Edward O. Wilson
Literary Arts Icon

Literary Arts

Edward O. Wilson

Past Event: Tuesday, May 14, 1996

Internationally acclaimed entomologist, biologist, and author, Edward O. Wilson is considered one of the world’s greatest living scientists.

He is a leading voice for the preservation of biodiversity and the founder of a field of study relating social behavior to genetic advantage. His 1975 publication, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis renewed the debate of nature vs. nurture and made him one of the most controversial scientists at that time.

Edward Osborne Wilson was born on June 10, 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama. He developed a passion for the natural world during his childhood, with access to woods, fields, and beaches available in the Deep South. He became somewhat socially isolated because of his family’s frequent moves and sought for consolation in nature. His physical limitations, poor eyesight and hearing, helped focus his attentions and devotion to organisms he could hold for close observation, ants. He says, “most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine.” Edward’s studies lead him to the University of Alabama, where he graduated in 1949 with a B.S. in biology. A year later he had earned an M.S. in biology at the same institution. In 1955, Edward completed his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has received numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science awarded by President Jimmy Carter and the Craaford Prize issued by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His confidence with words and his love of nature enabled two Pulitzer Prizes, one for On Human Nature and the other for The Ants. Writing comes easy to him, far easier than mathematics. His writing is influenced by authors, such as Sinclair Lewis and Jack London, who appeal to his adolescent soul with talk of rebellion and adventure. He says,”[t]he importance of first-read authors, in my opinion, can’t be overestimated.”

He has a wife and daughter and is a professor at Harvard University.

Excerpt from The Future of Life (2002)
The 20th century was a time of exponential scientific and technical advance, the freeing of the arts by an exuberant modernism, and the spread of democracy and human rights throughout the world. It was also a dark and savage age of world wars, genocide, and totalitarian ideologies that came dangerously close to global domination. While preoccupied with all this tumult, humanity managed collaterally to decimate the natural environment and draw down the nonrenewable resources of the planet with cheerful abandon. We thereby accelerated the erasure of entire ecosystems and the extinction of thousands of million-year-old species. If Earth’s ability to support our growth is finite—and it is—we were mostly too busy to notice.

As a new century begins, we have begun to awaken from this delirium. Now, increasingly postideological in temper, we may be ready to settle down before we wreck the planet. It is time to sort out Earth and calculate what it will take to provide a satisfying and sustainable life for everyone into the indefinite future. The question of the century is: How best can we shift to a culture of permanence, both for ourselves and for the biosphere that sustains us?

The bottom line is different from that generally assumed by our leading economists and public philosophers. They have mostly ignored the numbers that count. Consider that with the global population past six billion and on its way to eight billion or more by midcentury, per capita freshwater and arable land are descending to levels resource experts agree are risky. The ecological footprint—the average amount of productive land and shallow sea appropriated by each person in bits and pieces from around the world for food, water, housing, energy, transportation, commerce, and waste absorption—is about one hectare (2.5 acres) in developing nations but about 9.6 hectares (24 acres) in the U.S. The footprint for the total human population is 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres). For every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet Earths. The five billion people of the developing countries may never wish to attain this level of profligacy. But in trying to achieve at least a decent standard of living, they have joined the industrial world in erasing the last of the natural environments. At the same time, Homo sapiens has become a geophysical force, the first species in the history of the planet to attain that dubious distinction. We have driven atmospheric carbon dioxide to the highest levels in at least 200,000 years, unbalanced the nitrogen cycle, and contributed to a global warming that will ultimately be bad news everywhere. For every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet Earths.

In short, we have entered the Century of the Environment, in which the immediate future is usefully conceived as a bottleneck. Science and technology, combined with a lack of self-understanding and a Paleolithic obstinacy, brought us to where we are today. Now science and technology, combined with foresight and moral courage, must see us through the bottleneck and out.

“Wait! Hold on there just one minute!”

That is the voice of the cornucopian economist. Let us listen to him carefully. He is focused on production and consumption. These are what the world wants and needs, he says. He is right, of course. Every species lives on production and consumption. The tree finds and consumes nutrients and sunlight; the leopard finds and consumes the deer. And the farmer clears both away to find space and raise corn–for consumption. The economist’s thinking is based on precise models of rational choice and near-horizon timelines. His parameters are the gross domestic product, trade balance, and competitive index. He sits on corporate boards, travels to Washington, occasionally appears on television talk shows. The planet, he insists, is perpetually fruitful and still underutilized.

The ecologist has a different worldview. He is focused on unsustainable crop yields, overdrawn aquifers, and threatened ecosystems. His voice is also heard, albeit faintly, in high government and corporate circles. He sits on nonprofit foundation boards, writes for Scientific American, and is sometimes called to Washington. The planet, he insists, is exhausted and in trouble.

Selected Work
The Future of Life (2002)
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)
Naturalist (1994)
The Diversity of Life (1992)
The Ants (1990)
Biophilia (1984)
On Human Nature (1978)
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975)
Insect Societies (1971)
The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967)

Salon.com interview with Wilson
Listen to PBS interview Wilson
CNN.com book review of Consilience