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Harvard Biologist Edward O. Wilson Defends the Environment


Edward Osborne Wilson developed an early fascination with the natural world. Born in 1929, and raised in rural Alabama in the southern United States, Wilson's favorite pastime as a nine-year-old was studying the insects teeming in the nearby woods. "I like to say of my life that most kids have a 'bug period' -- and I never grew out of mine," he notes.

In Edward Wilson's case, there was no need to grow out of it. As a student at the University of Alabama and later at Harvard University, he learned that the study of bugs, as well as plants and other living organisms, could be both fun and the focus of a scientific career. After doctoral research on his favorite insect species -- ants -- he joined the Harvard faculty as a zoology professor in 1956. He never left.

Professor Wilson's abiding passion has always been the study of biodiversity, the totality of life on earth. It's a vast field, encompassing all the world's ecosystems, all the plant and animal species that populate those ecosystems, and all the genes that make up the hereditary material of each living species.

"When analyzed at those three levels," he says, "biodiversity quickly reveals its great richness and importance as a scientific subject. And of course," he adds, "it's obviously the life support system for the human species, so its practical importance doesn't need a great deal of further justification."

Professor Wilson first drew wide attention - and controversy - in 1975, with his book Sociobiology. In it, he argued that much like insect colonies, human societies, too, are strongly influenced by genetics, evolution and other biological factors. Undaunted by critics who claimed he was denying human free will, Wilson went on to explore the biological basis of love and war in his book On Human Nature, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 1979. He picked up his second Pulitzer in that category in 1990, as co-author of The Ants, a monumental and startling look at life inside an insect colony.

Hailed as "the new Darwin" by writer Thomas Wolfe, and by Time magazine as one of "America's 25 Most Influential People," Edward Wilson is a favorite on the lecture circuit. The tall, lanky, soft-spoken professor enlivens his talks with trademark dry humor and a breathtaking knowledge of the natural world. But a Wilson lecture rarely ends without this dire warning: Expanding human settlement, industrial farming and pollution are rapidly destroying the world's biodiversity and pushing more and more plants and animals into extinction.

"We are destroying something that is very substantial," he says. "Each one of these species is exquisitely adapted to its environment. It has its own unique array of genes, and physiological mechanisms and ways it interacts with other species. We are losing a great deal of future scientific knowledge, we are losing a great deal of the stability of the environment, and we are losing a great deal of the world's heritage."

The American scientist believes there is still much work to be done to educate people about the serious and growing threats to the world's biodiversity. Professor Wilson says it's especially important that those threats be understood by people in the developing world.

"The developing world has most of the people; it has most of the species of plants and animals, by a wide margin; and it's where most of the environmental deterioration is taking place and will take place in the 21st century," he says. "Those changes are linked vitally to the economic and even the political futures of these countries. So it's in the interest of the international community, I think, to get the environment into the picture as quickly as possible, and to aid education in environmental issues throughout the developing countries."

Wilson remains hopeful that a new synthesis of biological science, ethics, and economic policies will enable humanity to craft a future free of poverty and hunger, while also protecting the earth's living environment.

"The decades ahead are the ones in which we will settle ourselves down, I think, before we wreck the planet," he says. "That is the great task of the 21st century. And also hopefully we will carry through this bottleneck of overpopulation and increasing consumption that we have entered, carry through with us as much of the rest of life as possible, and benefit future generations to come."

Now 77, Edward O. Wilson continues to teach, study, and write in defense of the world's natural environment. In his lectures, he likes to quote the late environmentalist John Sawhill. A society is defined, Professor Wilson reminds us, not only by what it creates, but by what it refuses to destroy.

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