Edward O. Wilson

      . . . is among the world's great scientists. Author of two Pulitzer Prize winning books, Dr. Wilson spent a lifetime teaching at Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. and which awarded him both of its college-wide teaching awards. Currently Professor and Honorary Curator of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, Dr. Wilson's honors and awards include the National Medal of Science, top honors from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the National Audubon Society, and Japan's International Prize for Biology. He is on the Board of The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and the American Museum of Natural History. Consilience, the Unity of Knowledge is his latest book.

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The Science of Survival


The real work of the 21st century, according to the great Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson, is to settle humanity down before we wreck the planet. Dr. Wilson says the explosion of the human population promises 8 billion people living on earth within 40 years (as compared to 2 billion in 1900.) It's a vast bottleneck coinciding with a documented worldwide decline in arable land and water. And we people are pushing the rest of life off the face of the earth. But Wilson also offers both hope and plans for action.

While Dr. Wilson expects the 21st century will be a scary rush of accelerating change, if -- and this is a very big "if" -- if we address our challenges of natural resources, conservation, and human population, we have a chance for a quieter, more secure time for humans and other forms of life on the other side.

We need what we are destroying. Creepy-crawlies and weeds are the very foundation of life, the little things that run the earth, cycle and recycle nutrients, create the air and soil. And they do it for free. Without them, Wilson assures us the terrestrial ecosystems of the world would collapse within a year, making human life unsustainable. That's before taking into account the species we are driving to extinction provide us priceless resources for scientific information, new pharmaceuticals, and much more.

Besides, Wilson asks, who are we to destroy Creation, the product of 100s of millions of years of evolution?

People all over the world are in denial, Wilson worries. We're refusing to face the urgency of pollution, environmental degradation, climate warming and looming populations. Just providing adequate nutrition for 8 billion people -- 80% of whom will live in developing nations -- will be a challenge, let alone coping with their rising expectations for American-style comfort and security. Meanwhile, humans are causing a great extinction spasm on the planet. So what? It will take evolution 10 million years to replace the species we are poised to wipe out in the next couple of decades.

Right now, we don't have enough knowledge and we're not trying hard enough to get it. Our public intellectuals are failing us - talk show hosts, op-ed writers, advisors, political leaders and educators are not telling us about the real world, not developing global population and environmental policies. We can get through the coming bottleneck if we are very, very careful and if we manage our resources. But that won't happen if we continue in what Dr. Wilson calls our current shortsighted, reckless, territorial, barbaric, blinkered manner.

Confront and overcome our denial. Understand as exactly as we can who we are, where we came from, how we relate to this planet. Apply that understanding to create some kind of equilibrium so that our natural resources are sustainable. Follow the evidence in the sciences and the humanities that runs in the direction of our fundamental commonalities within the human species and within knowledge itself. Learn to deal with issues, to think on your own, to cut across fields, to integrate science and the humanities. And do it before it's too late.

When all else fails, do people really turn to reason? We'll soon find out.


[This program was recorded on January 15, 1999, in Atlanta, Georgia.]

Conversation 1

Professor Edward O. Wilson describes the accelerated pace at which human society is causing a host of changes on the earth to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Dr. Wilson explains the immediacy of his concern that we face a human population "bottleneck" in the next 40 to 50 years, which will impact the earth in profound ways, foreseeing severe difficulties for the 6 to 8 billion people expected on the planet, as well as for the other forms of life we are pushing off the face of the earth.


Conversation 2

Dr. Wilson compares the ecological footprint of average Americans (12 acres each to sustain our current lifestyle and consumption) with the one acre footprint of a person living in the developing world, where 80% of people live. With present technology, two more planets will be required to bring others to Americans' current level of use of natural resources. He tells us why the 21st century will be about settling humanity down before we wreck the planet. He describes five great extinction events over the last 1/2 billion years, at 100 million year intervals, the last one being when a giant meteor apparently wiped out dinosaurs. He details how, at our current pace, human activity will be the cause of the next great extinction spasm. He describes the enormous consequences and implications of what our actions promise and the stages of denial into which many people have chosen to retreat. He offers us ways to address these worries, starting with understanding who we are, where we come from and how we relate to this planet, offering hope for how we can get through the approaching human population bottleneck.


Conversation 3

Professor Wilson gives us a sense of history, going back into our evolutionary past and forward to give us a realistic assessment of what it will take for humanity to reach an equilibrium with earth's environment, providing genuine security and a high quality of life for everyone on earth. He uses his world-renowned work with ants as an illustration of how dependent we all are on "the little things that run the earth" -- creepy-crawlies and weeds -- and do it for free. He compares this with the fragile nature of our increasing reliance on human technology, concerned we are becoming a prosthetic species. He describes the living planet we have only just begun to explore, suggesting one can spend a lifetime making a "Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree."


Conversation 4

One of the traits of human nature, Dr. Wilson believes, is our need for mystery, for a world to explore. He describes how very special he thinks humans are, all the more reason to appreciate our humble biological origins. He gives an example of how understanding the qualities of human nature that we share with other animals can give startling results, including how primates are desensitized to their siblings so that incest is avoided and the common preference humans have for particular habitats. He describes how genetics and culture have co-evolved, using aesthetics as his example.


Conversation 5

Professor Wilson describes our era of extreme specialization and fragmentation of knowledge, coupled with post-modern philosophical ideas that deny objective truths. He believes people have grown weary of this and describes the "consilience" which he believes can help us find commonalities within our own species and with other life forms on the biosphere. He suggests that knowledge generally is united at a very fundamental level and shows how that is so, bringing science and the humanities back together where they have been separated for several centuries. He applies these ideas to his understanding of human nature. He refutes fears people have of science being reductionistic, showing how scientists look for synthesis as well as analysis, using what he has learned about ants as his example. He also affirms that the other devil the public fears about natural science -- that it might rob us of our freedom -- is unfounded and shows how much freedom our very complexity assures, no matter how well we might understand the constituent parts, reaffirming free will.



Conversation 6

Dr. Wilson, a life-long Harvard professor, criticizes the failure of today's the colleges and universities adequately to prepare our young people to be leaders, in the face of monumental challenges we will face in the next 40 years. He believes the failure has come from a surrender to over-specialization, calling for training people to think on their own, understand issues and cut across many different fields. He shows why this approach is vital. He notes the role science itself has played, as well as the media, which, along with education and public intellectuals, he sees focusing on matters of governance and law. He shows how we can successfully address our considerable challenges by expanding our research, understanding, public discussions, educational systems, religions and ethics to encompass a more realist view of the world. He concludes, along with former Israeli leader Abba Eban, that when all else fails, humans turn to reason.



Under the leadership of Dr. Frans de Waal, The Living Links Center at Emory University hosted the "Origins" Symposium which brought Dr. Wilson to Atlanta, Georgia. We are enormously grateful to Dr. de Waal for his leadership in assembling a world class group of scientists. We also thank Kate Egan and Darren Long, who work with Professor de Waal and who coordinated the Symposium. They were instrumental in helping us produce a series of programs with Symposium participants in the midst of an extraordinary event. Thank you, each and all, for your special role(s) in forwarding important work.

Related Links:

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is published by Alfred A.Knopf.

Prof. Wilson is the driving force behind and effort to create web pages for every species on earth ... a noble challenge. The project is called the Encyclopedia of Life.

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