Science Talk

Pulitzer Prize-winning naturalist Edward O. Wilson

In this episode, the special guest is renowned biologist and author Edward O. Wilson. First we'll hear clips from a talk he gave last week at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, in conjunction with the publication of his new book, Nature Revealed: Selected Writings 1949-2006. Then Scientific American podcast host Steve Mirsky talks to Wilson about a few specifics in biology and conservation. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Organizations and websites mentioned on this podcast include the American Museum of Natural History,; and the Scientific American Digital Archive,

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Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting June 21st. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast: renowned biologist and writer Edward O. Wilson. He gave a talk last week at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. We will hear a few clips from that appearance, after which I had a chance to speak with him and we'll also play that interview. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. So without further ado, E. O. Wilson.

Wilson: Most people are astonished to learn that possibly only 10 percent of the kinds of plants and animals and microorganisms—especially when you throw in little creatures, what I like to call the little creatures that run the earth either the small invertebrates and the microorganism—10 percent of the kinds of the species may be known and the number remaining to be discovered may be 90 percent. We have just begun the great Linnaean enterprise that was begun by Carolus Linnaeus in Uppsala 250 years ago and we tapered off that effort or we are at risk of tapering it off when the molecular revolution occurred, which was of course one of the major advances of all time, but nonetheless tended to overshadow our effort to continue the mapping and understanding of life's diversity on this planet. So, with something like 1.8 million species of all kinds of organisms known to science given a formal name attached to specimens that have been authenticated in places like the American Museum of Natural History so that we can make final determination on species for whatever purpose we need that knowledge. We are facing now tens of millions of species yet to be discovered. And why should we try to do this? Why should we bother? And the answer is every reason in the world; if we don't know the nature of most of the life with which we are living and, you know, the numbers of species could be upwards of not just 10 million but as many as 100 million. We don't know. There is a lot of magnitude of how many kinds there are. If we don't know that, if we don't know what's in the little lake out in Central Park, for example, when we are down to the lowest level, say, including the microorganism that runs so much of the machinery [of] life in that little lake, then we do not understand the ecology of it. We only understand the certain broad features of what's happening there and we will not be able to master and in any sense protect and control the basic processes of the ecosystems of the world until we do. Moreover, we can always continue to be taken by surprise when a new pathogen appears. Well, this is just new biodiversity coming in from another country. Countries around the world are being swamped with alien species. Some of these we called invasive species because they become pests, but many others are simply pathogen parasite[s]. A snail is an example and these are going to continue to sweep in and we won't know about them until people start getting sick. We need to be able to know where they are in advance and know what the likelihood is that they might be transmitted and what might be transmitting them, and this is going to take an enormous amount of research and it's going to yield a vast amount of priceless information in basic science and in human practical concerns. Now, if I sound like a Baptist pastor preaching—and that's my background, I was raised as southern Baptist. It is with sincerity recognizing as I think increasingly historians and philosophers and scientists recognize that biology of the future, now and of the future, both consist of three dimension[s]; one is the up and down thorough studies across all levels of biological organization from the molecule to position in ecosystem of a small number of typical species that are studied in thoroughness, and there may be no more than a couple dozen of those for the most part that we focused on. That's one dimension of biology and that's what has dominated biology, particularly down to molecular and cell level[s], because of its great relevance for medicine primarily through the last few decades. But then the second dimension is what I just referenced, and that is the diversity of life. And then, the third is yet another concept of, another dimension of modern biology and that's a tree of life. Tracking the history of all of these species and, of course, there is in this implicit an urgent mission to save life diversity because it's disappearing rapidly. I won't burden you with giving you the figures, except to say that I think most writers who work in the field biodiversity agree that we are going to lose a great many of the life-forms of Earth—and figure one half of all the species of plants and animals is often agreed upon by the end of the century—unless we can somehow abate all these enormous changes that are human-caused from global warming and climate change on, and so, this becomes a matter of some urgency. It is not as easy to get across to the public as say the need to cure cancer. But it is in a way equally urgent, because this is what's going to affect all generations to come, and loss of biodiversity as it is lost a lot. There is loss with both in terms of future economic potential of environmental security, which is dependent upon the large biodiversity and motley spirituality.

Steve: Some of Wilson's time on stage was spent talking with Michael Novacek, the museum's science provost and curator of paleontology.

Novacek: What about the division between biology and other forms of knowledge? You have written about this, C. P. Snow has certainly written about recognizing the chasm between the scientific and the literary culture? What do you think can enrich that chasm?

Wilson: Well, I have written an entire book on that. We may have mentioned Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, published eight years ago and so, what I proposed simply was that the chasm as you mentioned it was not some kind of an epistemological fault line, you know, that these really were different areas of knowledge of reality that could never be brought together. That was a traditionalist structure and there was no chasm there at all. There was just a large domain of large unexplored phenomenon that were beginning to be understood, and I suggested that where the disciplines would come together—social sciences reaching across to the biological sciences—which we have been growing and anastomosing even, would be particularly where we study together the brain and the mind and also the evolution of the human species and the subject of human nature both biologically, and also from the view point of the social sciences and humanity. So, where this is in fact beginning to happen is [on] one side [in] subjects like cognitive neuroscience, brain scan mapping, human behavioral genetics, neuroanatomy, detailed studies of human physiology in reference to behavioral patterns, and from the other side, from the social sciences side, say, anthropology, the patterns of human behavior that are consistent that we call universal traits of human nature and that's now called evolutionary anthropology, and from the psychology side we have evolutionary psychology, which is contributing more and more studies of higher levels of human behavior. It can be examined in this step and linking it to the biological disciplines. That is a little bit long, but the point here is that gradually we are beginning to see some bridges built of call, an effect explanation which came to be abolition the old sheepish slow position between the two cultures.

Novacek: You call yourself a naturalist, you know, but sometimes some people say, well, a naturalist is a rather quaint phrase, rather like stamp collecting—not that stamp collecting is necessarily a bad thing either—is there such a thing as a modern naturalist?

Wilson: There really is indeed. I have been working hard to bring that term back to respectability. I call my memoir, my autobiography Naturalist and I think it ought to be a kind of an in-your-face approach and reinstituting natural history not just as part of our basic education for all the reasons that one can imagine about our relationship, you know, to the natural world that I was citing a moment ago, but also because I see it as a big part in the future of science. It's a superb way to get introduced into science: children, adults to participate in what we call citizen science to do in a totality of it, really first-rate science. Because I believe so much of science that is biology, which is, I think going to be the dominant science of the 21st century. So, much of it is going to consist of exploring the world and figuring out how things work, you know, species by species, each species unique in its own like, each species up to a million years old; each species exquisitely adapted to a particular environment and the species locked together in the system and symbiosis. This is the real world and we can't just figure this out with mathematics and, you know, pure logic—we are going to have to get out and actually find out what the real world is like before we can put together a truly modern biology.

Steve: More with E. O. Wilson right after this.

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Steve: A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, E. O. Wilson has a new book out. It's a compilation of his works spanning six decades. It's called Nature Revealed: Selected Writings' 1949-2006. After he signed a few hundred copies for his fans at the museum, I had a chance to speak with him mostly about points he raised during the evening that you haven't already heard about in the clips.

Steve: Ed Wilson, great to talk to you. Thanks so much for talking to us.

Wilson: No, thank you for having me.

Steve: A couple of quick questions based on what you were talking about at your lecture tonight. You had a kind of a general optimism. Why are you optimistic in general about the future of life on Earth?

Wilson: Well, basically because people are smart and they just need to see the dimensions of a problem more or less in full to act on it and act rationally. I think right now they are acting out of dimension of the problem and a sense that somebody else beside themselves will take care of it.

Steve: You were talking also about the importance of what you thought the importance of an unstructured childhood. Well, was it about soccer moms that you said?

Wilson: Well, maybe I was a bit harsh. I just said soccer moms are the greatest enemy of natural history.

Steve: And I assumed you met the incredibly structured childhoods that kids have now.

Wilson: That is correct. Of having a day's schedule and all through areas there should be a lengthy period day after day for the full development of a child and let them turn loose and let them explore— preferably by themselves or utmost with a friend—on their own the natural environment, at least some simulation of natural environment. Let them discover things on their own and then give them the opportunity to learn about the things they had discovered. They ought to be able to mess up with the environment a little bit free to the extent of bringing home a frog and having a pet snake or something of this sort and the sensation of exploring and being in control of their own destinies for a while.

Steve: And, that was your experience as a kid?

Wilson: That was my experience, has also been a common experience of great many scientists and naturalists for generations.

Steve: Can you talk a little bit about the move away from kin selection? You mentioned it this evening, I realize you are short on time, but if you can, kin selection has been something that we have heard about as sort of gospel for a many decades now and now the move seems to be away from that.

Wilson: Now, that's a good way of putting it. Actually I helped put that in motion 30 years ago with sociobiology even before that with my book the insect societies, that the idea that social behavior and altruism that you see in that state and the social event advance though not being one was substantially, if not driven, it was substantially biased by the benefit that comes—the real benefit that comes—from favoring the genes of collateral relatives, you know, like brothers, sisters, aunts, nieces, cousins so that even by being altruistic yourself you would be passing on your own genes, which would include [the] altruism gene to these close relatives. That was the gospel. But now the evidence is mounting against that and multiple levels of evidence and the base seems to be eroding under it, and the evidence is beginning to lean toward an alternative explanation, which is that it is in fact the whole group that gets acted on with this kind of recognition, and collateral altruism is not the key—the key is the superiority of the group over solitaries and another groups and that may seem like an indistinct separation, but it is very profound. And I have to stress, too, of that this is simply something that I believe is in transition and it's controversial in the sense that not all have accepted the shift. We will be arguing about it for some time but if it does move that way, as I think it will, I worked a lot on this, then it will cause a rather profound shift in the way they think about the origin and social behavior, at least in the insects.

Steve: The mere mention a group selection is enough to get some people to say bad things.

Wilson: It was made into a taboo erroneously for years … and it has, I think, moved up a blind alley. Now it's time to pull our…, resume serious consideration of group selection because we now have models and we have evidence to support it.

Steve: One more question. You talked about the fact that you are in favor of genetically modified crops and that's a lot of environmentalists are kind of knee-jerk against GM foods in general, so can you just state your position on the GM crops.

Wilson: That's another subject I have studied a lot, you know, privately, if not an expert on the genetic modification crop. Nonetheless, I have kept a lot of evidence. I have spoken to people in both sides of it, including industry representatives, and I came out with the same conclusion that [is] incidental with [what] the National Panel of Sciences came out with: that when carefully monitored and used judiciously, genetically modified crops will make an enormous difference because they allow us to move, for example they will help allow us to move to a dry land for agriculture when the water gets out and it is getting out in many parts around the world. It will allow the planting of crops and superior crops in many case[s] in areas that are now wasteland and apparently are not arable and thus increase the food supply very substantially, probably dramatically, and of course, what I have in mind is that very much of a motivation of a conservationist: I am going to take the pressure off of the remaining natural environment and hungry, poor people are clearing the natural environment too fast and they are planting poor, unproductive crops in these areas using up the soil and then moving on to destroy their natural environment. We don't need to be doing that. We don't need to be promoting it. We should be moving, I think, through genetically modified crops to a much more sensible and productive form of agriculture.

Steve: I know you are in a hurry. So, I will let you [be] going. Thank you very much.

Wilson: Well, thanks for the opportunity to talk with you.

Steve: Wilson's latest book again is called Nature Revealed: Selected Writings 1949-2006. We'll be right back.

Male Voice: Novartis, committed to making innovative medicines for a world of patients and their families online at Novartis, think what's possible.

Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS:

Story number 1: There is a new kind of soccer ball being used in the World Cup and some scientists say it might dip and swerve in a funny way at some crucial point in this year's tournament.

Story number 2: Another spots item. You know, in golf a birdie is one under par on a hole. The U.S. Golf Association announced last week they want to give the birdie a more specific taxonomic designation: One under par will therefore now be officially an egret.

Story number 3: Italian scientists found that grapes used in popular red wines contain high levels of melatonin, the compound that our brains naturally produce to help us to fall asleep.

Story number 4: Researchers are using dogs to help them go whaling. They are hunting not for rare right whales, but for the whale scat.

Time's up.

Story number 4 is true. The Boston Globe. reports that researchers trying to learn more about the estimated 350 North Atlantic right whales use dogs to help them sniff out the lingering scent of whale scat. Globe writer Beth Daley notes that the dogs have led to what you might call an excremental increase. Researchers can now find four times as much whale stuff as they used to. The catch helps offer clues about diseases the whales might be fighting, not to mention hormones showing if a whale is pregnant and DNA that can help researchers identify specific individuals. An article on the use of dogs in whale research will come out shortly in the journal of Cetacean Research and Management.

Story number 3 is true. Many red wine grapes apparently do contain the sleep-inducing molecule melatonin according to a study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. The researchers conjecture that the melatonin might be why red wine helps people relax. I am still betting on the alcohol.

Story number 1 is true. The soccer ball used in this year's World Cup has only 14 panels rather than the usual 26 panels. Fewer panels means fewer seam[s] slicing through the air, and that may mean that a ball kicked or headed just right could behave a lot more like a baseball knuckleball dipping and darting in unpredictable directions, and that could make one unlucky goaltender's life seem a lot worse.

All of which means that story number 2 about the U.S. Golf Association officially changing birdies to egrets is of course TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. What's true, however, is I was at the U.S. Open at Westchester last week and overheard this guy talking to his girlfriend, and he was explaining that on a hole if you get one under par that's a birdie and two under is called an eagle and three under is called an albatross, and she says "Oh, they name them after birds. So like four under could be a humming bird," she says, "and five under on a hole could be oh, an egret," she says, "and six under on a hole could be a pterodactyl." She really said that, and of course, a pterodactyl is not a bird and you can't have six under on a hole because there aren't any holes more that there are few rare par sixes, but you're not going to find any par sevens and if you could, you couldn't get a hole in one anyway. So, If you ever hear anybody who tells you that they did get six under on a hole go ahead and tell them that it is officially called a pterodactyl, because then you'll both be lying. We'll be right back.

Rennie: Hi, I am John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American. Our magazine is now available in a digital edition. Not only does your Scientific American Digital subscription include the full contents of every new printed issue, it also entitles you to access our digital archives from 1993 to the present. For more information, visit

Steve: Well that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address is and also remember science news updated daily on the Scientific American Web site, For <>Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Organizations and Web sites mentioned on this podcast include the American Museum of Natural History, and the Scientific American Digital Archive,

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