E. O. Wilson’s Theory of Everything

At 82, the famed biologist E. O. Wilson arrived in Mozambique last summer with a modest agenda—save a ravaged park; identify its many undiscovered species; create a virtual textbook that will revolutionize the teaching of biology. Wilson’s newest theory is more ambitious still. It could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet.
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Howard French

My first glimpse of E. O. Wilson came in July, in the late afternoon, when the light fades and dies with alarming speed in Mozambique. He had emerged from his cabin within Gorongosa National Park, one of southern Africa’s great, historic game reserves, just as the nightly winter chill was bestirring itself, and across an expanse of garden, he appeared almost spectral: tall, gaunt, white-haired, and possessed of a strange gait—slow and deliberate, yet almost woozy in the faint swerve described by each long-legged stride.

Wilson’s head was cocked sharply downward as he walked, as if he suffered a neck condition. (Later he would tell me this habit grew from a lifetime of scanning the ground for insect life.) In his right hand, he carried a flowing white net, like what Vladimir Nabokov might have used to pursue butterflies by Lake Geneva. Without fanfare, just before dark, on the first evening of his first visit to Africa below the Sahara, he had begun his first bug-collecting expedition.

If one had to give E. O. Wilson a single label, evolutionary biologist would be as good as any. Sociobiologist, lifelong naturalist, prolific author, committed educator, and high-profile public intellectual might all also serve. But amidst his astonishing range and volume of intellectual output, Wilson’s reputation, and most of his big ideas, have been founded primarily on his study of ants, most famously his discoveries involving ant communication and the social organization of ant communities. As I caught up with him, intending to introduce myself, he stooped down low toward the garden’s dirt path to pick one up, pronouncing its scientific name with the raw delight of a boy hobbyist, and exclaiming, “I think I’ll keep that one. Let me go get a vial and some alcohol to put it in.”

Many more collecting forays would follow over the next two weeks, most of them more concerted than this. But other motives had also lured Wilson, age 82, so far from his home in Lexington, Massachusetts. It is hard to order such things with any precision, so varied and intertwined are Wilson’s interests, but the principal attractions, he told me, involved the chance to explore a rare and imperiled African ecosystem—one largely cut off from scientific study until late last year—and to play an advisory role in its conservation. What made this park, at the southern extremity of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, of particular interest to him was the chance to revisit a field that he helped invent—biogeography, and specifically the special ecology and biodiversity of islands.

Gorongosa’s heavily wooded mountain of the same name was effectively incorporated into the park, by national decree, only last December. It is home to the only largely intact rain forest in all of Mozambique, a semitropical country roughly the size of Texas and Oklahoma. Solitary and broad-shouldered, the mountain rises more than 6,000 feet above the surrounding plains, providing a local climate unlike any other for hundreds of miles around it. It draws its water from the warm, moist winds that blow in from the nearby Indian Ocean, kissing its cool upper flanks and sustaining a unique ecosystem of rare orchids, mountain cypress, and rich bird life like the green-headed oriole, along with any number of other species yet to be identified.

For many years, the religious taboos of local residents kept the mountain from being opened to scientists and tourists, and also offered some measure of environmental protection. Nonetheless, a helicopter ride I recently took revealed the mountain to be under steady attack by locals setting fires to clear fields for farming and to smoke out wild edibles, from bushmeat to insect delicacies. Time and again, Wilson has come back to the subject of ecological hot spots like this in his writing. More than half of the planet’s plant and animal species live in tropical rain forests, which occupy a mere 6 percent of the world’s land surface—territory roughly the size of the lower 48 American states. Across these unique havens of biodiversity, Wilson has estimated that an area equivalent to half the state of Florida is being destroyed each year.

Wilson described Mount Gorongosa’s rain forest to me as “an island in a sea of grasslands,” and said that “biologists should be straining to get there,” to study it and to save it, just as they would some new reef system discovered in an underexplored part of the Pacific. Of the need to thoroughly survey places like Gorongosa, he wrote in his 1984 book, Biophilia: “No process being addressed by modern science is more complicated or, in my opinion, more important.”

Wilson’s first book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, published in 1967, became one of the most influential works in ecological studies. It offered a formula that mathematically predicts a geometric reduction in the biodiversity of a given habitat as the size of the habitat shrinks. Part of Wilson’s work at Gorongosa involved launching a survey of life on the mountain, and also seeking to understand the special dynamics of a park that is small by the standards of its continent, but that nonetheless may contain thousands of species never before discovered, many of them unique to this lonely peak.

Throughout Wilson’s stay here, a team of filmmakers, whose presence attested to a different purpose, trailed him from day to day. Together, Wilson and the filmmakers have selected the park as one of the backdrops for an online, interactive digital textbook called Life on Earth that the Harvard professor emeritus hopes will revolutionize the teaching of biology in secondary schools worldwide.

For all of his projects here, Wilson has a benefactor whose enthusiasm runs as deep as his pockets: Greg Carr, a boyish 51-year-old who grew up in Idaho Falls and made a fortune in the 1980s and ’90s by developing corporate voice-mail systems. Since then, Carr has undertaken a variety of philanthropic activities, including the endowment of a human-rights center at Harvard that bears his name. But in recent years he has made the rehabilitation of Gorongosa Park his personal mission. Since he assumed joint operational control of the park in 2004, in partnership with the Mozambique government, Carr has spent, by his own estimate, perhaps $25 million on the park.

In its heyday in the early 1970s, the park, with its savannas and floodplains, provided one of the richest nature- and game-viewing experiences anywhere in Africa, due particularly to the abundance of its so-called charismatic animals—lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, wildebeests, zebras, and more. Back then, it was said that one day spent in Gorongosa was equivalent to three in South Africa’s larger and more famous Kruger National Park. In 1977, however, a rebel movement named Renamo launched a civil war from headquarters in Gorongosa, and things went calamitously downhill.

Nearly a million Mozambicans died as a result of the war, and five times that many people were displaced. “Basically every day, there was fighting in this area, and soldiers slaughtered the animals for food, while ordinary people hunted them because it was impossible to farm,” said Domingos João Muala, a Mozambican park worker and ethnologist. This led to the wholesale elimination of both large grazing mammals and their predators, although I chanced on a pride of lions, rare within the park today, on one cold morning as we emerged from a Land Rover by the ruins of an old park lodge fittingly known as the Lion House.

Mozambique’s civil war came to a negotiated end in 1992, and multiparty elections followed two years later. Rehabilitation work on the park began in 1994, including the hiring of staff and the reopening of roads. Poaching has been gradually suppressed but remains a problem even now. Carr’s ambition is to restore as much of the original ecosystem as possible, all the way up to the apex predators, like cheetahs, four of which his foundation recently acquired for release onto park plains already teeming again with antelope, warthog, and baboon.

Wilson’s faith in the power of conservation movements to restore and preserve places like Gorongosa waxed and waned during the week I spent with him. He talked about the impact of China’s burgeoning appetite for natural resources from Africa, and worried about Africa’s booming population, which is projected to go from roughly 1 billion today to twice that by mid-century. And he offered a dark caution about global warming and the unpredictable impact it will have on many ecosystems, no matter how carefully we try to protect them.

Yet these moments of pessimism gradually came to be overshadowed by an abiding optimism, which seemed to grow stronger as he articulated what he saw as a workable vision of this region’s future. “When I flew in by helicopter, one of the things that impressed me the most was the agriculture,” he said. “Those people are really using the poorest methods to eke out a living, and very little technology. Well, it wouldn’t take all that much to change this. With the introduction of fertilizers and better irrigation and more machinery, the yields could go up pretty quickly, and so would people’s incomes. And with that, what you would see is people moving to cities, and new cities forming, which is the way to relieve pressure on the land. It should be noted that presently, Africa is the world’s fastest-urbanizing continent.”

In many of his writings, Wilson places hope in arguments that range from the ethical (humankind will ultimately awaken to its responsibility to the Earth), to the genetic (our evolutionary background has conditioned us to yearn for such things as unspoiled savannas and wilderness), and finally to a kind of naturalist’s spiritualism. “For the naturalist, every entrance into a wild environment rekindles an excitement that is childlike in spontaneity, [and] often tinged with apprehension,” he wrote in his 2002 book, The Future of Life. Every such experience, he continued, reminds us of “the way life ought to be lived, all the time.”

Over dinner on Wilson’s first night at Gorongosa, Carr asked whether the park stood any chance of still retaining all the species it now contains when his young niece reaches her 90s. Wilson’s answer was an exuberant “Yes!” Eventually, the conversation between the biologist and the billionaire turned to the possibility of dramatically expanding the park to create a protected corridor all the way to the Indian Ocean. It was an idea whose logic flows directly from the precepts of island biogeography, which show a dramatic correlation between the size of a habitat and both its diversity and its sustainability. “I see no reason why not,” Wilson enthused. “By all means, you should do it!”

Conversations like these might give the impression that Wilson—one of the most driven and prolific biologists of his generation—has mellowed and is shifting now to a quieter, more retiring, if not truly retired, phase of life, settling into the easy-fitting robes of scientific eminence and mostly lending endorsements and encouragement to the good works of others. And his bug collecting could easily be misinterpreted as a mere enthusiasm, a nostalgic return to the field. But Wilson had rebuked me in our very first encounter, after he had picked up the ant for close inspection, pointedly declaring that he was interested in “more than ants,” and his travel here, like almost everything he does, is bound up with ideas and themes that he has doggedly pursued for decades. (Even in his recently published first novel, the best-selling Anthill, his 24th book, readers schooled in evolutionary science cannot miss the play of long-gestating Wilsonian theories, and linkages to his latest work.)

Indeed, while we sat in camp chairs talking about conservation and ants and countless other subjects, a dispute was raging among evolutionary biologists half a world away, one of the most hotly contested in that field in years—and Wilson was at its center. Christopher X J. Jensen, a Pratt Institute biologist who has blogged about the conflict, described it as a “scientific gang fight.” Its outcome could have big implications for how we understand ourselves and our motivations—and particularly the complex interplay of selfish and altruistic behavior in human nature.

This is hardly the first scientific controversy surrounding Wilson. An even bigger fight erupted around him in the 1970s, as he laid out his ideas on sociobiology in three landmark books, The Insect Societies, Sociobiology, and On Human Nature. At issue throughout were his claims that our genes not only are responsible for our biological form, but help shape our instincts, including our social nature and many other individual traits.

These contentions drew fierce criticism from all across the social sciences, and from prominent specialists in evolution such as Wilson’s late Harvard colleague, Stephen Jay Gould, who helped lead the charge against him.

Wilson defined sociobiology for me as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all organisms.” Gould savagely mocked both Wilson’s ideas and his supposed hubris in a 1986 essay titled “Cardboard Darwinism,” in The New York Review of Books, for seeking “to achieve the greatest reform in human thinking about human nature since Freud,” and Wilson still clearly bears a grudge.

“I believe Gould was a charlatan,” he told me. “I believe that he was … seeking reputation and credibility as a scientist and writer, and he did it consistently by distorting what other scientists were saying and devising arguments based upon that distortion.” It is easy to imagine Wilson privately resenting Gould for another reason, as well—namely, for choosing Freud as a point of comparison rather than his own idol, Darwin, whom he calls “the greatest man in the world.”

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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the co-author, with Qiu Xiaolong, of Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life.

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