E.O. Wilson, Science Giant and Environmental Champion, Comes to Town — and Illuminates

He’s been called “the greatest living scientist” and “our greatest biologist” and he has a plethora of awards and accolades. For two days this week, this giant of our times was in the Triangle area. On Wednesday he was on the Duke campus talking about “Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City” (Liveright, October 2012), his new book with Alex Harris of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. And on Thursday he was in Raleigh at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science doing a Global Town Hall. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Wilson during his stay in the area — what an extraordinary experience.

E.O Wilson is a man of unparalleled accomplishments — a scientist, author, novelist, philosopher, humanist and a passionate advocate for biodiversity and conservation. He’s also a wonderful person to have dinner with — warm, compassionate and witty, with a seemingly infinite reservoir of facts, historical anecdotes and personal stories.

At age 83, the slightly stooped Wilson still presents a towering figure, tall and thin with a full shock of grey hair that frequently falls across his forehead. (That falling hair and the need to flick it back reminded me, somewhat incongruously, of my boys when they were teenagers.)

Meeting him can seem a little disorienting at first. As he describes in his memoir “Naturalist,” Wilson lost the vision in his right eye when he was a boy — an accident that led him to study insects which could be carefully examined with his good eye. Shaking his hand, you might think at first he’s not quite looking at you, but then his endearing smile, southern drawl and self-effacing persona quickly draw you in. And while his spine may be a bit slumped and step somewhat slowed by age, there is no question about the mind — it’s firing on all cylinders.

A northern transplant, Wilson digs his southern roots

Wilson deplores the old South’s racism, but admits in “Why We Are Here” that as a child growing up in 1940s Alabama, he was part of the problem: “We were all racists.” But, like so much of white America, he has grown and is encouraged by the progress that he has seen:

“Two generations later, we have come out of the nightmare of racial injustice, not completely but a lot, and moving in the right direction.”

Nevertheless, make no mistake, the Alabama native takes great pride in being a Southerner. As he writes in “Why We Are Here”:

“My entire adult life has been spent at Harvard University… far from the environment in Mobile and Tuscaloosa [where he grew up] … but I found it impossible to fall in love with Harvard… I am an Alabamian.”

He loves his people and his childhood haunts. Small anecdote: When our conversation turned toward Civil War talk, Wilson, with a twinkle in his eye and knowing that I was a Yankee, couldn’t resist a little rib and so used the word “we” to refer to the Confederate Army.

The world of ants and beyond

Wilson’s entry into the scientific world was through entomology and more specifically the study of ants and their communities. His nonfiction book “The Ants” (Belknap Press, March 1990) with co-author Bert Hölldobler won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1991. (Watch video of Wilson discussing his book.) Two decades later, ants would also be the subject of his best-selling novel Anthill (see here and here), which won the 2010 Heartland Prize.

But Wilson is a broad and deep thinker, and his reach has expanded far beyond ants and entomology.

His major scientific contributions have been in the field of sociobiology, a field he defined in his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner “On Human Nature” (Harvard University Press, 1978) as “the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization.”Often called the “father of sociobiology,” Wilson argues that much of social behavior from sexual reproduction to altruism can be explained by genetics formed by evolutionary pressures that selected for groups that acted in ways that assured the species’ survival. (See summary of book.)

“Social Conquest of Earth” (Liveright, April 2012), also out earlier this year, presents a radical new theory of evolution that places group selection over kin selection as the driving force in species survival and it has engendered a rather spirited controversy.

I am especially moved by Wilson’s “Biophilia” (Harvard University Press, January 1984) — which posits a fundamental and profound human connection to the natural world, the biota that inhabit it, and the place that both inhabit — and “Consilience: A Unity of Knowledge,” a meditation on the connections between the two great threads of human thought and study: science and humanities. (See review.)

Connecting to ‘Why We Are Here’

“Why We Are Here” — an engaging and entertaining riff on the concepts advanced in both “Biophilia” and “Consilience” — is a story of place: the mid-sized American city of Mobile, Alabama, with its southern, Gulf Coast traditions.

It is the story of one man’s (Wilson’s) connection to that place, a place where he grew up and a place that helped to form and shape his fascination and interest in the natural world. (More on Wilson’s Alabama.)

It is a story told as a collaboration that crosses the science-humanist divide — a collaboration between an eminent scientist and a distinguished photographer.

And, like all good stories, it raises questions:

What does Wilson’s connection to Mobile and the Gulf Coast — a distinct natural and human environment — say about our own connection to our homes and to our particular places? And more broadly our obligations and commitments to preserve our place, our planet?

Beyond the page and into the park

Wilson’s connections to place do not stop on the page as his work with Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique demonstrates. (See more here). His new project in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta of his youth promises to be another demonstration. Inspired by the research for his book, which reacquainted him with the wild lands of his childhood, Wilson is working to establish the first Gulf Coast national park in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. His profound appreciation for this place came out in an interview he gave last year:

“I didn’t really understand what a treasure the Delta was as a child. … I had no idea that I was in one of the most diverse spots I would ever visit.  I’ve been all over the world, and the most wondrous place was right here in Alabama all along.”

If the project succeeds — and the highly successful Wilson has vowed that it will — the new park, stretching from the Red Hills to the gulf, would by Wilson’s estimation be the “biologically richest … in the U.S.”

At dinner last night, shortly after coffee was served, Wilson looked at his watch, and with a sigh announced it was time to call it a night. He rose and slowly ambled out of the room. An early morning flight returned him to Boston. One of his parting lines? “I have so many projects to finish up.”

I felt illuminated by my time with Wilson, and not just illuminated in an intellectual sense. I was brightened — charmed, delighted and brimming with new ideas.

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