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Edward O. Wilson and The Future of Life

Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg
TTBW 1051 'Edward O. Wilson and The Future of Life'
PBS feed date 12/12/2002

Funding for this program is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(opening animation)

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Edward O. Wilson began his career as a scientist, a myrmecologist, to be precise. That is the study of ants. He left his native Alabama for Harvard, where he became a tenured professor at age 26. Since then his interests and expertise have grown to embrace everything from ecology to philosophy. Two of his books, On Human Nature and The Ants, won Pulitzer Prizes. His twentieth book is entitled The Future of Life. He joins Think Tank today to talk about all of creation. The topic before the house: Edward O. Wilson and The Future of Life.


Ed Wilson, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank. You were born in Alabama and took an early interest in ants.

Edward O. Wilson: Yes.

Ben Wattenberg: Why ants?

Edward O. Wilson: Well, I like to put it this way, that every child has a bug period. I never grew out of mine, and the bugs I picked up on were ants, and butterflies. In fact, right here in Washington where we are, tonight Rock Creek Park was where I developed that interest and I spent many a happy day, hunting butterflies and ants and reading National Geographic articles and I guess that made such an impression on me that it lasted.

Ben Wattenberg: And you studied myrmecology, the study of ants, at Harvard for your Ph.D.?

Edward O. Wilson: I did. Yes. And I finally worked my way up from the south to Harvard Graduate School. Thatís the subject I chose.

Ben Wattenberg: Was that a culture shock going from the University of Alabama to Harvard?

Edward O. Wilson: It was. My roommate, whom I became close friends with, was a Nigerian and I enjoyed sitting with his colleagues, at least to the side listening to them plot the overthrow of the British.

Ben Wattenberg: There are, did I read it correctly, a hundred million billion ants in the world?

Edward O. Wilson: A hundred trillion ants. Yes.

Ben Wattenberg: And like humans they go to war. Thereís a piece in your new book, The Future of Life, which describes, in a letter to Thoreau, ants warring upon one another.

Edward O. Wilson: It goes on all the time. Most war-like creatures on earth.

Ben Wattenberg: Are ants?

Edward O. Wilson: Are ants. They, many of the species conduct battles across colonies...between colonies all the time.

Ben Wattenberg: In the mid-Nineteen Seventies, you published a book called Sociobiology, which has since been a lode star and a punching bag. Could give us the short version.

Edward O. Wilson: It was a new discipline that I was proposing, which was the scientific study of social behavior in all kinds of organisms on a foundation of biology. It was a very successful attempt in the study of animal behavior. It succeeded immediately. But I also decided to apply it to that special species of animal, Homo sapiens, and when I did, I just suggested that maybe there were some implications of this for humans and might...

Ben Wattenberg: And this gets you into the whole nature versus nurture argument.

Edward O. Wilson: Yes indeed. I said that maybe there is such a thing as instinct and human nature and maybe this is the way to study it, with this new discipline. And gee, yes, in the middle Seventies that was not an idea permitted in most of the social sciences and on American campuses.

Ben Wattenberg: And itís still a pretty hot topic. What happened to you in Nineteen Ninety-eight? We were talking about it before.

Edward O. Wilson: Well, it was Nineteen Seventy-eight, when I attended a conference and one of several times when protesters took over the stage where I was, but this time they dumped some water on me, and of course, that became a big part of my life story, so I have to say that was an important day in my life. But I can say fairly securely now that the controversy has long since died away and now itís accepted, that is that there is a strong element of nature in addition to nurture. That is now accepted as part of the explanation of human behavior.

Ben Wattenberg: You then published a book called Consilience. Is that pronounced right?

Edward O. Wilson: Thatís correct. That was only fairly recently, Ninety-eight, that I published this book.

Ben Wattenberg: And whatís the gist of that?

Edward O. Wilson: The gist is that, contrary to the widespread views coming out of whatís called postmodernism, which you know, truth is relative, each discipline, each person is a little universe unto itself. Contrary to that--and it still has strong influence on campuses--we really can unify knowledge. Science has done it from physics all the way to biology of the mind and ecology, by cause and effect relationships, and itís time now the book argued to look into the possibility that we can take that network of explanations, that unity of knowledge, on into the social sciences and even into the arts.

Ben Wattenberg: The effect of the thrust of your work has been to marry environmentalism into the philosophical and ethical arenas. Is that about right?

Edward O. Wilson: That is exactly correct. That was one of the main reasons for writing Consilience, as well as The Future of Life, was to place, and I think on the basis of the solid evidence, what you might call environmentalism, you know, which is the study of the environment plus the ethical thinking surrounding it, into the broader matrix of science, of the way weíve unified science, it places environmentalism in that.

Ben Wattenberg: All right. Now your new book published in Two Thousand and Two, The Future of Life, you use a metaphor íthe bottleneckí. Why donít you explain it? I mean, I could explain it but Iíd rather hear you explain it.

Edward O. Wilson: Iím sure youíd do very well.

Ben Wattenberg: I think I could explain it.

Edward O. Wilson: The bottleneck is what I believe humanityís in right now. We all, or most all, realize that humanity has pushed its population growth pretty close to the limit. We really are at risk of using up natural resources and developing shortages in them that will be extremely difficult to overcome, and yet we have this bright prospect down the line that humanity is not going to keep on growing much more in population, that it is likely, if we can use the United Nationís projections at this stage, to top out at perhaps nine to ten billion, fifty percent more people than exist today, and then begin to decline.

Ben Wattenberg: I have been following those numbers very closely, and am writing a book about it. I would guess actually between eight and nine billion and probably on eight billion side and then a prolonged decline, because just as you have a population explosion going up exponentially and you have pointed this out also, when it goes down, itís an exponential drop.

Edward O. Wilson: It comes down slowly as well, but it does come down. And I think the only difference in what you said and what I believe, you could get from the United Nationís figures is that eight billion is possible but it would require slamming the breaks on all around the world to that break point or below. Two-point-one per children per woman.

Ben Wattenberg: Itís interesting. Itís not, I mean, where I leave the reservation is that itís not some grand organization that has to slam the breaks on. Itís billions of young men and women making individual decisions and the individual decisions they are making are based not only on urbanization and on fertility control and all that sort of stuff but through television and through the media theyíre seeing another way of living and simply deciding and not just educated women, and this is what the U.N. is working on now, theyíve just decided against it. Theyíve been helped by all the anti-natal campaigns and the family planning campaigns but itís just a vast title wave of changed decision-making.

Edward O. Wilson: I think thatís fundamentally right. Where the birth control, you know, organized birth control methods and making contraceptive methods available comes in is that it enables people, particularly women, but itís apparently a universal human response and particularly female response, that once one gets a certain level of security in their lives, and in the case of women a sufficient empowerment so they make their own decisions, they opt for a small number of quality children as opposed to, well, just producing big families.

Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask you question. Itís sort of bedeviled me. If you look at these numbers, it says that the world will grow from six billion to about eight or nine billion people and then decline. And decline, depending on how you look at it, at a somewhat ferocious level because the European states and Japan are down to about one-point-two children per woman, one-point-three, which is almost fifty percent below replacement...

Edward O. Wilson: Italy. Italyís that far down, but the other countries are not that far, are dropping.

Ben Wattenberg: Italyís is that far. Are dropping very rapidly. Now, that means, if you wanted to play some of the sillier projection games, is that you end up with zero people.

Edward O. Wilson: Yeah, but with a long time to come close.

Ben Wattenberg: Itís a geometric progression. Itís not arithmetic. So, but isnít that whole concept anti-Darwinian? I mean Darwin talks about survival of the fittest. Now here we are getting fitter and fitter and saying, oh, the hell with it. We donít need any more people.

Edward O. Wilson: Well, Iíll give you a real professorial answer. Yes and no.

Ben Wattenberg: There you go. That was good. Thatís the kind of show Think Tank is. Youíre lucky. You got that right.

Edward O. Wilson: Yes, in our modern context where weíve really lowered the death rate and where poor people around the world, all except those in absolute poverty have access to medicine and social assistance and so on, so their children can survive. So yes, youíre right. But no, in the long haul of history where the well-off, the dominant, elements in the society have co-existed with the poor and the subordinate, it turns out, itís just the result of studies of these types of societies that have been made, that even though the poor having a larger number of children per capita, the children arenít living as long because of their condition, and those who are wealthy and having a smaller number of children are actually producing more children into the next generation.

Ben Wattenberg: Right. You lay some pretty heavy lashes on what has happened in the Twentieth Century in terms of population, itís growth from a billion to six billion, yet the principle cause of that has been saving the lives of infants. Thatís what made the big jump. So, itís hard to say thereís this terrible thing going on, babies are living. How do you deal with that?

Edward O. Wilson: Well, what happened was that we went through whatís called a demographic transition.

Ben Wattenberg: Right.

Edward O. Wilson: And that meant that, for the most of the world, there was a very high birth rate and a very high death rate and they compensated one another. You know, babies died in large numbers, and people made babies in large numbers. Well, during the transition, for example when we essentially we eliminated malaria from a large part of the world and as you said, post-natal care improved to where child mortality dropped precipitously.

Ben Wattenberg: Public sanitation.

Edward O. Wilson: Exactly. Public sanitationís a big part of it, avoiding diarrhea whenever, you know, societyís got to a certain level. When that happened, the death rate dropped but the people kept on pouring out children.

Ben Wattenberg: There was a lag time?

Edward O. Wilson: Yes thatís right. But finally most countries...this is whatís happening in Europe and North American, and of all places Thailand, for example, Japan certainly, the birth rate is dropping.

Ben Wattenberg: But the genesis of the population explosion. which has been sort of regarded as a bogeyman is an epidemic of life. Thatís what drives it.

Edward O. Wilson: You could put it that way. In other words if we could roll things back through, say the year Fifteen Hundred and do it all over again and we knew what we know today, we might have accompanied our lowering of death rates and progress in public health and so on with a more vigorous attempt to persuade people to have fewer, particularly now they didnít really need to have them.

Ben Wattenberg: Okay. So, youíre now saying and weíre agreeing that in the next fifty or so years the worldís still gonna grow. Itís gonna become more affluent which some people think drains the environmental stock, and you were saying that weíve got to somehow pull our way through this bottleneck, to use your phrase, lest we become what?

Edward O. Wilson: Impoverished, biologically. I mean in the sense of having wiped out a large part of the rest of life. I think that if we continue to encroach on the natural ecosystems, you know, the dwindling rain forest, the rivers that contain around the world so much diversity, as we are doing and continue present trends, then we will have without abatement, we keep this and this rate, we will have eliminated as many as half the species of plants and animals on earth.

Ben Wattenberg: Oh, thereís a lot of argument about those numbers, isnít there?

Edward O. Wilson: I know, but Iím on top of it.

Ben Wattenberg: Well, let me...

Edward O. Wilson: I mean I would be very pleased to unpack it.

Ben Wattenberg: Well, then let me just ask you a couple of questions, so we can...

Edward O. Wilson: Okay.

Ben Wattenberg: Am I correct in saying there are estimated to be about thirty million species in the world?

Edward O. Wilson: Estimates run from an improbably low five million to as high as a hundred million. That high because we donít know how many of the small organisms, like bacteria and nematode ground worms there are. And until we have a better grip on it we wonít know. But right now a lot of the people working on biological diversity say ten million, or ten to twenty million, may be a good guestimate.

Ben Wattenberg: And is it correct that roughly 99 percent of all the species that ever existed are no longer with us?

Edward O. Wilson: Thatís correct.

Ben Wattenberg: So the diminishment of the number of species is part of life and thatís been going on for a long, long time.

Edward O. Wilson: Thatís correct.

Ben Wattenberg: So whatís the problem?

Edward O. Wilson: The problem is that that mortality of species, the estimate, ninety-nine percent that ever lived had died, is spread over three and a half billion years. So itís as though suppose human beings had existed at present population levels for five million years, which we have as a species or at least a human life form. Then you could say ninety-nine percent of the species, of our species have died, and yet we have a population of quite substantial. The important figure is how long each species lives on average, and very roughly, the nearest order of magnitude, each species has before humanity came along lived to be about a million years before it was replaced by new species in evolution.

Ben Wattenberg: In your Future of Life book you set up a model argument between two, I assume, fictitious but prototypical personalities, an economist and an environmentalist. What did they say in brief to each other or to the world?

Edward O. Wilson: Well, the economist feels that we have a virtually unlimited resource to exploit, because as we run out of one resource we always discover a substitute, and this is whatís called...

Ben Wattenberg: That was Julian Simonís big point. The substitutability.

Edward O. Wilson: Yes, thatís right. The is the so-called cornucopian...the world is the fertile... a cornucopia of opportunity and that we will always overcome our difficulties caused by the running out of a resource, and furthermore the economist whose, if you forgive me, tends to be blinkered in his view of just looking at the market economy, can point to increasing per capita production around the world, decreasing per capita consumption. That is correct. But then the environmentalist responds, itís getting harder and harder to imagine what new natural resources we can bring forward to...

Ben Wattenberg: Yet all the arguments that weíre running out of resources, both renewable and non-renewable, at least for the last for the thirty or forty years have proved to be not accurate. I mean, ten years after they first discovered oil in Pennsylvania they said weíre running out of oil, and the price of oil is now at about a half ...it was at a zenith and weíre in some mix-up now with the oil states. I mean, and you can go resource after resource and there has either been substitutability or new ways to gather it.

Edward O. Wilson: Well, Iíll tell you, the answer to that is that if the human population would continue to grow, we know we would run out of resources, and we could get to fifteen billion very fast because, you can show that there is not enough energy on earth, no matter how we...or space, or productive land to produce, to support that number. So we are going to bring it to a halt.

Ben Wattenberg: There would be plenty of energy if we used nuclear power to its full potential, wouldnít there?

Edward O. Wilson: Yes. I think if we use all sources of energy, we would have more than energy for, shall we say, nine billion people and enough food for nine billion. Thatís not a problem.

Ben Wattenberg: At rates of the developed world. I mean, at a high diet level?

Edward O. Wilson: No, not unless we develop whole new technology. In order...

Ben Wattenberg: Well, you were in favor of biogenetic engineering.

Edward O. Wilson: I am indeed. Iím in favor of pushing technology for all itís worth. But the fact remains that with existing technology, you can show fairly reliably the figures have not been seriously challenged to my knowledge that in order for the whole world, the whole world population to live in American standard, but you know, living, would require four more planet earths. In other words, weíre coming up against something here.

Ben Wattenberg: You say that the Twenty-first Century, at least the first half of it, would be the century of the environment, and weíve gone through some of the reasons why. Meanwhile, you pick up your paper in the morning and it seems that the big problem of the Twenty-first Century is going to be terrorism.

Edward O. Wilson: In Nineteen Thirty-two you might have said that the great problem of the century would be fascism, and youíre right. The great problem right now is terrorism, but these are the great problems in the next ten or twenty years, but the environment is for the century and the extinction of the living environment. You know, all those species in the ecosystem, thatís the problem forever. Thatís the problem whose resolution will affect all generations to come.

Ben Wattenberg: And once you say that magic word 'forever,' you butt squarely into the word religion because if youíre talking about cosmic ends, you really...the thrust of your work then becomes, and I think you used the word sacred. Are you a religious man?

Edward O. Wilson: No. Well, Iím a spiritual man. I like to call...think of myself that way. I have most of the same feelings, emotional capacity for a sense of exhaltation as a deeply traditionally religious person.

Ben Wattenberg: And you describe people, secular humanists like yourself. Thatís what you call yourself, who understand this continuity of life, reach a certain state of inner peace and inner harmony in which - because they see a forever world - that they no longer, for example, fear death. Is that right?

Edward O. Wilson: I think thatís correct.

Ben Wattenberg: Do you fear death?

Edward O. Wilson: No.

Ben Wattenberg: Good for you. Thatís...

Edward O. Wilson: There are more ways to achieve spiritual peace than by looking forward to passage to another world.

Ben Wattenberg: I once had a very nice conversation with Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is as you know a devout Jew, and has also been very active in the environmental movement since he was a politician back in Connecticut decades ago, and I asked him one day what was the connection, and he said, well, weíre the only stewards of Godís earth, which sort of blends your point. I mean, in that sense I guess there is a religious aspect to...

Edward O. Wilson: In that sense, yes. I think that most environmentalists, especially those who are conservationists. That is, who really want to hold onto as much of the worldís biological diversity as we possibly can, are doing it out of a nearly religious sense of obligation.

Ben Wattenberg: Okay, we are about out of time. Let me just ask you as a closing question as you look ahead to the future of life for the next century and beyond, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Edward O. Wilson: Iím a cautious optimist. On the matters of environment I like to think of that phrase that was used by Abba Eban, who just left us in the last couple of days. In the middle of the Nineteen Sixty-seven war he said, íWhen all else fails, men turn to reason.í

Ben Wattenberg: On that note, Edward O. Wilson, thank you very much. Good luck on your book. And thank you. Please remember to send your comments to Think Tank at PBS.org. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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Funding for this program is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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