E. O. Wilson [5.26.03]
Introduction by:
E. O. Wilson

We're beginning to get some revolutionary new ideas about how social behavior originated, and also how to construct a superorganism. If we can define a set of assembly rules for superorganisms then we have a model system for how to construct an organism. How do you put an ant colony together? You start with a queen ant, which digs a hole in the ground, starts laying eggs, and goes through a series of operations that raise the first brood. The first brood then goes through a series of operations to breed more workers, and before long you've got soldier ants, worker ants, and foragers, and you've got a teeming colony. That's because they follow a series of genetically prescribed rules of interaction, behavior, and physical development. If we can fully understand how a superorganism is put together, we'll come much closer to general principles of how an organism is put together. There are two different levels—the cells put together to make an organism, organisms put together to make a superorganism. Right now I'm examining what we know to see if there are rules of how superorganisms are put together.


Introduction by Steven Pinker

Fifty years ago the molecular structure of DNA was discovered and a new academic specialty came into existence. Though it was called "molecular biology," it was very different from the field that traditionally was called biology and that most people think of when they hear the word. Today the split is so pervasive that many universities have separate departments for molecular biology and traditional kind, which the molecular types denigrate as "birdsy-woodsy" biology.

Today no one personifies traditional biology more than E. O. Wilson. For more than 45 years he has fought to unify it, revitalize it, and keep it in the public eye. The public may think of "ecology" as a romantic movement to save charismatic mammals, but it was Wilson's pioneering studies of island biogeography that helped to make it a rigorous science. Most people today consider it obvious that humans have a nature as well as a history, and that the study of our species cannot be conducted in ignorance of evolutionary biology. But it was far from obvious when Wilson first advocated that idea in 1975, at considerable personal cost. Nor should it be shocking to think that all human knowledge is connected in a single web of explanation, but it took Wilson to give this idea a name—consilience—and to become its public advocate. Few people realize that the central activities of biology—classifying species and preserving specimens—have been endangered by the molecular juggernaut; Wilson is the most visible activist dedicated to saving them. Wilson has also called attention to the deep human need to be surrounded by other living things and has made it a key argument for preserving the diversity of life in the face of today's massive human-caused extinctions. And on top of all this, Wilson's most specialized research activity—the study of ants—has made the subject so familiar to the public that two full-length animated movies have relied on ant facts for their humor.

Wilson has a restless intellect and never fails to come up with interesting new ideas. This interview promises still more revelations on the nature of living things from the man who has personified the science that studies them.

—Steven Pinker

EDWARD O.WILSON is Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (one of which he shares with Bert Hölldobler), Wilson has won many scientific awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

His books include The Future of Life; Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge; Diversity of Life; Ants; On Human Nature; Naturalist; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition; (with Bert Hölldobler) Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration; and The Insect Societies.

E.O. Wilson's Edge Bio page

Steven Pinker's Edge Bio Page


[E.O. WILSON:] The sociobiology wars that began in the '70s are over. The biological approach has prevailed. Yet, I totally misjudged the ignorance of the reaction that I was going to get from social scientists and political ideologues on the left on the publication of my book Sociobiology in 1975. It started a real controversy and revealed the very widespread—in fact, in places almost universal—belief in the blank slate mind: that is, a mind unaffected by genetic factors or biological processes that might predispose social behavior, especially, to develop in one direction or another. That view, that the mind was fully developed by learning, by experience, and by the contingencies of history was virtual dogma in the social sciences.

It was also dogma among the far left, who held the position taken by the Marxists and by the late Soviet Union. In the 1920s the Soviet Union dropped eugenics, a kind of prerunner of sociobiology, and switched to blank slate dogma. That was a formidable political and academic establishment on American campuses and among American intelligentsia in the 1950s, but it seems amazing to me now, looking back on the past quarter of a century, that what I wrote could be regarded as heresy. When you read Sociobiology now it looks like a fairly mild foreshadowing of what was to come.

Whatever elements of the blank slate there were in evolutionary biology and psychology vanished, or began to shrink substantially, and that's been the tendency ever since. If there are blank slaters in the social sciences and humanities today—and I suppose there still are—it's very hard to see how they could hold a discussion that would include anything that we actually know about how the brain works, and how child development proceeds. We've had a fair amount of success in many areas of interpreting human nature in evolutionary terms. They would just have to reject the science outright in the manner of religious dogmatists.


My interest is ants began when I was about nine years old I had a bug period, and I just loved the idea of going on expeditions. I grew up in Alabama and North Florida, but at the time—1939-1940—my father was a government employee in Washington D.C. We lived within walking distance of the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park, and I read National Geographic, and thought that there could be no better life in this world than going on expeditions and seeing all the wonderful things I saw and heard about in that magazine.

At the age of 9 I was running my own little expeditions with jars to preserve insects in Rock Creek Park and I was hooked. Pretty soon I was concentrating on ants and butterflies. Then we went back to southern Alabama, the Gulf coast, with its magnificent fauna and flora. This was like letting me into a candy store and I never looked back.

I went to the University of Alabama and they pretty much let me do what I wanted to do. I got into the Department of Biology and had some very good, attentive professors. It was the late '40s and they paid close attention to me. I was a gangly 17-year-old when I first went and graduated at 19. They were used to dealing almost entirely with preparing students to go on to medical school. Here they had an authentic embryonic biologist, so I got all sorts of special attention, including my own lab space when I was a freshman—it was great.

I'm not sure you could reproduce that experience today. Science has changed a lot. For parents thinking of encouraging their children to become scientists, and especially biologists and naturalists—if the student has that inclination to start with—I would recommend liberal arts colleges, not major research institutes. Go to a major research university after you've had four years of a liberal arts college that believes in generalized training in biology, including natural history, with heavy emphasis on ecology. In the last several years I've visited a number of really outstanding ones and the difference between them and major research universities, including my own Harvard, is striking, in terms of what it can mean to an individual student.

Most science education takes a boot camp approach or is set up to train acolytes. That's because most scientists are journeymen—they're not masters. That is to say, they're well-versed and if it's a major research university they probably have some accomplishments on a narrow segment of scientific research, but basically they think like journeymen and are there to train journeymen. They don't think particularly laterally about what their field means. There are, of course, in every university and college striking exceptions, but most scientists are recognized for and advanced by the discoveries they make. The gold and silver of science is original discovery. They know they have to be involved in making an original discovery, and to do that you move along a very narrow front.

The time will come when we'll have to move education to broaden its base for everyone. That includes far more science than is now taught on average. The best way to treat science—I've had 41 years of experience teaching beginning students at Harvard, both biology majors and non-science students, so I can speak to this—is to take it from the top down. Put the big questions to them and show them how science can or cannot answer those questions.

Ask the questions right from the beginning of the freshman class: What is the meaning of sex? Why do we have to die? Why do people grow old? What's the whole point of all this? You've got their attention. You talk about the scientific exploration of these issues and in order to understand them you have to understand something about the whole process of evolution and how the body works.

You say that we're going to deal with two great principles that are the substance of biology and which you must know: One, that everything that's in the body, including the brain and the action of the mind, is obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry as we understand it. And two, that the body, the species, and life as a whole evolved by natural selection. You take it from there and explain as best we can what we know about science, recognizing that there are still unanswered questions. If you sensibly ask what the meaning of life is, you don't have to worry about science haters or mathophobes. You've got 'em.


Lately I've been circling back to the large issue of consilience, the notion that there is a unity of the sciences through a network of cause and effect explanations in physics, biology and even the lower reaches of the social sciences. To that end, in addition to doing systematic, basic biodiversity research I'm conducting a reexamination of the basic theory and contents of sociobiology, beginning with insects and eventually coming back to humans.

In sociobiology, the social insects—ants, bees, wasps, termites—are so especially congenial to analysis, experiments, and theory that we can find paradigms of this kind of explanation that range from the genome, through the organism, through the colony, and through the ecosystems in which colonies live. By enriching the databases of each of those biological levels of organization, and developing middle level theory in concert with that data accumulation as we go along, we can get a much clearer and quicker picture through the social insect of how social behavior evolved in the higher vertebrates.

We can define how this works by considering ant, termite, wasp, and bee colonies as superorganisms. A superorganism is an aggregation of highly organized individuals into colonies. In the case of the social insects we have a set of criteria that we use called eusociality, which has three criteria. First, there are two major castes—a queen, or sometimes a king, which constitutes a reproductive caste, and workers that don't reproduce as much if at all. Second, you have generations of grown, mature adults living with other grown mature individuals in the same community. And finally, you have mature adults that take care of the young. Those three elements are the primary criteria of what makes an advanced insect colony.

Insect eusocial colonies are superb systems that most people find intrinsically interesting. However, they are also superb study objects for the evolution of social existence. A lot of things have been happening for the last 20 years in experimental research on social organization, division of labor, communication, and genetic evolution, so the time has come for a new synthesis. I did one in 1971, pulling together most of what we knew about insect societies at that time, and rebuilt explanatory systems on the foundation of population biology. This was the beginning of sociobiology. I defined sociobiology then as the systematic study of the biological behavior of the social behavior in all kinds of organisms, and suggested that the way to make a real science of it was to base it on the study of the biology of population, recognizing that a society is a little population. This worked out very well. I also did a new synthesis calledThe Ants with Burt Holdobler in 1990, and we are now reexamining everything based on some remarkable things that we have learned in the last ten years.

We're beginning to get some revolutionary new ideas about how social behavior originated, and also how to construct a superorganism. If we can define a set of assembly rules for superorganisms then we have a model system for how to construct an organism. How do you put an ant colony together? You start with a queen ant, which digs a hole in the ground, starts laying eggs, and goes through a series of operations that raise the first brood. The first brood then goes through a series of operations to breed more workers, and before long you've got soldier ants, worker ants, and foragers, and you've got a teeming colony. That's because they follow a series of genetically prescribed rules of interaction, behavior, and physical development. If we can fully understand how a superorganism is put together, we'll come much closer to general principles of how an organism is put together. There are two different levels—the cells put together to make an organism, organisms put together to make a superorganism. Right now I'm examining what we know to see if there are rules of how superorganisms are put together.

Superorganisms are superior as an experimental object, because you can do experiments in the laboratory much faster with a bunch of ants. You can take a group of ants, divide them into ten parts and experiment with them as ten parts. Suppose I were working with the operation of your hand. I could do an experiment in which I painlessly and bloodlessly cut off eight of your fingers and see how you work with two; and then put all the others back on. That's what you can do with an ant colony much more easily. You can separate workers from the colony to experiment, put them back together, and so on.

We're moving rapidly in this area. A little less than 50 years ago, shortly after the discovery of the structure of DNA—one of the epochcal events of science—Jim Watson, one of the first of the newly-defined, full-blooded molecular biologists, came to Harvard.

Jim and I were assistant professors together at the time, and participated in a clash of civilizations. Jim, of course, was leading the molecular revolution and for the time being I was a distinctly overmatched younger leader in organismic biology. For a couple of decades thereafter, molecular biology proceeded in its own way and began to send tendrils of investigation up into cell biology, now organismic biology, past the level of the genome in terms of truly major new discoveries and into the great Pacific Ocean, so to speak, of proteomics, the science of how proteins are assembled.

Meanwhile, evolutionary biology and organismic biology continued to grow in strength and sophistication, and extended their reach on down beyond the organism. By the 1980s we were learning about the genome, the molecular biology itself, and the consequence has been, by the late '80s and '90s and now increasingly, that these two once distant levels are pretty well connected, and people are moving back and forth across them rather easily. Increasingly the study of biological diversity, the variety of life and how it originated, is coming to occupy the attention of even the molecular biologists.

In that spirit of solidifying the newly found unity of the different levels of biology from ecosystems, organisms, and society down to the molecular level of genomics, and with this new-found confidence that we can do this, biology is becoming a unified, mature science, and we now find that the old conflict's gone. Jim and I will be having a public dialogue soon on the relation between DNA and the great discoveries in the molecular period on the one side, and the exploration of the world's biodiversity on the other. We can put those things together in discussion now, and this will be a very interesting conversation. I hope. At the very least it's symbolic of how much has happened in this half-century in biology since we started here in the department at Harvard as adversaries.

At the same time, however, biology is very far from being a fully mature science. A mature science would be one in which we thoroughly understand the following big, open topics:

One is the nature of consciousness and of mind. These are biological subjects, and they're phenomena not just limited to human beings, since we can see their early origins in other vertebrates, particularly the other primates.

Another principal domain in biology that is still largely unexplored is the assembly and maintenance of ecosystems. How do ecosystems—assemblages of plants and animals—live more or less stably for an indefinite period of time? How do they come together in the first place? How are certain species chosen to enter that community? How do they manage to survive? And how does the ecosystem fit together in a way that provides stability?

We're nibbling at the edges of these issues, but community ecology is very far from getting out of its infancy. This is still a very open question of primary importance not only for the biology of the whole but, of course, for the sustainable use of our resources, and for the saving of the rest of life through scientifically-based conservation.

Conceptually, the development of a united biology would also certainly include what we're calling proteomics. This relates to the question of how, after elementary transcription and formation of the proteins, genes are turned on and off. They appear and then do certain things, in part, due to context, location, and pre-existing proteins. It takes one or two hundred thousand kinds of proteins to form a cell.

How exactly do they come together? Most molecular biologists are now focusing on that area. Right now we're at the level of hundreds of species whose genomes have been decoded pretty thoroughly. Once we understand more about the diversity in the genetic code of thousands of species, what strategies will we be able to see the genes following as they create proteins and as the proteins assemble cells? What pathways of evolution have been followed in the course of making what adaptations in the environment?

This brings us to the entire question of biological diversity, which is one of my major concerns now. We probably know, and in the most elementary manner, no more than ten percent of the species of plants, animals, and microorganisms sufficiently well enough to give the species a scientific name. Ninety percent remain unknown, particularly if you throw in the bacteria and other similar, simple organisms called archaeons. We've got to get about the business of exploring the planet's biodiversity.

The project that I've put my shoulders behind was called the All-Species Project. We had a summit conference here at Harvard a little less than two years ago to bring together people who want to see this happen and believe it could be made to happen in 25 years, much in the manner of the human genome project, if we were to want it. We agreed on the main issue: that new technologies make it possible for this to be done. We're ready to build up the systematics of biodiversity exploration around the world and could pull this off and make a huge difference in biology and environmental management.

We established enthusiastic partnerships with various agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, but the sinking economy brought us against the wall of insufficient funding. There are still major enterprises around the world that are doing this on a continental level, or are starting up on global scale, so within a relatively short period of time we'll see these efforts begin to coalesce. I just got off the phone giving a very positive evaluation of the fundraising drive of one of these organizations, which is going for a $9 million endowment. They're getting ambitious, have a compelling argument, and I believe it will happen. It's just a matter of when. The All-Species Project is simply a term used to describe this worldwide movement to complete the exploration of the planet.

If we do not know 90 percent of the kinds of organisms that exist on the earth, what would knowing almost all mean for us? There are overpowering arguments for undertaking this project. It would mean that for the first time we would know all of the bacteria around the world. We would understand potential disease organisms, as well as the fundamental bacterial elements of ecosystems, the very primitive but elementary organisms that form a large part of the base of the ecosystem. Right now we don't even know what the majority of organisms are doing. After cataloguing all of the world's species we would have a huge reservoir of knowledge from which to draw genes for transgenic changing of crops, and the development of new pharmaceuticals.

This would also greatly enlarge biology. Bear in mind that biology is primarily a descriptive science. It deals with the particularity of species and their adaptation to the environment. Although biology is based on the principals of physics and chemistry—at least it is consistent with them—its actual substance is an account of the individual biologies of thousands and eventually millions of species, each of which has a unique history—in many cases millions of years old—of exquisitely adapting and interacting with one another at certain parts of the environment. We don't know what most of that is. Supporting All Species' effort for the planet has not only a logic behind it to bring biology more quickly to maturity, but also promises huge practical applications.

I talked about some of these issues in my book, The Future of Life, which came out early in 2002 and had some success, but there has to be a change in the culture. The way that this can be accomplished is to open the eyes of the scientific community, the government, and non-governmental supporting organizations to the tremendous cost-effectiveness and potential benefits of pulling off a full inventory of species-level diversity.

For the past 20 years, during my service on the boards of directors or advisory boards of most of the major global conservation organizations and in my research in this field there has been a question of how to balance the importance of saving biodiversity with that of saving jobs and helping the poor. There isn't any question any more that saving the rest of life is compatible with saving and improving the lot of humanity. In fact, to push for one means to push for the other, and to let the one go means that you let a lot of the other go.

The major global conservation organizations have long since included in their programs an emphasis on economic development, on-site pilot programs, and fundraising to improve economies in areas of high conservation value on a sustainable basis. And it turns out that it works. I could spend hours talking about the examples and the economics of it and so on, but the bottom line is that the two great goals of the 21st century are, first, raising people around the world to a decent standard of living, particularly the 80% of the people living in developing countries, and second, bringing as much of the rest of life through with us. If we can do this, we will obtain the kind of better world that people everywhere believe should be our major human purpose.

And it's practicable—it is not at all expensive, in terms of the world domestic product. For example, Conservation International convened economists and biologists two years ago in order to estimate how much it would cost to save the rest of biodiversity. It turns out that in order to save the world's 25 hottest hot spots —those places where you have the greatest endangerment to whole ecosystems with large numbers of species—and then add the cost of saving the core wilderness areas of the great tropical forests of the Congo, the Amazon, and New Guinea, it would cost one payment of about $28 billion.

This is equal to approximately one part in a thousand of the world's domestic product. That's one tenth of one percent of the annual economic output of the world! One payment could cover 70 percent of the species of plants and animals that we know about on earth, so this is something that's obtainable. And part and parcel of that would be to improve the economies of the areas in which the main biodiversity is located.