EO Wilson was literally an exceptional scholar. In the 1980s, Milton Stetson, chairman of the University of Delaware’s Biology Department, told me that a scientist who makes a single landmark contribution to his or her field has succeeded.
When I met Edward O. Wilson In 1982 he had already made at least five such contributions to science.
He worked out the importance of the habitat size and position within the landscape Conservation of animal populations.
And he was the first to understand the evolutionary foundations of both animal and human societies.
Each of his groundbreaking contributions has fundamentally changed the way scientists approach these disciplines and explained why EO – as it was affectionately known – was an academic god to many young scientists like me.
This amazing track record could be due to his phenomenal ability to assemble new ideas with information from different fields of study.
Big insights from small topics
In 1982, during a break at a small conference on social insects, I sat carefully next to the tall man. He turned, held out his hand, and said, “Hello, I’m Ed Wilson. I don’t think we met. ”Then we talked until it was time to get back to business.
Three hours later I went up to him again, this time without fear, because now we were surely best friends. He turned around, held out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson. I don’t think we met.”
Wilson, who forgot me but remained friendly and interested nonetheless, showed that there was a real and compassionate person hidden beneath his many brilliance. I was fresh out of graduate school and I doubt any other person at this conference knew less than I did – something Wilson is sure to spot as soon as I opened my mouth. Yet he did not hesitate to approach me not just once but twice.
32 years later, in 2014, we met again. I had been invited to speak at a ceremony in honor of receiving the Franklin Institute’s Benjamin Franklin Medal for Earth and Environmental Science. The award recognizes Wilson’s lifetime achievements in science, but in particular his numerous efforts to Save life on earth.
My work Study of native plants and insects, and how important they are to food webs, was inspired by Wilson’s eloquent descriptions of biodiversity and how the myriad interactions between species create the conditions that enable such species to exist.
I spent the first few decades of my career studying the evolution of parental care for insects, and Wilson’s early writings provided a number of testable hypotheses that guided that research. But his book from 1992 The diversity of lifeIt was very well received by me and became the basis for a later change in my career path
Even though I’m an entomologist, I didn’t know that insects “the little things that rule the world“until Wilson explained why that was so in 1987. Like almost all scientists and nonscientists, my understanding of how biodiversity sustains humans has been embarrassingly shallow. Fortunately, Wilson opened our eyes.
Throughout his career, Wilson flatly rejected the scholarly notion that natural history – the study of nature by observation rather than experiment – is unimportant. He is proud described himself as a naturalist and communicated the urgent need to study and conserve nature.
Decades before it became fashionable, he realized that our refusal to recognize the boundaries of the earth, coupled with the untenability of eternal economic growth, had put people on the best path into ecological oblivion.
Wilson understood that people’s reckless handling of the ecosystems that support us wasn’t just a recipe for our own downfall. It forced the biodiversity that he valued so much into them sixth mass extinction in the history of the earth, and the first to be caused by an animal: us.
A comprehensive vision for nature conservation
And so to his lifelong fascination with ants, EO Wilson added a second passion: leading humanity to a more sustainable existence.
To do that, he knew that he had to go beyond the towers of academia and write for the public, and that one book would not be enough. Learning requires repetitive exposure, and that’s exactly what Wilson delivered The diversity of life, Biophilia, The future of life, The creation, and his last plea in 2016, Halberde: Our planet’s fight for life.
As Wilson got older, desperation and urgency replaced political correctness in his writings. Boldly exposing the ecological destruction caused by fundamentalist religions and unrestrained population growth, he challenged the central dogma of conservation biology, showing that conservation could not be successful if restricted to tiny, isolated habitats.
In Half the earth, he distilled lifelong ecological knowledge into a simple principle: Life as we know it can only be preserved if we preserve functioning ecosystems on at least half of planet earth.
But is that possible? Almost half of the planet is used for some form of agriculture, and 7.9 billion people and their vast infrastructure network occupy the other half.
In my view, the only way to realize EO’s lifelong desire is to learn, to learn coexist with nature, in the same place, at the same time. It is important to forever bury the idea that man is here and nature is elsewhere. Provision of a Blueprint for this radical cultural change has been my goal for the past 20 years and I am honored to have it merge with EO Wilson’s dream.
No time should be lost in this effort. Wilson himself once said: “Conservation is a discipline with a deadline.” Whether people will have the wisdom to meet this deadline remains to be seen.