01/07/2022

E.O. Wilson’s Indelible Mark On Ecology

17:24 minutes

an old white man looking up at a tree
Edward O Wilson Red Hills, Alabama, 2010.|E. O. Wilson

Ecologist and ant biologist Edward O. Wilson (often called E. O. Wilson) died December 26, at the age of 92. Though he was known for his study of ants and their social behavior, his impact extended much further—from sociobiology, the study of the influence of genetics on behavior, to the way science was taught and understood. His writing twice won the Pulitzer Prize. 

Wilson appeared on Science Friday many times. In this short remembrance of Wilson, Ira replays selections from past conversations with the scientist, recorded between 2006 and 2013. 


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Segment Guests

Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson is a professor emeritus of biology at Harvard University in Cambridge. He’s the author of multiple books, including A Window on Eternity: A Biologist’s Walk Through Gorongosa National Park (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Death did not take a holiday this holiday season.

The world of science lost several leading names, including ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, one of the fathers of the idea of biodiversity. He died on Christmas day at the age of 80. His work in conservation biology led to his founding of the Amazon Biodiversity Center, fighting for the preservation of species and habitats there. Our condolences to his friends and family.

Also, Edward O Wilson– you know him better just as EO Wilson, who is known for studying ants but expanded his biological horizons to so much more. He visited with us many times on Science Friday over the years, like this time in 2013 where he talked about his youth.

EO WILSON: I became like, so many kids, fascinated by insects. When I was about nine years old– and, you know, it’s a saying, every kid has a bug period. I never grew out of mine. And thank heavens I didn’t.

I usually spent a lot of time alone. We travelled a lot. I was an only child. And very soon, I had– with the opportunity to get into interesting, wild places, in the deep south, primarily. I had the opportunity to observe and actually hunt at different levels, from insects, to butterflies, to snakes, to new kinds of flowers, and so on.

But it was just a continuous adventure for me. And that is how I developed as a scientist. I was so totally engaged in this, doing it at a more complex and maybe more sophisticated level by the time I got to undergraduate studies, that I never thought of ever doing anything else.

IRA FLATOW: That childhood interest in bugs led to his iconic research into ant behavior.

EO WILSON: Ants are the premier predators of little arthropods. They are the premier soil-turners around the world. They are the cemetery squads that remove most of small, dead animals.

And what most people don’t realize about ants is how extraordinarily abundant they are. They make up– we know from just particularly one major count made in the Amazon, but this appears to be the case worldwide– over half, maybe as much as 2/3, of the biomass of all the insects. That’s how dominant they are.

Social life pays off once it’s attained. And as a result, if we took away all the ants, then we’d all be in trouble.

IRA FLATOW: Understanding the sociology of ants led Wilson to consider where people fit in the Earth’s ecosystem.

What do you say to people who say, well, look it’s natural for these– species get wiped out all the time. And the world has grown up over billions of years, with species come, species go. Animals die off, they don’t die off. What’s so different about this now?

EO WILSON: Thank you for setting me up there, Ira, or at least setting up a very important point. Because it’s probably the single most common objection I get in talking with people of all kinds, and different professions, and so on, about the conservation.

They say, why care about it? Don’t worry, evolution– if we believe in evolution– will, and always has, replaced the lost diversity. And that is true. It’s true that some 99% of species, maybe more, have disappeared in the course of history of life on Earth. But that covers, mind you, hundreds of millions of years.

And the figure to keep in mind is not that 99% figure, but it is the rate of turnover, and the rate of extinction, and the rate of birth of new species. And that is, for both those figures, extinction and birth outside of the human– the period of human activity, by fossil evidence mainly, about one species extinct per million species per year being replaced by one species being born, per million species per year. That’s a very slow turnover.

Now, I think virtually all students who work on this whole issue of biodiversity, and extinction rates, and so on agree that, most conservatively, that rate has increased due to our influence by order of 100 times, and very likely 1,000 times. And if not yet on the order of 1,000 times, soon to be there, with the potential of going faster and faster as we wipe out more and more entire ecosystems.

So you can now put that in terms of your bank account, in which there may be a very slow turnover. You’ve got a very low interest rate. But then you only make a rare withdrawal to replace what you put in. Now increase your withdrawal 100 or 1,000 times while reducing your income, because we’re reducing the birth rate of species by removing their cradles.

IRA FLATOW: You know, when I took– when I took Ecology 101 in college in the 60s, the professor threw out one question. I have yet to actually answer myself. I’m going to ask you this question because I’ve never fully answered it.

And he said every animal, every plant, whatever, has a niche– has a niche– in the ecosystem and the environment. What is the human role in the environment? What is our niche? It seems now, to me, to destroy everything else.

EO WILSON: What happened, Ira, is I can give you my perception of this, what I would have answered. Maybe I couldn’t have answered it when you were in college. But I think I can give a reasonable answer now.

The human niche, the thing that our brains were built for, was to live primarily on the African savanna as highly social primates, even more so than our closest cousins, among the monkeys and apes, and to be vegetarian, in part. But also, more than other species closely related to us, including most of those monkeys, to be turning to meat. We were beginning to be good predators. We’re probably also scavengers.

So we’re likely dealing with, oh, 10% or more of our calories coming in that way. So that’s our niche, open terrain, scattered trees, copses, and so on. And that’s where we fit it in. And it was all we could do, those ancient hominids, of which there probably were not more than a few hundred thousand at any given time, maybe even less in periods of time.

They fit in very well and they weren’t really upsetting any of the balance of anything. But then somehow, somewhere, which is all a matter of dispute among the evolutionary biologists and the anthropologists, we began this runaway development of the cerebrum, intelligence, technology.

And pretty soon, without losing our appetite for meat, and for breeding, and producing more of ourselves, and the ability to turn a large part of the natural world that was not savanna into savanna– we call it farms, and yards, and lawns– soon, we are sweeping over the world. And we’re simply trying to make the whole world our niche.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. We neglected almost all of those other species which have been keeping things in harmony and balance for us. And we’re doing it in a way that we’re taking away their services. We’re taking away the many opportunities that understanding these species offer us. And we are generally messing up big time.

IRA FLATOW: Generally messing up big time– some tough love.

I asked Wilson about the sixth mass extinction we are in and what future generations have to look forward to.

EO WILSON: We’ve had five before it that humanity had nothing to do with, which stretched out over the last 450 million years, roughly at intervals– although it’s not periodic– of 100 million years. And each one of those has dropped biodiversity to a level that took somewhere between 5 and 10 million years for evolution to restore.

We’re not that far along yet. But we are definitely in the early stages of it.

IRA FLATOW: You say that humanity must make a decision, and make it now, right now. Conserve Earth’s natural heritage or let future generations adjust to a biologically impoverished world.

EO WILSON: Yeah, one that I would propose to call the Eremozoic. We’re in the Cenozoic, you know, which followed– now, which followed the Mesozoic, the age of reptiles, or dinosaurs and the age of mammals, sometimes called the Cenozoic.

If we wipe out, as many serious projections have it, without abatement of the current human activities that are removing ecosystems and extinguishing species– if we continue to the end of the century, we could have lost, or have right on the edge of losing, about half of the known species of plants and animals.

IRA FLATOW: Wilson had done a lot of thinking, not only about ant societies, but about how we can understand ourselves.

So you believe we’re at sort of a turning point, then, for our society and our evolution?

EO WILSON: Not necessarily. I think what we are is at a turning point in the sense of having, one, much better knowledge of where we came from. I think we need to be teaching that and investigating it, as just part of routine education. And second, what are we and why, from that history and from all we know of how our brain works and what we are?

And then we’re going to be in a situation– of course, we are at the turning point. And we are right on the edge– we’re in the early stages of a techno-scientific revolution, where we are becoming, essentially, a global community, in constant and minute communication.

That’ll change the arena somewhat. But it’s not going to change our human nature or our ability to deal with our problems without a lot of calculation and without a lot of background knowledge.

IRA FLATOW: But your research and your ideas are saying that if we want to stay a successful large community, we have to think altruistically, all of us together.

EO WILSON: That’s correct.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s what your research with ants and your research with people have shown, that if we evolve toward altruism, we’ll stay successful. That means we have to get all the different parts of the world working, if there is truly– we’re now, through social communities, combining a lot of different various parts of the world, into a larger colony, bigger nest.

EO WILSON: Oh, don’t use that metaphor.

IRA FLATOW: Nest is wrong.

EO WILSON: I know what mean. But we don’t want to become ants, surely. We want to be as fractious, and quarrelsome, and uncertain, and dithering from now on. But we just want to do it with more wisdom and making better decisions.

But basically, again, as I say, I think the time has come to put together and to put, as part of education, what a host of scientists ranging in their separate interests, all the way from molecular genetics through to portions– through the social sciences, actually, to take what they have, are putting together with increasing clarity, and make that basic to our understanding of ourselves. We’re not teaching anything like that now, even teaching it then with critiques.

So I hope to see that change. I hope– and I hope soon.

IRA FLATOW: If you’re just joining us, we’re revisiting some of our conversations with the late biologist, EO Wilson, who died December 26th. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

Because Wilson is so revered as a scientist, I talked with him about what it takes to be a good one.

EO WILSON: A passion, commitment to a subject, excitement over adventure, and entrepreneurial spirit– all these are more important than a very high IQ.

IRA FLATOW: And you say– and you say there that the MENSA-level people really don’t make good scientists.

EO WILSON: Well, I realize this was one of the statements that has not proved controversial. Even my slight downplay of advanced mathematical fluency has not proved scientifically controversial. I’ve gotten a large number of responses on that, and almost– well, they’re overwhelmingly favorable.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

EO WILSON: But the one on– we’ll call it optimum brightness. I presented it as just a conjecture.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah.

EO WILSON: But I got it from a principle that I gradually evolved knowing a lot of very successful scientists and from my own experience, the following principle. The ideal scientist is bright enough to see what needs to be done, but not so bright he gets bored doing it.

And I’ve discovered, as time goes on, that some of the most successful scientists in America, the most innovative, have IQs in the low 120s. And this began– this got me to start thinking about what happens to all these folks up in the 160, 170 IQ range that we hear about.

So the conjecture says, well, it’s too easy for them. And then that brings me then to the allusion you made to scientists, or that I’ve made. The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.

It’s the poet, the poetic aspects of science, that seldom gets talked about. But I’ve always felt that scientists fantasize, and dream, and bring up a metaphor and fantastic images as much as any poet, as anyone in the creative sciences, art, the creative art.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

EO WILSON: And the difference is that at some point, the scientist has to relate the dreams to the real world. And that’s when you enter the bookkeeper period.

Unfortunately, it’s the bookkeeper period, which leads sometimes to months or years of hard work that too many prospective scientists and students interested in science see, rather than the creative period.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. You do mention, in part of your book about– the part of creativity is to do sort of the back of the napkin sort of experiment. You just have an idea. You’re not going to even make notes about it. You’re not going to keep track of it. You’re just going to try something.

EO WILSON: Yeah, glad you brought that up, Ira. I didn’t use the expression, but I’m in it. And that’s the value of dirty experiments. The image of doing good science that is the popular public image is the scientist conducting careful experiment after careful experiment, taking abundant notes– time of day, every condition used, and making an advance into a subject.

But the best way to do it, to make discoveries, is to make short, imperfect experiments. Don’t worry about taking notes in most cases. But just try things out. Shove nature around a little bit. Disturb it. Disturb an organism. Disturb a small system. And find out, to see if anything happens. And if it does, you might be on the edge of an important breakthrough. And then you sit down, and devise experiments, and take notes.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Those thoughts, from the late EO Wilson, biologist and Pulitzer Prize author who died December 26th at the age of 92. Condolences to friends and family.

Dr. Wilson allowed us to visit his office and take a special tour of his desk. Yes, it’s up on our website at sciencefriday.com/wilson, recorded back in 2012.

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