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July 6, 2007

"Every kid has a bug period...I never grew out of mine."

Edward Osborne Wilson grew up off the gulf coast of Alabama and Florida, becoming fascinated at a very early age by the diversity of the natural world surrounding him. After blinding himself in one eye while fishing at the age of 7, Wilson explains that he no longer was very good at bird-watching, so decided to "turn towards the little things in life," namely ants.

At 13, he discovered the first U.S. colony of fire ants near the docks of Mobile, Alabama, well on his way to becoming one of the country's foremost myrmecologists (ant biologists), discovering the ways intricate chemical signals affect colony behavior. While a professor at Harvard, Wilson used his insect expertise as the basis for larger study into animal and human behavior, releasing in 1975, SOCIOBIOLOGY: THE NEW SYNTHESIS, advancing Darwin's study of evolution into the realm of behavior:

"In a Darwinian sense, the organism does not live for itself. Its primary function is not even to reproduce other organisms; it reproduces genes, and it serves as their temporary carrier."

Though highly praised and extremely popular, SOCIOBIOLOGY proved equally controversial, primarily due to its last chapter, which extended analysis of the animal kingdom to human behavior and culture.

"Wilson seems to have been unaware of the full political implications of his final chapter," explains Paul Gross of THE NEW CRITERION online. "He saw no more harm in deploying biology in the study of human behavior than in the study of ants or chimpanzees." Eventually, the controversy subsided, the new field of sociobiology was legitimized, and Wilson was already finishing what could be his most important book, THE DIVERSITY OF LIFE (1992), a 424 page work about the tremendous interconnectivity of Earth's biosphere, and how human civilization is gravely threatening its natural symbiosis. Over half of the world's species could die out by the end of the century due to man-made ecological hardships, what Wilson calls the "sixth extinction."

"This is the only planet we're ever going to have. This planet has taken tens, hundreds of millions of years to create this beautiful natural environment we have that's taken care of us so well that is, in fact, our greatest natural heritage. And we're throwing it away in a matter of a few decades."

But just as humans have the power to destroy our natural surroundings, Wilson optimistically believes that we too have the power to change our course, and develop a sustainable civilization that maintains the diversity of life on the planet. "Humanity is not suicidal...We are smart enough and have time enough to avoid all environmental catastrophes of civilization-threatening dimensions." His latest book, CREATION, calls on society to put disagreements between science and religion aside for the greater good of the planet. "Science and religion are the two most powerful forces in the world. Having them at not productive."

While accepting his 2007 TED Prize, E.O. Wilson made a wish: "to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth's biodiversity: the Encyclopedia of Life," and many have since answered this call, most notably the MacArthur Foundation, awarding Wilson $20 million dollars to bring the encyclopedia of life into being.

"It's always been a dream of mine, of exploring the living world, of classifying all the species and finding out what makes up the biosphere. We're maybe today about 1/10 through the discovery of species...We live in an unexplored planet."

Find out more about biodiversity, and what other governments around the world are doing to protect the planet.
References and Reading:
TED Talks: E.O. Wilson Accepts his 2007 TED Award
Watch or listen to E. O. Wilson's speech at this year's TED Conference in Monterey, California. Wilson was one of three recipients of this past year's TED Award, along with James Nachtwey and Bill Clinton.

E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation
"The mission of the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation is to preserve biological diversity in the living environment by inventing and implementing business and educational strategies in the service of conservation."

Encyclopedia of Life
At the 2007 TED Conference, E.O. Wilson made a wish: "to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth's biodiversity: the Encyclopedia of Life," and many have since answered this call, most notably the MacArthur Foundation, recently awarding Wilson $44 million dollars to bring the encyclopedia of life into being.

Profile: E.O. Wilson from THE GUARDIAN, February 17, 2001
"Wilson is a tall, slender man, his upper spine crooked from years of looking earthwards. In his brightly lit laboratory behind the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, he stands over a plastic tray of pheidole rhea, remarkable for having two soldier castes. A few workers are marching up the arms of his linen jacket and across his shoulders. He smiles gently as he eases into a chair, his voice a rich, Southern drawl, even though he left Alabama for Harvard over 45 years ago. His manners are Old South as well - warm, polite and thoughtful. The bleaker inheritance of the South is there too, in a way."

A Brave New World
by Edward O. Wilson, COSMOS Magazine, September 2005
"Unlike any creature that lived before, humans have become a geophysical force, swiftly changing the atmosphere and climate as well as the composition of the world's fauna and flora."

Watch E.O. Wilson on RELIGION AND ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, November 17, 2006

Grist interview with E. O. Wilson, October 17, 2006

Read the transcript from NOVA: Little Creatures Who Run the World, a PBS special featuring E.O. Wilson from 1997.

Harvard@Home: On the Relation of Science and the Humanities
Watch a lecture by E.O. Wilson delivered at Harvard University delivered on December 11th, 2002.

Why You Do What You Do
TIME Magazine, Aug. 01, 1977
Read this reaction from 1977 to Wilson's controversial, SOCIOBIOLOGY. "These are some of the teachings of sociobiology, a new and highly controversial scientific discipline that seeks to establish that social behavior - human as well as animal - has a biological basis. Its most striking tenet: human behavior is genetically based, the result of millions of years of evolution. Some sociobiologists go so far as to suggest that there may be human genes for such behavior as conformism, homosexuality and spite. Carried to an extreme, sociobiology holds that all forms of life exist solely to serve the purposes of DNA, the coded master molecule that determines the nature of all organisms and is the stuff of genes."

Exorcising Sociobiology
by Paul R. Gross, NEW CRITERION ONLINE, February 2001
"Wilson seems to have been unaware of the full political implications of his final chapter. A respected member of the Cambridge (Massachusetts) community of able, ambitious, mostly leftish academics, he considered himself a good liberal on social issues."

"Then I discovered evolution. Suddenly -- that is not too strong a word -- I saw the world in a wholly new way. This epiphany I owed to my mentor Ralph Chermock, an intense, chain-smoking young assistant professor newly arrived in the provinces with a Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University."

Photo by Robin Holland.

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers talks about the future of our planet with noted entomologist and father of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson.
>What you can do for the environment
> More on megadiversity

The Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), a group of young adults from urban DC, works to reclaim a dying neighborhood by providing leadership tools to disadvantaged youth while cleaning up the environment.

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