Lord of the Ants

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: May 20, 2008

At age 78, E.O. Wilson is still going through his "little savage" phase of boyhood exploration of the natural world. In "Lord of the Ants," NOVA profiles this soft-spoken Southerner and Harvard professor, who is an acclaimed advocate for ants, biological diversity, and the controversial extension of Darwinian ideas to human society.

Actor and environmentalist Harrison Ford narrates this engaging portrait of a ceaselessly active scientist and eloquent writer, who has accumulated two Pulitzer Prizes among his many other honors. Says fellow naturalist David Attenborough: "He will go down as the man who opened the eyes of millions 'round the world to the glories, the values, the importance of—to use his term—biodiversity."

Wilson is also renowned for two seemingly unrelated roles. First, he is the "ant man," whose infectious enthusiasm for his scientific specialty has encouraged many house dwellers to reach for a magnifying glass instead of ant traps when faced with these tiny invaders. NOVA films Wilson exuberantly plunging his hand into a fire-ant bed and then calmly observing that each of the scores of stings he is receiving feels like "the touch of a hot needle." (Wilson's fearlessness with wild animals goes way back, as our excerpt from his autobiography shows.)

Second, Wilson hit the headlines and became a lightning rod in academic circles for his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which holds that evolutionary principles can explain social behavior throughout the animal kingdom, including in humans. (Sociobiology is just one of several scientific fields he has either invented outright or greatly influenced—see Man of Ideas.)

At the time, critics warned that Wilson was promoting a dangerous idea with roots in biological determinism, which in the past had fueled the eugenics movement. (Wilson was even attacked physically, having a pitcher of ice water poured over his head as he stood up to give a talk.) The controversy has since calmed somewhat, as experimental evidence shows that genes do play a role in aspects of behavior.

In fact, these two elements of Wilson's work—ants and sociobiology—are intimately connected, because ants are among the most social of animals. Characteristically, Wilson's wide-ranging mind could look beyond one domain to another. "He is able to step back not just one pace but three paces and see the entire panorama of not just invertebrates but of the whole magic complex web of organisms—animals and plants," says Attenborough.

Wilson's latest step back has shown him more unequivocally than ever that the complex web of life in which he has delighted since a child is under threat in many of the most biologically diverse regions of the world. Accordingly, he has become a tireless organizer and spokesman for preserving the world's threatened species. (See A Conversation With E.O. Wilson for some of his latest thinking on conservation.)

And he has his own research to back him up. NOVA visits a small island in the Florida Keys where Wilson and biologist Daniel Simberloff started a unique experiment in 1965. They first made an inventory of every living species on the island. Then they hired an exterminator to wipe them all out.

Over the next few years they documented the recolonization and rebirth of life on the island, showing that, in general, the smaller an area of land, the fewer the number of species it can support and the higher the risk of extinction. "This is one of the reasons why conservationists have a sound scientific basis for trying to get larger reserves," says Wilson. "It's good insurance. It means we can save more species over the long term."

And he's not stopping there. Wilson's ultimate dream is to catalog every species of life on the planet, a number that probably vastly exceeds the inventory of life to date. He calls it the Encyclopedia of Life, and he now has the backing of Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, and several other organizations to make it a reality. The young naturalist who never grew up surely has even more up his sleeve.

Program Transcript
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E.O. Wilson

Edward Wilson revisits an island off Puerto Rico with biologist Stuart Altmann, who studied the island's population of rhesus macaques as Wilson's graduate student in the 1950s. The seed for Wilson's later ideas about altruism in animal behavior—and, more controversially, human behavior—was planted during his first visit to the island in 1956.

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