UNITED BIOLOGY: A TALK WITH 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.
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.
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.
Steven Pinker's Edge Bio Page