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In the Classroom with E.O. Wilson: A Student Perspective
by -- February 20th, 2014

MEM students Emma Hedman and Emma Vaughan meet with biologist E.O. Wilson (bottom left).

“I would like to offer the following explanation of the human dilemma:

According to archaeological evidence, we strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization roughly ten thousand years ago. That quantum leap beguiled us with an illusion of freedom from the world that had given us birth. It nourished the belief that the human spirit can be molded into something new to fit changes in the environment and culture, and as a result the timetables of history desynchronized. A wiser intelligence might now truthfully say of us at this point: here is a chimera, a new and very odd species come shambling into our universe, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology. The combination makes the species unresponsive to the forces that count most for its own long-term survival.”

-E.O. Wilson, The Creation (2006)

This year the Nicholas School was lucky enough to make an alliance with the esteemed Edward O. Wilson—a man who wears many hats, being an Entomologist by trade with a passion for ants, who officially retired from his professorship at Harvard in 1996 and yet spends his free time theorizing on ideas like social biology, biophilia, and even the meaning of life itself (as his upcoming book promises to address).

Furthermore, 8 masters students and 8 PhD and DEL students from the Nicholas School were lucky enough to be a part of his pilot 1-credit course ‘Humans and Biodiversity’, which he will be teaching for 2 weeks every year starting with us!

I have to admit: when I first heard about this opportunity I reacted as more of a fan-girl than an academic. I had read most of his books as an aspiring biologist, and just the year before I had attended a talk at the Nasher Museum. There he spoke about the recently released book “Why We are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City” that was written by him and photographed by the incredible Alex Harris of Duke’s Documentary Studies department (that night the following spectacularly cheesy photograph was born).

Within the week, I also attended his talk at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences about the release of his virtual textbook, “Life on Earth.” Coming from a small town, I haven’t gotten to see many celebrities in my time, let alone gotten to talk to them face to face. So when the opportunity to spend two whole weeks with one arose, I jumped at it like a frog after a fly.

MEM students Emma Hedman and Emma Vaughan meet with biologist E.O. Wilson (bottom left).

MEM students Emma Hedman and Emma Vaughan meet with biologist E.O. Wilson (bottom left) and photographer Alex Harris (bottom right).

When I got to the class, it was everything I could have hoped for and more (though I probably could have done without the spotlights and cameras highlighting every stray hair and bags under my eyes for posterity). We spent the first three classes getting to hear firsthand stories:

  • About how Dr. Wilson traveled the world just to find an elusive species of ant, and furthermore about how finding just that ant in just that spot next to just such a species of grasshopper turned out to solve a decades old mystery of a swarming ant that wreaked havoc on a civilization some hundreds of years ago.
  • How as a new professor at Harvard he had to validate his brand of ‘old fashioned biology’(the very idea being ridiculous to Wilson) to a fellow professor at the ‘cutting edge’ field of molecular biology, and how eventually and begrudgingly this professor admitted the value of his work.
  • How a species of fly that is so small that few even notice its existence manages to find a mate, dig through the surface tension of the water, find the eggs of a fish species to serve as hosts for its own eggs, dig its way back out, and then fly after food all with a brain the size of a dot from the tip of a pencil.
  • How a park torn apart by civil war was able to come back with a plan to sustain both the wildlife as well as the local human population, all with the help of a few wealthy donors with good hearts and a few dozen scientists eager to facilitate the comeback.
E.O. Wilson teaching 'Humans and Biodiversity,' while Nicholas graduate students look on.

E.O. Wilson teaching ‘Humans and Biodiversity,’ while Nicholas graduate students look on.

However, what went above and beyond the call of duty in my opinion were our philosophical debates. As an undergraduate I was loathe to choose between biology and philosophy, and to this day I wish that education would be more interdisciplinary. To get the chance to hear a world class expert in entomology talking about science education, the evolutionary history of our morality, science policy, and even religion, was an experience I thought I wouldn’t get the higher up in education I reached.

I think this class helped me remember that while we are supposed to specialize as we move from our undergraduate careers and into our masters careers and beyond, it doesn’t hurt to think wide. In fact, I think that the Nicholas School’s ability to accommodate everyone— from the student very interested in the conservation of a very specific subset of species, to the student like me who is dealing with issues all over the map (from environmental justice, to science and the media, to policy, to learning and then promptly forgetting all the Latin names of tree species that my roommate keeps trying to instill in my mind)—that makes our partnership with E.O. Wilson all the more effective and productive.

Our course was tragically cut short by a freak NC snow storm (giving us an insane 5 day weekend), but I still think it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve gotten to have since coming to grad school, and I think this partnership will thrive in the coming years. And the day wasn’t totally wasted: my roommate and I DID make this most excellent snow kangaroo.

EO Wilson B1 P2


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