Q&A with E.O. Wilson
Over his long and wide-ranging career, esteemed naturalist E.O. Wilson has conducted groundbreaking research on the social behavior of ants, written extensively about the biological basis of human behavior, and spearheaded the movement to protect the planet’s biodiversity. Recently, the latter has led him to assist in a successful push to transform Gorongosa National Park—1,000 square miles of land damaged by civil war in Mozambique—into the most biodiverse protected land in the world. Soon, he will turn his conservation efforts toward his boyhood home, the Gulf Coast, to help create what he hopes will be the most biodiverse national park in the United States.
BBG recently honored Wilson with its Visionary Award for his extraordinary scientific and environmental leadership. While he was here, he spoke with BBG staff about educating the next generation of scientists, what he learned from Rachel Carson, and how we humans are not nearly smart as we think we are. Here are some highlights
Why are places like Brooklyn Botanic Garden important?
There is an immense value in keeping the natural world alive for the present and future. Beyond that it’s important to re-create the world from which we originate, so that people can come and really experience, say, what New York City was like before humans, or what different wild areas around the world may still be like now. We need to provide places where people, especially children, can come in contact with this type of wild, primeval place.
You’ve talked and written about how your childhood spent in the countryside and on the seashore led you to your career as a scientist. Can urban parks and gardens really provide city kids with the same kind of deeply influential experience?
Emphatically, emphatically yes. I was raised in Alabama, mostly on the Gulf Coast, but I really became a naturalist at the age of nine when we moved to Washington, DC. I was a lonely kid, having just moved there, and I wanted to have adventures in the way that nine-year-olds do. I looked about, and there was Rock Creek Park. I decided I wanted to go on expeditions, so got my butterfly net and that’s what I did. That’s why it’s wonderful to be here and see all these kids in the Garden. I hope they find their way into science this way too. You know the kid who sneaks in a butterfly net? Keep an eye on that kid. That’s your future scientist.
How can green spaces like BBG compete with all the media and technology that modern kids are bombarded with?
In addition to having something strange and beautiful to see, exhibits can be designed to give them that sense of adventure, so they think about exploring the way New York City looked before humans were here, or investigating the great variety of desert plants. But then you also need to convey a sense of proprietorship, of being one of the owners of the natural world. If a child is just herded around in a strictly led group and told, “Look it this, look at that,” then it’s just like going through a great art museum. You may enjoy certain parts of it, but you don’t gain a sense of proprietorship.
So simply exposing kids to nature isn’t enough?
It’s a start, but it’s not a simple matter of taking them on a picnic out in the woods. They need that sense of discovery, so it would be better to pack them a sandwich, send them out at 10 a.m., and say, “Go see what you can find. Find the leaves, the ants, the snakes, hopefully not he poisonous ones. Then come back and tell us about them.” This is how Rachel Carson used to describe this idea, and it’s how I see it too. She said you should take a child to the seashore, take him to a tide pool, give him a bucket. Then without telling him the names of anything, ask him to find out what’s there. See if he can pick up some shrimp, a sea urchin, whatever, and bring it to you. Now that’s something the child has discovered himself. That’s how you create a naturalist.
Why is it important that the next generation include so many naturalists and scientists, or at least adults who feel compelled to care for and investigate the natural world?
We need the public and our leadership to be able to think about science more comprehensively. Most congressmen come from venues and professions where they’re not required to have any background or training in science, and some come from places where half the people don’t believe in evolution. They can’t think about science or resource management in any manner that has reality to it. That’s why I hope that teaching science and technology with a heavy emphasis on biology and the environment can somehow make it seep into the political conversation. Until it does, we’re being led by people who are living with myths. That’s a harsh statement, but it’s just a fact.
The other issue is that most people don’t realize just how biodiverse our world is, which is why it’s so important to study and investigate—so we can begin to understand how to save the planet’s ecosystem and make full use of each species. Recently, for example, studies in Great Smoky Mountain National Park have come up with the estimate that 40,000 to 60,000 species of plants and animals exist there. That’s staggering. And that’s a rich environment, but it’s not by any means the richest in the world.
So we need to have a better sense of what we don’t know in order to move forward?
Yes. We humans seem to think we have godlike intellectual abilities, but in fact our brains fall vastly short of being able to understand even a single ecosystem. There is more complexity, more information, in one ecosystem than anything that could ever be put together by humans, even with computational ability of almost any conceivable amount. The history is so complex, so multidimensional, and involves so many interacting principals that we could go a long time before we understood an ecosystem in its entirety, even with the help of a whole bank of supercomputers of zeta capacity.
It sometimes seems that our tendency to see only the short term is the biggest challenge our species faces.
Exactly. But I’m an optimist, in part because I have faith in humanity. As a species, Home sapiens is doing pretty well right now, on the whole. We are seeing, in the scope of world history, an improvement. Where women are getting any kind of freedom, particularly economic freedom, birthrates drop drastically. Global violence is declining. It could resume, but most violence now is in the form of small ethnic conflicts, and gradually those too will subside. And we are starting to see the full engine of science and technology linked to global economics, improving the conditions of everybody everywhere. So we’re moving in the right direction. It’s just that we’re moving so slowly. And this is a dangerous period in many ways. We’re running short of critical resources, like fresh water and carbon-based energy. But if we continue improving, we will overcome the most perilous of our shortcomings—social, behavioral, and political.
The one area that I am constantly worried about, though, is conserving the rest of life. There we’re not doing so well. We’re behaving recklessly, and if we eliminate a large number of species, which we are doing right now, we may come out of the bottleneck of the 21st century having passed through all these current shortages and difficulties only to have a less livable, less stable world because we didn’t take good care of the natural ecosystem.
Do we have the means to avoid this fate?
It can be done. Preserving habitat, for example, is not that expensive. The Nature Conservancy recently estimated that in order to set aside reserves of sufficient size to save as much as 70 percent of known species, we would need one payment equal to a tenth of a percent of the combined gross domestic products of the countries of the world, something like $70 or $80 billion. And that could even be spaced out over time. That’s chump change. Then we’d need just a few crumbs off the table to fund research into biodiversity.
I can give so many examples of projects that give me hope. I’ve seen conservatives and environmentalists coming together to establish the nation’s most biodiverse national park, which will support a rich flora and many rare turtles and snakes. Then there’s the work I’m doing with a conservation group in the Florida panhandle to protect a continuous corridor several miles wide as habitat for slow-moving species that are relocating in the face of climate change. Another experience that inspires me is my time in the only known virgin rainforest, Africa’s Gorongosa National Park, where, thanks to the funding and direction of one benefactor, the American Greg Carr, and the cooperation of the very young Mozambique government, we’ve witnessed the rebirth of an incredibly diverse wildlife habitat in an impoverished country that was only recently ravaged by civil war. So over and over again I see that if people have a dream and the will to pursue it, we can do amazing things.