Remembering EO Wilson

by Jeannine Cavender-Bares, ESA Governing Board, and Distinguished McKnight University Professor for Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota

EO Wilson spent his life devoted to understanding, cherishing and engaging with society in every way possible to protect biodiversity on our beautiful planet. With the massive hemorrhaging of species and natural habitat, we can wonder whether he felt defeated in the end. But we can also ask what would have happened if he had not spent his life devoted to saving life and its diversity? As I read the many memories of him from around the globe, I see how much he influenced so many people in small and powerful ways and transformed societal institutions and trajectories of science. My own story is one of these myriad threads.

I first met EO Wilson in graduate school after returning from a tropical biology field trip with Peter Ashton in Venezuela co-led by Gabriela (Gabby) Chavarría, a doctoral student with Wilson at the time. The adventures and hazards of that trip deserve their own remembrance—to be saved for another time. Gabby rescued me from altitude sickness in the paramo at 14,000 feet. She had a lot to say about bees and Wilson as a mentor. It was clear she was highly independent and a born leader. Through her, I knew about the opportunity to serve as a teaching fellow for Ed’s non-major’s Evolutionary Biology course. He intentionally created it for non-majors to reach a wide audience and educate future lawyers, politicians and writers—future decision-makers who might one day have a chance to contribute to saving biodiversity. I wrote Professor Wilson a letter and he took me on. It was also my first full course in Evolution—a fascinating entrance for me—although with whole sections on pollination biology, social insects and modeling ecological interactions, it turned out to be a course as much on ecology and behavior as on evolution. His approach to nature thus echoed Darwin’s, contributing to my career-long frustration with the perceived need to draw a clear boundary between ecology and evolution. The teaching fellows needed to stay a step ahead of the undergraduates, and he met with us every week to discuss the lectures, ask questions in preparation for leading our lab and discussion sections, and to give us a chance to learn from each other. During these Monday sessions he would talk to us in great detail about events in his own life, and it seemed with great intimacy and humility. I later read Naturalist, his autobiography, and realized those tales were chapters in the book he had been writing around that time. I watched as he encouraged students to go into science even if they didn’t feel confident in their technical and mathematic abilities—a theme he later emphasized in his book Letters to a Young Scientist.

In him, I saw a scientist who could focus a world of attention on a single group of organisms—the ants—and still think and write prolifically about any other kind of organism on the planet. I learned that it was a worthwhile endeavor to dedicate oneself to understanding every possible dimension of one focal group—oak trees in my case—and at the same time ponder deeply the existence and fate of all life on Earth. From him I first understood the ever-so-brief history of humans as the blink of an eye compared to the arc of billions of years of life’s history on Earth. I later read Wonderful Life by Stephen J. Gould and felt the chill of chance alongside the blink of an eye that humanity represents. Wilson was one player in a debate that transformed our understanding of the role of natural selection in evolution—those of us watching had the benefit of the many different angles laid out before us to better see the whole elephant.

He told us that he was forced to think through his perspective rigorously because of his adversaries, and for that he was grateful. He explained to us the difficulties he faced after writing Sociobiology and the pain it had caused him due to the loss of his relationships with colleagues. The antagonism was the stuff of legends—and still is. Perhaps he was naïve in some of his arguments and in how his writing would be used; he was certainly misinterpreted.

I was surprised by the humility with which he could discuss his own notoriety—with objectivity almost in the third person—“by then, James Watson and I were both famous.” He seemed humble in his understanding of his life accomplishments—always explaining how they were the result of tireless efforts rather than Einsteinian brilliance. He was clear about his own limitations.

I experienced EO Wilson as a kind and generous mentor. He wanted to get to know each of us and our goals. I mentioned during one conversation that my brother-in-law, a dairy farmer, was trying to increase biodiversity on his farm. Wilson asked for his number and dialed him right then and there to offer suggestions. Later as an assistant professor, I was given the task of teaching and updating the large Ecology course at the University of Minnesota, originally designed 20 years earlier by Don Alstad, David Tilman and perhaps others. When I began to prepare for the lecture on Island Biogeography, which I had initially learned about from Wilson’s course, I reached out to him via his longtime assistant, Kathy Horton. Wilson had talked vividly about the empirical test of the theory with their risky experiment in the Florida keys—Daniel Simberloff’s dissertation research. In his telling of it, the methods they used would not be permitted today and the multiple hurricanes they endured were harrowing experiences that taught them such an experiment was never to be repeated. He wrote me back and generously sent a short set of slides showing the scaffolding and insect removal on the islands in the experiment. I enjoyed showing those slides and sharing his tales every time I gave that lecture—bringing the theory and the experimental test to life for students. I also played his TED talk “Advice to young scientists” for the students. The Ecology course was based on a series of simple ecological models—including population growth, sustainable yield, growth-defense trade-offs, competition-colonization trade-offs, tipping points and alternative stable states—that all required basic knowledge of algebra and some calculus. This inevitably created anxiety in some fraction of the class. The TED talk is such a humble testament and encouraging message that all students have the capabilities to tackle the necessary math—they just needed to overcome the anxiety and try. In his own words: “Go as far as you can…if you are a bit short, don’t worry! I didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama—I finally learned calculus as a 32 year old professor at Harvard.”

When I taught a distributed graduate seminar in Sustainability Science with colleagues across multiple institutions and countries—it usually fell to me to talk about biodiversity, ethics and the controversy surrounding an anthropocentric perspective (and natural capital) versus a biocentric perspective and the rights of nature. I inevitably went to EO Wilson’s Consilience and could hear his impassioned voice imploring humanity to save life on Earth from all angles. “Humankind is like a household living giddily off vanishing capital…In the course of it all we are learning the fundamental principle that ethics is everything…to the extent that we banish the rest of life, we will impoverish our own species for all time.” It is a plea that haunts me and guides all of the work I do. He did so much in his life to carry the torch from Darwin and pass the flame along to all of us. He is an inspiration to generations to come and a powerful unfaltering voice for the millions of life forms on Earth. And so, I do not want to consider how far he fell short in his hopes. I would rather consider how much he diverted us from an ever more perilous path. In the words of poet Jane Hirshfield in “Let Them Not Say,” written from the perspective of our future generations: 

 

Let them not say: we did not see it. We saw.
Let them not say: we did not hear it. We heard.

Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.

Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke, we witnessed with voices and hands.

Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.

 

Hirschfield would be the first to say she hopes that we do enough. The thousands of people Wilson directly touched and the millions upon millions of people he influenced through his writings, talks, myriad actions and vision are different because he cared so much and gave so much.

 

“Let Them Not Say” from LEDGER: POEMS by Jane Hirshfield, copyright © 2020 by Jane Hirshfield. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Feature photo courtesy of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology; CC BY 2.0.