw it as a throwback to the days of biological determinism. These critics felt the theory legitimized the nastiest aspects of human behavior: sexism, murder, rape, and racism. The topic still inflames many, including retired Harvard biologist Ruth Hubbard.

HUBBARD: People act as though things that are biological are set in stone, and things that are societal or environmental can be changed overnight. Well, that simply isn't true, and the thought that we can sort these things out by various tricks of doing comparative studies or whatever, I think is an illusion.

CURWOOD: Defenders of sociobiology say biology doesn't determine human behavior, but that it does affect it. And what Professor Hubbard considers un-provable, the origins of behavior, others simply call challenging. Meanwhile, in the last 20 years, sociobiology of animals has become widely accepted and studied. What remains controversial is the relationship between human behavior and genes, and it is that relationship which still most intrigues Professor Wilson today. What kind of creatures are we, he wonders. How much has the human species been shaped by the natural world? And what is our relationship to it now? Dr. Wilson thinks the answers have profound importance.

WILSON: I think the evidence is mounting that we are in great need of the remainder of life and in the kinds of ecosystems and the configuration of the color and the movement that in fact wild nature provides us, and that it would be a very grave mistake to throw it all away.

CURWOOD: Despite the tremendous damage we've caused, Dr. Wilson believes humans have responses to nature embedded in our genes, which evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. And he says these responses can't be erased by a hundred years of concrete buildings and high technology. He's organized his thoughts about this need into what he calls the Biophilia Hypothesis: the love of life. Dr. Wilson believes it even shows itself in some very specific human preferences.

WILSON: We prefer a dwelling or an observation point on a prominence looking down on a body of water, and we prefer a savanna, scattered trees. The ancestral habitat of humanity, actually.

CURWOOD: Dr. Wilson says we aren't just the shapers of the Earth, but we have been shaped by it in our DNA. He believes that our physical and psychological health depend on contact with nature. As the planet's diversity is impoverished, so are we.

It's too soon to tell what kind of staying power the biophilia hypothesis will have. It's a lightning rod idea which other researchers are testing. Certainly Professor Wilson's grand theories haven't always been popular. In 1977, angry critics of sociobiology mounted a stage and dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head, yelling, "You're all wet!" But in the long run, Edward O. Wilson may well rank among the most creative and influential scientists of his time.

DIAMOND: The astonishing thing about Ed is that he has scored a thousand so many times.

CURWOOD: Jared Diamond of UCLA, speaking about biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson.



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