Editor’s Note: Harvard University Professor E.O. Wilson was the keynote speaker at the PCT Ant Management Summit in Atlanta, Ga., earlier this year. Prior to his speech, PCT Publisher Dan Moreland had an opportunity to speak with the world’s leading authority on ants from his home in Boston, Mass. Excerpts of that conversation follow, along with a tribute to Wilson by Dr. Michael J. Novacek, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Nova-cek’s comments originally appeared on CNN.com.
Moreland: Our readers are well aware of your many academic accomplishments and literary achievements. However, what would surprise them most about you either personally or professionally?
Wilson: That’s an interesting question. I suppose, even though I’m known to the broader public for my writings on science, nature, and philosophy, at my core I remain an entomologist. That’s what I most enjoy doing, entomological research. I’m curator of Entomology, Emeritus, at Harvard, and I’m presently engaged in research on the ants of the West Indies – classification, biogeography and ecology. Last December I was in the mountains of the Dominican Republic with a group of ant specialists. In addition, I’ve just published a monograph – a systematic study – of the largest ant genus in the Western Hemisphere, going through the classification and biology of 634 ant species, and describing 324 of them as new species. That might be of some surprise to your readers. In other words, I think of myself at core as an entomologist.
Moreland: What is it about an entomologist’s personality that compels him or her to study insects when the vast majority of the population doesn’t even take notice of insects in their daily lives?
Wilson: I believe humanity can be divided into two groups. There is the much smaller group that sees insects as magnificent animals that are necessary to the environment, beautiful and easy to appreciate once you get into the details of studying them. That’s one group. The second group consists of people who are wrong about insects (laughter).
Moreland: That’s a great line.
Wilson: Yes, I’ll have to remember it. But I know what you mean. When I was a boy I decided to become an entomologist, really and truly, when I was 9 years old. Earlier I had gone through a fireman phase, but I was always fascinated with insects. I was doing really serious insect collecting – building a collection, and studying textbooks and field guides – when I was only about 10 or 11 years old, and I never deviated from it. I think every child has a "bug period" and I never grew out of mine, and I’m awfully glad I didn’t.
Moreland: Neither are we. I understand you grew up in Alabama. Did you spend a lot of time in the country?
Wilson: I was often in a rural or small town setting. Even when I was living in Mobile, I was just a short bicycle ride away from beautiful natural environments.
Moreland: While conducting research for this interview, it seems like much of your personal history is steeped in legend – the accident that claimed your sight in one eye as a young boy, your struggles with math, etc. You lived those experiences. Did it seem at the time that you faced more challenges than your peers?
Wilson: I don’t think I had more challenges growing up than anyone else. I was just noisier about it and ended up writing an autobiography about my experiences. I had a wonderful childhood with many opportunities to be in the outdoors to study natural history. Since I published my memoir in 1994 (Edward O. Wilson: Reflections On A Life In Science), I received countless letters from scientists – and not just entomologists – who said they were so glad to read how I grew up because they became interested in natural history and science in much the same way. There was nothing unusual about my childhood. I just had more opportunity than most to spend large amounts of time outdoors.
Moreland: Based on the feedback you received from the publication of your memoir, is that a recurring theme that runs through the lives of scientists, a deep and abiding affection for the natural sciences awakened by exposure to nature at a young age?
Wilson: Yes. You have to be exposed to nature at a certain critical period in your life and you must have the opportunity to explore it. Moreover, you must be left alone to do it. The worst thing that you can do to a kid in that sensitive period is take them out to the country or to a park and point out the different kinds of trees with the labels on them. I think Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) made the same point. Children have to be turned loose like little savages. The naturalist Robert Pyle once said, very accurately in my opinion, children have got to be allowed to "mess up" nature a little bit. They don’t need to know the scientific names of plants and animals. They’ll learn those as they interact with nature. By "messing up" nature, he means collecting frogs and bringing them home; keeping a box of spiders under your bed; building a little hideaway in the woods, which psychologists have identified as a very natural tendency in children between the ages of 9 and 12, to have a secret place of their own. When you let a child do that – let them roam for long periods of time by themselves or maybe with a buddy – you have a very good chance of bringing a naturalist and a scientist out of that experience. That’s a conclusion I’ve been able to draw. Incidentally, when I was a kid I assumed I was going to be an economic entomologist because that’s where the career opportunities were at the time. I used to dream about becoming an Agriculture Department extension entomologist, riding around in one of those green trucks and visiting farmers. That would have been a very satisfying career actually, but when I got to college I moved quickly into academic entomology.
Moreland: In conducting my research for this interview, I came across a review of entomologist Tom Eisner’s new book, A Bug’s Life, in which you were mentioned. The reviewer pointed out that as young men you and Eisner took a cross-country trip that laid the early foundation for your careers in entomology. How was that a formative experience for both of you?
Wilson: He grew up in Uruguay of all places and we he had similar experiences growing up. He was a dedicated entomologist when we got together in 1952 for the 12,000-mile, summer-long trip through the United States. We made a great big circle through the northern states, then down through California and the West. We stopped at Yosemite, where 52 years ago you could go in and collect insects with impunity. I once confessed to the director of the National Park Service that I had collected insects in Yosemite in 1952, even though I guess at the time it was against the law, and he granted me absolution on the spot. We did all kinds of research and learned all sorts of things. It was just a great adventure, one of the best experiences of my life.
Moreland: Our industry knows you best from your seminal work, The Ants, the book you co-authored with Bert Hölldobler, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 1991. How long did it take you to write the book and what was the most challenging aspect of getting the book published?
Wilson: It took about two years of effort to write the book with Bert. It was in 1988 and he was getting ready to return to Germany. Each of us had 20 years of experience working with ants, so between the two of us we felt like we knew about everything there was to know about ants, and we decided to pull everything together and complete an encyclopedic work on ants.
Moreland: How did publication of The Ants change your life?
Wilson: Not much actually. I had already won a Pulitzer Prize for On Human Nature in 1979. I was just delighted to share the Pulitzer Prize with Bert because it was a book written for scientists rather than a general audience.
Moreland: Based on your extensive knowledge of ants, what could mankind learn from ants as a society?
Wilson: We have learned a great deal about how social organization arises through my work with ants. We’ve also learned a tremendous amount about chemical communication in insect populations. A large portion of the early work on pheromones was done on ants and moths; it’s where science learned the most about pheromones. We also learned a lot about ecology from ants, because ants are omnipresent insects in the terrestrial environment. It’s also interesting to note that ants are the most warlike creatures on earth. If they had nuclear weapons the world would end in a week.
Moreland: In looking back on your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
Wilson: I suppose the thing I did that was most important was to create the discipline of sociobiology, the study of how populations evolve and organize into groups (see related story on page 104). It’s a discipline that covers all animals from termites to chimpanzees.
Moreland: What are you hoping to accomplish in the next chapter of your life?
Wilson: I plan to do a great deal of what I call "recreational research," getting together with a group of fellow ant specialists and going out into the field together for the pure fun of it. It’s sort of like a great fishing trip. I’m also at the present time writing a book with Bert Hölldobler, an update on social insects. It will cover the last 10 years of research and produce a new unifying view of how social behavior has evolved in the social insects, particularly the ants.
Moreland: If you were going to offer one piece of advice to pest management professionals about how to control ants more effectively what would it be?
Wilson: If I knew how to get rid of fire ants, I would have done so. Anyone who knows the magic bullet for controlling pest ant species is going to make a heroic contribution to applied entomology. I think what I would say to them is when you’re dealing with social insects – particularly with ants – the silver bullet is very difficult to find. There are surely silver bullets that will keep them under control, but in order to find the silver bullet you need to know a lot about the biology of ants because each species will have a weak point and that’s what you want to find. It’s harder to find in ants than plant-eating beetles, for example, where the life cycle is simple. But fire ants, as you know, have been unstoppable because of their tremendous resiliency. You can knock out all of the mounds in a fire ant colony in a given area – a very risky thing environmentally – and if you overlook just one mound, it can produce thousands of winged queens in a year that can fly outward for five miles and the population can rebound. It’s not a simple matter. It’s where basic and applied biology have a common role.
Moreland: You’ve long been an advocate of environmental conservation. Why do you think your commitment to conservation and protecting bio-diversity resonates with so many politicians when others have such a difficult time effectively articulating a pro-environmental message. Is it something about you that makes the message more palatable or less threatening?
Wilson: Of course, it’s because I’m the best looking! I think the reason they may listen to me is because for a very long time environmentalists tended to focus on the problem. They said, "Here is the problem. We must do something about it." The response of hard-pressed political leaders and many others is to say, "Okay, we have to do something about it, but we really don’t know what to do. We don’t know what it’s going to cost and we have a lot of other problems that are more pressing." They don’t want to get involved in problems that could become a black hole. I’ve found that in talking to audiences I tell them what the problem is, how it can be fixed and how much it’s going to cost. I’ve studied the methodology. I have a good idea of how to preserve species around the world and how much it’s going to cost. If you explain the methods that are being developed or have been developed to solve an environmental problem, and how much it’s going to cost, people start listening to you. That’s how the global conversation organizations have begun to articulate the message.
Moreland: Thank you for agreeing to an interview with PCT magazine.
Wilson: My pleasure. As an entomologist, your readers are part of my tribe.