Originally Published Sept. 30th 2010
This year’s National Book Festival coincided with the Virgin Festival, so we had asked E.O. Wilson to accompany us along to both festivals so that we could do a joint Ludacris/Ed Wilson interview. He seemed skeptical.
all photos: Kimberly Cadena
It’s not everyday that BYT sits down for an interview with a scientist, let alone the World’s preeminent biologist. Edward O. Wilson needs no introduction, but we will give him one anyway. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, naturalist, environmentalist, Harvard professor, the list goes on. To boil it down to basics, though, if you don’t count Stephen Hawking (we don’t), Edward O. Wilson is probably the most famous scientist in the world. Well, you can’t really count Bill Nye either. The point is: he’s a lot brighter than you. Or Brightest Young Things. We settled for interviewing him at the Book Festival.
Edward O. Wilson: I think we were the first people here this morning and there was almost nobody really, no authors yet. So we said well you know its going to be a nice quiet, sparkly, inquisitive day. Now it’s just roaring along. What a feeling!
Edward O. Wilson: All these opportunities to meet other authors. I just had lunch with James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, sort of an event that you always hope will happen.
BYT: Yeah this is one of those for me. We are both having a good day.
Edward O. Wilson: Oh, well it is a pleasure and an honor then. Because to be in the area and part of the culture…
BYT: Yes! So wait. When were you in DC? You grew up here right?
Edward O. Wilson: This is going to be breathtaking. In 1939 or 1940 I was a boy of nine or ten years old. And those were the days before the war. Rock Creek Park was the wilderness that I explored; the National Zoo was a place which they could not pry me loose from, and I loved to go to the National Musuem to look at the bug collection and other things that were about the equivalent of a priest’s journey to Rome.
BYT: I understand completely.
Edward O. Wilson: Washington culture, even though I was a little boy, was soaking into my soul. I really got a sense of the majesty of nature, and it gave me the feeling that grown up people cared about what fascinated me as a little boy.
BYT: Where exactly did you live? Were you in the District proper?
Edward O. Wilson: I can’t tell you the name of the street but it was a close walk from where I was to Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo. I could walk with my butterfly net, as I often did, over to the National Zoo and up and down and through it with my net and up to the park to collect butterflies.
BYT: I used to do the same thing. In California, but yeah. I think what has always resonated with you, for me, is your love of nature. I spent my childhood exploring the bay across the street from my house and catching spiders with nets.
Edward O. Wilson: That is an extremely important thing for a child to do. I mean for their normal development. When I wrote my autobiography, “The Naturalist”, that was 1994. I said to myself: no scientist that I know of has ever written a confessional. That was it, you know, the first confessional memoir written by a scientist… not someone who wanted to be a writer, but a scientist. So anyways, I thought that was going to really dilute the reputation I had as a scientist. Talking about the experiences I had as a boy and all that. But you know, when that book came out I had, and I continue to have, a heavy correspondence with people from all over, saying ‘this is exactly the kind of childhood I had’. ‘This is what made me a lifetime naturalist, too’. This is the reason, many of them said, that I decided I wanted to become a scientist was this early experience. I am just so glad that I could write as someone who was not an eccentric but as someone who shared experience that millions of Americans have had.
BYT: Millions, I mean billions of people. And I don’t think its necessarily just what makes a good scientist. I think that those things are important in developing your humanism and your ability to empathize with animals and the planet and nature.
Edward O. Wilson: That’s what I call biophilia. That natural, strong attraction which is, I believe, innate when given a chance to develop. You know, it’s an innate form of development for anyone and it probably evolved over millions of years to a sensitivity and appreciation. And I think that what it is important for everyone is to provide a balance in childhood experience. In some cases, you know, you go about it and become a scientist who may, or may not, work with nature.
BYT: So familiarity breeds understanding breeds that caretaking philosophy, maybe?
Edward O. Wilson: You don’t want to lose that in people.
BYT: Which brings me to my next sort of conversation piece. It has been nine years since “The Future of Life” came out, right? Around 2001-ish?
Edward O. Wilson: That sounds right.
BYT: Well it has been about nine years. Would you change much knowing the past nine years, regarding the future of life on this planet?
Edward O. Wilson: Not a lot, unfortunately, in public attitudes to the living world. I find that the world, including the United States is turning green. But it’s disproportionately towards the physical environment, climate, pollution, exhaustion of nonrenewable natural resources. But relative to that, that’s where most of the greening has been taking place. That is what most of our political leaders are talking about. Relative to that, the living world, you know, biodiversity, the ecosystems, the species, all of humanity’s natural heritage is not receiving as much.
BYT: So you are saying the emphasis needs to be not necessarily more on, but diverted from all these other important areas?
Edward O. Wilson: Far from it. The ever-increasing concern must be about the physical environment along with much more added about the living environment. But let me tell you what I have been modestly calling, “Wilson’s Law”…
BYT: What do you call it?
Edward O. Wilson: Wilson’s Law. It appeared in the New York Times, you know, it was part of a journal position piece. So, it must be true if it’s in the New York Times, right?
BYT: Yeah. Well if it’s on the internet in general then it must be true.
Edward O. Wilson: Oh well we can cut that last part out if you want to (laughs). Ok well here’s Wilson’s Law, I said that if you save the living environment, biodiversity, you know, the natural ecosystem, then you will automatically save the physical one because you must save the physical environment and make it sustainable in order to save the rest of life. But if you save only the physical environment, you will ultimately lose them both. That’s what I want to get across.
BYT: So saving the physical environment is a tactic to the strategy of the overall living environment…
Edward O. Wilson: Right. That they have to be done together. You cant let the systems, the living environment go.
BYT: But here’s a question for you. This chaos that we as humans inflict, this environmental havoc that we wreak, isn’t it, the same chaos that has always existed? An oil spill is just a Krakatoa is just a Chicxulub comet. Isn’t what we do… I know this is a weird question… Isn’t what we do the chaos that opens the hole for new species to take over and become the new…
Edward O. Wilson: Yes, that’s right. But only when it is purely natural. A volcanic explosion or a meteorite, a large meteorite strike… well, we’ll hope that someday we have the ability to avoid the latter because that happens only once probably every few million years. Not enough to really disturb the world as rapidly. And the the other catastrophe that’s developing more and more frequently is human-made of course.
Edward O. Wilson: But now I haven’t answered your question and I’ll answer that. Yes. It happened at the end of the Paleozoic, two hundred and fifty million years ago and has happened at the end of the Mesozoic era, the age of reptiles, at roughly sixty-five million years ago.
Edward O. Wilson: You had a catastrophe, and probably in both cases, certainly in the latter, a giant meteorite strike on the Earth. And you wipe out maybe 90% of all life, all species. Then it would take somewhere in the vicinity of 5 to 10 million years for natural evolution to replace it, and it will be done and you will have new forms but, you know, if you tell future generations that we wiped out most of the species… If you let them know and they will understand that we wiped out most of the species that then could be replaced in 5 to 10 million years, they will be peeved, they will be really peeved, they will hate us for it.
BYT: Well, what I am suggesting is that humans wouldn’t last that long.
Edward O. Wilson: I think if we wiped out a large part of the living environment we would survive as a species, we are too smart to go extinct. But it would be a, a much poorer world to live in, and one in which we would literally have to turn everything into a spaceship where we would have to, literally, continuously change things mechanically to keep the atmosphere going.
Edward O. Wilson: And today it’s still the case. It’s not too late, 2010, if we could just save our natural ecosystems, they will take care of us. Because it’s estimated the amount, if we could translate it into dollars, you could translate the service the ecosystems are giving us, like maintenance, the purification and holding of water, pollination, and so on, the creation of the atmosphere itself. Then if you change that into dollars its approximately equal to, one estimate that I think has been published in Science, will be equal to the amount of the total of gross domestic product of all the nations in the world. Therefore, we are getting, scot-free, an equivalent amount of what ourselves can produce for our own benefit. The natural world is giving us another, well they are matching it.
BYT: Matching contribution, huh?
Edward O. Wilson: Scot-free.
BYT: Okay, moving on, it all began with ants and now it seems that it has come full circle to ants again. Tell me a little about the book, the new book. First foray into fiction?
Edward O. Wilson: “Ant Hill” is my first attempt at fiction. It may be my last because I have, on the drawing board, a couple other books that are non-fiction that are very important for me.
Edward O. Wilson: But, why did I write this venture into fiction? Critics just pointed out that they usual give me pretty good reviews anyway. I ran a risk to my reputation. If I wrote a lousy novel it would be…
BYT: A top story.
Edward O. Wilson: (Laughs) Well partly it was written because I wanted to try yet another way to raise consciousness about the conservation of biodiversity, the living world. And I saw clearly that people respect non-fiction, but they read novels. People want a story. If you can weave truth about the world, into stories then you are writing good novels. Of course this is done in the best novels in terms of human nature, you know, and all the trials and tribulations eternal of human interaction and social behavior. But very few people have ever tried to weave in nature as it actually is, in all its complexity. So I felt that if I could tell a story in which nature was a specific place, a piece of park and a boy who was trying to save it. If I could do that then I would have a story, I would have the story-telling power inclusive of a novel and maybe that would be another way of raising consciousness about the animals. That wasn’t the only reason I wrote it. I wrote it because of the challenge and because I wanted to return to the South, and I cant quite leave Harvard yet, but I could go down and be reborn in the South as a character in the novel whose name is Raphael Simcott.
BYT: So did you spend time down there writing?
Edward O. Wilson: I didn’t but I certainly have been going back and forth.
Edward O. Wilson: I just finished another book, which will soon be in the hands of the publisher.
Edward O. Wilson: (Laughs) Well I spend a lot of time writing. Its on the history of Mobile [Alabama] from the 1520’s to the oil spill. It’s a short book. Its accompanied by a marvelous portfolio of photographs in and around Mobile by one of America’s, best photographers, Alex Harris. We will publish those together, the photographs, and we will give a brief history, highly personalized of my ancestors in and around Mobile and that’s another way for me to return to the South without, for the moment, going back.
BYT: Cool. Have you… I wanted to broach the subject. I don’t know about how, if you’re personally religious, but I am wondering how in general you reconcile the sometimes obvious contradictions between religion and science.
Edward O. Wilson: Well, actually for the time being I don’t try to reconcile it. It’s ineradicable. But the way that I have finessed it, you know, in my religious slant, my evangelical… you know, the way I was finessing it deliberately and openly was to say in my book “The Creation”, was to make it an open letter addressed to an imaginary Southern Baptist pastor. I was raised southern Baptist so it was easy to do. In which I said, we have radically different worldviews. Yet, I think we could be friends if we sat down together, and especially if we chose to work together on something that is transcendent over the different kinds of beliefs and that is about “the Creation”, no matter how it came about. We uh us folks for scientists as environmentalist and conservationists and all that left-wing crowd, said we respect church. I never had any objection from them and I have never had any objection when I have published a book, from the Evangelical community, which is 42%, I think, of America, except when the more right fringe of the Evangelical movement. But um and I said science and religion are two of the most powerful forces in the world. Think of it. If we could get together in a friendly manner and work on this problem together, we could solve it. Saving the creation. It had an excellent positive effect.
BYT: Why do you think that hasn’t been a grassroots movement within the religious community, to save ‘the creation’?
Edward O. Wilson: It has started.
BYT: But why, if not until recently, has that not been built in to the ethos, to the passion, rather than things like, and I am not trying to ruffle feathers here, into things like gay marriage or other issues that on the surface seem very minute. And in the Bible there is, it’s very clear that this is God’s creation and things are not to be…
Edward O. Wilson: Destroyed.
Edward O. Wilson: Used but not destroyed. Well, I’ll tell you why. The Old Testament and the New Testament were written in what we now call the Middle East, in desert conditions. In which there was very little concern about the living world, except to get gardens and fields going. So it just wasn’t a big issue. But, to be fair to religious… to organized religious groups, like the Evangelicals, there has already begun a strong movement in this direction. There are groups and organizations such as Green Cross and several others, but they are weak, they haven’t really cycled through to the…
BYT: Environmental stewardship.
Edward O. Wilson: But there was one think lacking, I thought. They didn’t have the alliance of the scientist, of the environmentalist, of people that they saw outside, you know, to the left of the religious community. So they didn’t have that support. But when the scientists showed up, and again that was my book “The Creation” and said hey lets get together, that changed everything in the eyes of many. I was even invited to meet with the leaders of the Mormon church.
BYT: That’s great.
Edward O. Wilson: So anyway, when suddenly there appeared allies… they thought fundamentally we were enemies not allies. But I believe that has helped it move further along.
BYT: So, there’s a common enemy in terms of destruction of the environment…
Edward O. Wilson: Exactly. The common enemy is those who destroy God’s creation.
BYT: Or whoever’s creation.
Edward O. Wilson: (Laughs) That’s another argument.
BYT: I’m wondering what kind of music you listen to. What’s on your iPod?
Edward O. Wilson: Well, I don’t have an iPod.
BYT: Record player?
Edward O. Wilson: When I do listen to music it’s going to be, uh… get ready for this. It’s going to be 70’s soft rock and Country/Western. Oh and Johnny Cash.
BYT: Oh, I love Johnny Cash.
Edward O. Wilson: Who I met once, and yeah that’s my kind of music. You know, though, mostly I am music deaf. But, I am not ashamed because Darwin was. Darwin himself lamented: I never took time to appreciate the creative arts that music included. He said I’m just deaf to it and I think that’s a shortcoming in my mind. I could say the same thing.
BYT: You can say the same thing?
Edward O. Wilson: I think what happens is if you close off, say constrict down your relatively narrow stream of consciousness to music and art, which is such a large part and naturally so in the minds of other people. If you constrict it down then you open your mind to other areas that are also highly creative. And to me that was the science of and the study of natural history.
BYT: Well, yeah, I guess we have a finite amount of resources that we can spend doing certain things. And when you limit it to certain things you can spend more time.
EW: Well that’s it.
BYT: I guess I’m more of a Jack of all cultural…
Edward O. Wilson: You would have to be because you are holding the microphone and writing the article.
BYT: Alright so another question, what’s your least favorite insect?
Edward O. Wilson: Oh, I’ve got one!
BYT: If nobody was looking and Edward O. Wilson, naturalist and environmentalist, could destroy one species, what would it be?
Edward O. Wilson: No, I’m going to give you one… the bedbug.
Edward O. Wilson: I hate them!
BYT: Oh you hate them? So if you could eradicate one species of bug…
Edward O. Wilson: Well, the thing I would like to do with bedbugs is what we have done with small pox. It’s get it down to one little population kept for scientific purposes somewhere in triple security so it would never break out again.
BYT: You of all people know that bedbugs may be the proverbial pin holding up the entire house of cards.
Edward O. Wilson: I am fairly certain that is not the case.
BYT: With 100% accuracy you could say that?
Edward O. Wilson: Well, I guess I am willing to gamble that they are not anything more than a burden to humanity.
BYT: Hey, some people would say that humanity is a burden to humanity.
Edward O. Wilson: (Laughs)
BYT: Alright well I don’t want to take up everybody else’s time. Its been an absolute pleasure! Can we trade glasses?