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The Human Factor

HIS BRILLIANT CAREER E. O. Wilson visits the Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.
E. O. Wilson talks to Elizabeth Kolbert about ants, habitat, and the threat of mass extinction.

If you could talk to any scientist in the world, who would it be? For me, the choice is pretty easy: E. O. Wilson. Wilson is one of the natural world’s keenest observers and, at the same time, probably its most eloquent spokesman. As much as any one person can, he has tried to save what’s left of the astonishing diversity of life.

Now 81, Wilson began his career as a naturalist when he was barely out of elementary school. As a 13-year-old Boy Scout, in 1942, he noticed some peculiar ant colonies in a vacant lot near his house, in Mobile, Alabama. In this way, he discovered that the imported red fire ant, a native of South America, had invaded the United States. (The Department of Agriculture’s attempt to eradicate the ants in the 1950s would become a case study in misguided pesticide application, chronicled by Rachel Carson and dubbed by Wilson the "Vietnam of entomology.") Twenty-five years after his first boyhood discoveries, as a zoology professor at Harvard, Wilson cowrote one of the seminal books in ecology, The Theory of Island Biogeography, and in 1975, more or less singlehandedly, he created a whole new field of inquiry: sociobiology -- the concept that behavior, including human behavior, has a basis in evolution. Wilson also became one of the first scientists to warn about what has since become known as the biodiversity crisis.

"The worst thing that can happen, will happen," he wrote in 1980.

Not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.

In 1991, Wilson and his coauthor, Bert Hölldobler, won a Pulitzer Prize -- Wilson’s second -- for their book The Ants. Though he is now retired from teaching, he is still writing; he published his first novel, Anthill, to generally positive reviews in 2010. He is also still studying ants and still speaking out about the threat that one species -- ours -- poses to the millions of others on the planet.

I met up with Wilson in his office, which is above Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and right across the hall from the university’s ant collection. In the 1970s, Wilson’s concept of sociobiology caused so much controversy at Harvard that he briefly considered decamping to another university; however, he has said, he could not bear to leave behind the school’s ant collection, which contains nearly 1,000,000 individual ants, representing more than 6,000 species. After we had talked for a while, Wilson showed me around the collection. Many of the ants Wilson gathered himself on trips to, among other places, Brazil, Cuba, Fiji, and New Guinea. Each ant -- some were so small I could barely make them out -- was marked with a tiny label bearing its name in almost microscopic print. Wilson’s office is decorated with pieces of ant-related art, which friends and colleagues have given him, and also with three hominid skulls, which, he likes to tell visitors, belonged to former grad students.

NRDC: A Continent of Riches

Amanda MaxwellAmanda Maxwell

Advocate in the international program, focusing on wildlife protection and clean energy development in Latin America

E. O. Wilson talks about biodiversity in many parts of the world. How would you describe biodiversity in Latin America?

Latin America is home to some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Costa Rica immediately comes to mind. Its rainforests, mountains, and coasts simply pulse with life. Just a few minutes in a Costa Rican rainforest is enough to notice the complex networks among the variety of species there. At the southern end of the continent, in Chile’s Patagonia, there are remarkable terrestrial and riparian ecosystems along the Baker River. This nutrient-rich river, which originates in Andean glaciers, ultimately feeds the biodiverse marine fjord system near the Pacific coast. The Baker is another tangible illustration of the connections in nature -- in this case among the area’s glaciers, temperate rainforests, swamps, and marine life.

Read the rest here.

In his 1994 autobiography, Naturalist, Wilson described himself as "a happy man in a terrible century." By his own account, he places "great store in civility and good manners." Both in person and in his writing, he is courtly and good-humored. But he’s blunt about the damage that humans are causing.

"It seems like almost on an annual basis now we have another really massive biodiversity problem to worry about," he told me. "We’ve reached the point where global catastrophes are getting to be the norm. We were just hacking down parts of the natural world in pieces here and there, but now things are getting global and they are coming right home." I spoke to Wilson about his early scientific career, his turn to environmental advocacy, and the future of biodiversity. One of the first topics we spoke about was Wilson’s fieldwork in the 1950s and 1960s.

E. O. Wilson: When you went out into the field, say in Veracruz, Mexico, or Fiji, when I first got there, you didn’t have somebody take you in a four-wheel drive to a field station that was all set up and give you a cot. I would get into a town somewhere and make myself comfortable and I almost always collected alone. I prefer that actually. Then someone would tell me there’s a nice patch of rainforest if you go 30 kilometers up the road. And I would get a ride out there.

The next thing you’d do is get out of the car, pry apart a barbed wire fence, and step through. You’d walk among the cows, watching out not to get your feet gummy with cow manure. Then there it is: good-looking vegetation, and it’s on an incline. So you know probably the reason it hasn’t been cut was because it’s on a slope. Before you get there the land dips down into a stream and a bog. You have to get through another barbed wire fence and cross the stream, getting yourself muddy, and then finally you are climbing your way up and starting to collect. That was so typical of those days. So many islands were like this. There were not many active field biologists in those days, but most of us became aware, especially those of us who were going into tropical areas, that entire ecosystems were being wiped out.

In 1967 Wilson and Robert MacArthur, a biology professor at Princeton, published The Theory of Island Biogeography, their landmark work in ecology. The book attempted to explain why certain islands are species-rich, while others are species-poor. One of the key variables is size: all other things being equal, larger islands will be home to more species than smaller ones. The ratio, Wilson and MacArthur found, tends to follow a consistent mathematical formula: roughly speaking, the number of species doubles with every tenfold increase in area. The formula also works in reverse, so that if an island’s area is reduced by 90 percent, the number of species that can survive will drop by half. I asked Wilson about the development of the theory and how it applied to "islands" of habitat in a fragmented landscape.

Wilson: Islands are the laboratories of species formation and extinction. Islands are separate experiments in what species can get there and what species turn into new species, which then go extinct, and so on. That’s why islands have always been so important. They were important to Darwin and much more important to Alfred Russel Wallace, who founded biogeography.

In 1959 I got together with Robert MacArthur. We were two young, ambitious biologists. I was much more the naturalist and data person and Robert was a brilliant mathematical modeler. The idea was to use islands as our laboratory to understand how species spread and how and why they become extinct. On islands the patterns became much clearer than on the mainland. It also turns out that islands have the highest rates of human-induced extinctions. They are the real disaster areas. Hawaii is the extinction capital of America and one of the hot spots of the world.

Then we realized that the same principles apply to anything that is broken into fragments -- for example, bodies of freshwater, from rivers to streams to springs to lakes to ponds.

image of Elizabeth Kolbert
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Her next book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, will be released in February 2014.
E.O. Wilson ends his comments by saying that "we ought to develop a new kind of self-understanding, self-reflection and self-imaging. Then we might be able to actually get somewhere together." The "self-understanding" that Wilson wants us to develop requires that we understand our history - especially that period since the extinction rate of other species began to escalate. This escalation of the extinction rate is coincident with the exponential population growth and massive ecosystem modification that was facilitated by the adoption of cultivation agriculture. The two essays that are pasted below deal with the damage cultivation agriculture has produced -- and they both make the case that cultivation agriculture is so unsustainable that it must ultimately be abandoned. 'Long term agricultural overshoot' at: Peter Salonius email
I recently published an article about the Sixth Great Extinction and its effects on humanity that may be of interest to readers of this article. Check it out at
Roughly 6 years ago I went to a temporary exhibit on extinction at the San Diego Natural History Museum and they had put on a wall in big letters an estimate that mankind has raised the rate of extinction 5,000 fold.
This is really true, our bio-diversity is very important and now it's been damaged by human activity and is headed for disaster for planet earth and even disaster for the human race. For 60 years it's been Los Angeles show business that has guided the world's humans to pursue this destructive course. Yes, the movies and television have been supporting "economic developement" at the expense of the environment and now we are starting to size up the damage and scope of the problem. It's primarily T.V. that has molded public opinion and gave the human it's marching orders, "have a successful economy at any cost" is their main message, all this to get more money and more political power for the headquarters of movies and television. We should start to face these facts about our world culture in order to work and fight effectively to correct the problems we face.
Too bad you didn't think to video this intervew.
Bless E.O. Wilson for his magnificent work ! Shouldn't we also be urgently developing methods of curtailing human expansion ? Wouldn't all the other problems be more manageable if the human population was significantly decreased ?
All the ladies love E.O. Wilson!
Does any one else have a problem with this contradiction? "I’m exasperated by the professional optimists, who say, 'These bad things are happening, but human genius and the resources this good earth has given us will allow us to keep on doing pretty much what we’ve been doing. So don’t worry about it.'" "We have to develop dryland agriculture in areas that have run out of groundwater. That agriculture has to be based on -- I will just say it right out -- genetically modified crops that can produce high yields without sucking up the world’s remaining groundwater." Perhaps the good doctor considers himself just a professional pessimist, but he's still calling on human genius to save the day. And why not? What else do we have to be hopeful about or to call upon in the face of continued human population growth and its need to be fed in the face of climate change and resource depletion? That little nit having been picked, all I can say is that if it is going to come down to human genius saving the day -- that being genetically modified crops that can grow in deserts -- I can't see how it could ever be productive enough the meet a greater human population's needs. That would mean that we are facing the inevitable 'natural balance occurrence'. That is to say our environment will not be able to sustain our population and therefore our population will have to decrease accordingly. At least until such an extent that we've reached a balance once again with our changed environment and its ability to support what's left of us. It's a finite world, we can't keep on reproducing like it's infinite. And we're reducing it finite human-supporting bounds everyday. However, it does not have to be all doom and gloom. This population decrease does not have to happen violently or cruelly. We do have the capacity to actually educate and stabilize even the poorest populations. Thereby essentially creating an economic and educational environment that will foster the mindset that will self-regulate reproduction and thereby assure population decrease, or at least population stabilization - peacefully. But alas, that would require a monumental global 'share the wealth' type international program. And what are the chances of that right? Better the wealthy build their walls and arm their troops. They know as well as any the day of Mother Nature's reckoning is upon us. Bleak, I know. But there it is. How many reading this already suspect it? How many feel it in their hearts? Is it instinctual for an animal to suspect its own doom? Is the fight-or-flight reflex rearing its ugly head in humanity as we read and comprehend these things? Food for thought while we still have the capacity I guess.
When I read - DIVERSITY OF LIFE – in the 1999 edition, E.O. Wilson became my hero. Next I started CONSILIENCE but I don’t think I finished it. There were some references to “beliefs” that I was not comfortable with. It was something of an intolerance for expressing the world in symbols other than those of science and technology. In this article I ‘m confused by the term ”godlike technology”. Prof. Wilson has one of the most prominent endorsements on the cover of Stewart Brand’s book –WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE. The book starts with “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” I am trying to find a way to fit the god concept into this discussion. Stewart Brand says plainly that we are as gods (ASGODS). I read a lot but I’ve never come across a definition of god that goes with this topic. What’s up with this god business? These two gentleman are surpassed by no one when it comes to respect shown by the pubic and media. They are treated as gods. Is this a response to this level of adulation? One of the tenets of genetic modification, that both men support, is that gene transfers occur naturally in bacteria and are an integral part of evolution. That is probably true but to compare a gene transfer in a single bacterium to a hundred million acres of GM corn and soybeans is not scientific. Only ASGODS can make comparisons like that. I was very sad when I read Prof. Wilson’s statement, “ I think that when we get enough really serious knocks, we can start treating our problems as problems and not as the evil machinations of conspiracies—which is the way we tend to think about them.” Does Prof. Wilson really believe that no representative of the fossil fuel industries has ever suggested to an academian or journalist that it would be good to write a story that somehow gave the impression that there is some doubt as to the rising temperature of the Earth? How about writing that it is a complete hoax. Are there not writers who add money to their bank accounts after they get articles published that question Global Warming? There are photos of the ice before and photos of the much less ice now. Less ice means more heat. That needs no interpretation. Claiming that there is no global warming is fraud. Where does Prof. Wilson think the forces that produce the fraudulent information come from if not from a conspiracy of those interested in maintaining the energy status quo? To have a difference of opinion as to what the problems are that need to be treated as problems is to be a conspiracy theorist. That C-word should be the end of it. Any call for accountability that comes after the insertion of the C-word into the discussion has already been addressed. This is very unfortunate because the conspiracy that obscures the facts of Current Solar Income is the single most influential element of the growing extinctions that are at the center of this interview. We are conditioned not to use the S-word. They call Solar Energy renewable. Wind and hydro power are solar power but the fossil energy conspiracy does everything it possibly can to obscure the power of the Sun. Only hippies say solar. Life on Earth is a photosynthetic process. Sunshine can power whatever we can dream up. We just have to remember that in the formula – maximum number of species with maximum number of individuals – species trumps individuals. When the number of individuals starts to encroach on the number of species, then the number of individuals will reduce. This formula is what appears to have been happening all along. If we apply our scientific minds to maximizing the photosynthesis on the Earth, we will have our best chance of avoiding extinction. We have a number of delusional individuals that will have to be overcome as they conspire to use the rest of us as livestock but this has always been. We have smart people that can produce a plan for photosynthetic management of every square foot of Earth. We might be able to reach a population level that fits the formula without hitting extinction. We need to start now. Sunshine is the only income we’ve got.
Praising E.O. Wilson with a tribute to democracy...... Why does democracy prevail? What is the source of democracy’s lasting value? To psychologists like myself the terms superego, ego and id are commonplace and refer to the remarkable institutions of an individual’s mind. In a similar way the words judiciary, executive and legislature are ever so familiar signifiers for political scientists and many others of the national institutions which organize our country into a democracy. That these great systems of “mind” and “state” may emanate from a common, all- too-human nature has been discussed many times heretofore. These brief comments attempt to extend that discussion and are a condensed presentation of a way in which the recognizable institutions composing the mind and the state might be objectively correlated. I present it now here because it seems somehow right, and possibly useful, for human beings to communicate their perceptions about basic aspects of our shared reality. As an example, consider how the judicial branch of government possesses certain essential features of the mind’s superego; that the executive branch functions much like the ego; and of course the ways the legislature most directly represents the wishes and needs of human beings everywhere and reflects the id. The nature and significance of the relationship between mind and state has been commented upon since the early days of Western civilization. This commentary begins with Pythagoras’ effort to answer the questions: What is the nature of human nature, and how might this nature express itself in the organization of human society? To put these questions another way: May the structure and dynamics of the mind have significance for the manner in which the social world is ordered and functions? Pythagoras and later Plato perceived that the organization of two levels — the psychological/individual and the governmental/societal — could be governed by the same principles. While Pythagoras is most likely the first to record this relationship, one of the truly impressive portrayals of these symmetrical psychological and governmental formations is to be found in the Dialogues of Plato, wherein he presented three governance mechanisms of the city-state mirroring three psychic agencies perceived ubiquitously within the human beings who belong to that city-state. It appears that the three governing elements of a state are derived from individuals who themselves possess these same elements in a terminal system he called psyche, others have called soul, and we call mind. By fixing his analysis on the conflict among certain institutions of government, Plato posited that the social order is a replica of a person’s conflict-ridden mind, but on a much larger scale. Indeed, it has appeared to some people throughout the course of Western civilization that governance mechanisms of a state originate in, and are congruent with, the agencies which compose the mind. That is to say, the origin of a social order is not bestowed by a higher authority or based upon a conscious ’social contract’ , but given in what is uniquely human in the nature of the individuals themselves. From this perspective, a state also is not the product of an historical process as many since Cicero have believed, but rather is derived from something plain and fundamental in the minds of its membership. It is possible to consider individual minds as microcosms in which the governing features of a macrocosmic social order can be apprehended and, in a most rudimentary way, understood. It may be fruitful to consider this fundamental relationship in which the human being gives objectivity to his/her terminal system in the formation of a state, yet does not often acknowledge the independence and validity of the governing institutions in this ‘object’ as being reflections of her/his own nature. This does not mean that the individual is equal to, or stands above, this necessary object. On the contrary, the state is above the individual and governs her/him. The point here is merely this: a plurality of individuals projects its commonly-held psychic elements into governance mechanisms of the state and then makes itself subordinate to this external organization. Human beings, it appears, are by nature constituted for social living, and most people become engaged in the outward events of the social and material world as a way of meeting basic needs determined by the practical requirements of reality. Ancient thinkers as well as contemporary scholars have postulated that there can be no meaningful human existence absent a social order. Perhaps it can be said that certain aspects of mentation are knowable because the mind presents itself both in three distinguishable parts to itself and in three governance mechanisms of the state. This mind / state relationship can be thought of as an example of the state having been generalized from, or having taken on the structure of, animating principles of unity in the mind of the individual. Individual members of a state unconsciously consent to be governed, as it were, by a state which typifies their nature. It is then plausible that the state comes closest to ensuring the expression of naturally determined human potential and relational capabilities of its members, as their ‘lights’ accord them a view of just what potential and capacity for relations they possess. Institutions of government begin to exist where individuals in sufficient numbers recognize that they are incapable of providing for their well being through personal thought and initiative alone. By adequately organizing governance mechanisms, government deals at once with inner conflict and outer challenges to the social order in much the same way the psychological agencies in the mind of the individual respond to the needs of the self. The state has ultimate concern for the needs of the individual by ensuring the opportunity for the fulfillment of those purposes for which individuals are created. Those governments which are most successful in accomplishing this goal are founded upon an understanding of the capacities of human beings, with particular attention to the goals toward which human beings tend. Then the state becomes a structure common to individual minds; conversely, their common psychic structure serves as a model that is employed to organize, authorize and empower governance mechanisms which direct society toward a remote, unreachable goal: the good of all. Here we identify a dynamic terminal system in its individual and its societal form. In the latter, human beings shape, amplify and adapt governance mechanisms according to their make-up in the formation and maintenance of a personality writ large, called a state. Since the dawn of Western civilization notice has been taken regarding how governance mechanisms of a state may spring from and ‘mirror’ the interplay of structured, psychodynamic distinctions of personality. Thanks to certain eminent psychological findings by S. Freud and to the constitutional inventions of T. Jefferson, we can see with more clarity how the structure, the dynamics and the overall momentum of the mind furnish the model for the structuring and functioning of a democracy.
In regards to your comment "I read a lot but I’ve never come across a definition of god that goes with this topic. What’s up with this god business?" I'm not 100% certain, but I think they are referring the the tenet of secular humanism, which see humanity as having reached a level of consciousness and intelligence so great that humans can now take responsibility for their well-being in the way they used to expect God to do so. In other words, if "god is dead," then we will step into that space and take god-like control of our lives and all life around us. The implication is that we will be wise enough to do it well and for the good of all concerned. There is a very interesting discussion of this concept in the book "The Arrogance of Humanism," by David Ehrenfeld. The title of course gives away the author's stance on humanism, but the book is an intelligent discussion of the weaknesses in the humanists' belief system.