The Human Factor
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.
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.