bioephemera

Darwin’s Natural Heir

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from Darwin’s Natural Heir
Directed by David Dugan; produced by Neil Patterson

I am a specialized advocate: an advocate for the rest of life. I hope that doesn’t sound pompous, but all of us should be advocates for the rest of life.

-E.O. Wilson

Last Tuesday I visited the National Geographic Society for the premiere of “Darwin’s Natural Heir,” a documentary by Neil Patterson about the career and life of naturalist Edward O. Wilson. It’s a nice little film, with some effective graphics and visual metaphors, and a good dose of humor. But I wasn’t there to see the film. I was there to meet E.O. Wilson himself, who graciously answered questions afterward, patiently signed piles of books, and let us snap photos with him like the shameless biology groupies we are.

Here I am with Dr. Wilson – the photo is blurry because my friend Dr. Angela, vibrating with enthusiasm, could not hold the cameraphone still. I don’t mind; this fuzzy photo perfectly captures the warm fuzzies we all felt for the venerable naturalist:

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Like David Attenborough (who makes a brief appearance in the film), E.O. Wilson is a professional inspiration to me – and I don’t use that word lightly. I rarely use it at all (and I never use the execrable, ubiquitous “hero”).

In person, Wilson could not be more different from opinionated DNA pioneer James Watson (whom Wilson has called “the Caligula of biology”). But like Watson, Wilson has drawn fire for his controversial positions. After publishing his seminal 1975 book Sociobiology, he was assailed by opponents who vocally rejected his integration of sociology and biology, fearing a new era of social Darwinism. Accused of racism, sexism, and Nazism, Wilson had a pitcher of water poured over his head by a mob of righteous students (I think that happened at an AAAS meeting – too bad this year’s was not so memorable!) Wilson was even excoriated by his own Harvard colleagues, Richard Lewontin and S.J. Gould, who said Wilson overreached himself and the evidence with his broad theories about human evolution.

It’s true Wilson is unafraid to overreach and make grand inferences about the bigger picture – an intriguing habit, since it was partial blindness that originally forced him out of field ecology and into entomology. Reading Wilson’s 1998 book Consilience, in which he argues for the unification of science and humanities, is like basking in the warm glow of an indiscriminately curious, liberally educated mind. Yet Consilience was so achingly ambitious in its yearning to integrate all fields of human knowledge, it had to fall short.

From this big-picture perspective, Wilson has argued for the use of genetically modified organisms, saying “the benefits for conservation and humanity far outweighed the risks.” And in The Creation, Wilson appeals to the evangelical right to throw their considerable political weight behind conservation efforts – a remarkably pragmatic move for a man who spent his life studying the evolution of social organisms, including Homo sapiens (for the record, Wilson calls himself a provisional deist). Some people are troubled by this pragmatism: no matter the payoff, is it honest for an evolutionary biologist to sidestep the question of whether evolution happened, as if it is relatively unimportant?

Regardless of your personal take on that question, on GMOs or sociobiology, it’s obvious that Wilson cares profoundly about our planet. He clearly feels the loss of habitat and species, the loss of complexity, more deeply than any injury to his person or academic legacy. And he is totally unafraid to be an advocate and a scientist – something others tiptoe around, but don’t quite embrace. On Tuesday, he responded firmly to a question about the appropriateness of scientist-advocates:

If you are in a field of science where you can see a problem with urgency, then you should become an advocate. We have no problem agreeing that if an astronomer sees a meteorite headed toward the earth he should not restrict his report to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but leak it to the New York Times. . . I have never had any doubt whatsoever about the appropriateness of calling attention to extinction.

E.O. Wilson is the man who first used biodiversity in print, and turned sociobiology and biophilia into popular concepts. Alice Walker once said, “I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?” While eloquence is hardly a litmus test for the author’s morality, I urge you to read Wilson’s books (I’m rereading Consilience now) and see if you don’t find him utterly charming. Author Ian McEwan (who wrote a little thing called Atonement) says of Wilson, “Frankly, I do not know of another working scientist whose prose is better than his. He can be witty, scathing and inspirational by turns. He is a superb celebrator of science in all its manifestations, as well as being a scourge of bogus, post-modernist, relativist pseudo-science, and so-called New Age thinking” (source).

I have little doubt that Wilson was intrigued by the genetic basis for altruism because he is a profoundly altruistic man. His increasingly urgent push toward international conservation efforts seems to be the urgency of a man who views the approaching end of his own life (Wilson is 78) primarily as the end of his usefulness as an advocate “for the rest of life.” I would not be surprised if he sees the loss of his own life as less important than the loss of some species of tropical ant that no human being has ever laid eyes on. Over and over, Wilson’s theme is that we are running out of time. Last Tuesday he left eloquence aside and put it as bluntly as possible:

I don’t think we’re gonna extinguish ourselves as a species; I think we’re just going to screw up our planet. . . I feel we are approaching a tipping point.

A groundswell of public opinion is the only thing that changes the minds of our political leaders in this country. We don’t get that guidance from the top; we have to give it to them.

E.O. Wilson’s current projects include spearheading the too-popular-for-its-own-good Encyclopedia of Life and an international push to preserve biodiversity hotspots.

To summarize why I feel so affectionate toward Wilson, a man I never met until last week, I’ll quote Ian McEwan again:

“He is,” says Ian McEwan, “a scientific materialist who warmly embraces the diversity of human achievement – including religion and art, which he sees in evolutionary terms. One of his tasks has been to further the Enlightenment project of absorbing the social sciences into science proper; another has been to find a sound ethical basis for ecological thinking. He is fundamentally a rational optimist who shows us the beauty of the narrative of life on earth. He is living proof that materialism need not be a bleak world view.” (source)

More:

A brand-spanking-new podcast interview with E.O. Wilson (Guardian Science Weekly) – it calls him “quite the grand fromage!”

E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

Guardian profile by Ed Douglas

Read an excerpt from The Creation here.

Comments

  1. #1 tbell
    March 26, 2008

    If you don’t like ‘hero’ why not adopt the Subgenius “Short Duration Personal Savior’ descriptor? Much more fun, much less execrable.

  2. #2 Anne-Marie
    March 26, 2008

    Great post, thanks for the profile. I had the chance to meet Wilson last year at a conference, he is extremely down to earth and friendly. I think he is definitely one of the most significant biologists of the last century (whether you are pro-sociobiology or not), I really appreciate the way he has shown that naturalists can do significant, serious science. I think that today’s science culture is producing fewer and fewer true field-oriented researchers and naturalists.

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