E.O. Wilson -- much more than 'the ant guy'

Myrmecologist E.O. Wilson had been out "anting" before we talked during the Sun Valley Writers Conference. He found some specimens to send back to Harvard, where he made his reputation researching insect colonies and a lot more, including sociobiology, the study of social organization as an aspect of evolution. One of sociobiology's pillars, "kin selection," explains why organisms sacrifice themselves: to ensure that their family genetic legacy endures. But now Wilson is relishing upsetting the kin selection apple cart with work he says proves that it's not just relatives but groups with other common goals that inspire self-sacrifice, an insight that provides an evolutionary basis for all kinds of human collaboration.

Patt Morrison Asks: In the E.O. Wilson interview on Sept. 19, Wilson referred to the St. James Bible. It is the King James Bible.

There's some skepticism of, even hostility toward, science. Some people may like science when it gives them a smartphone but not when it challenges their worldview.

I believe it's primarily an American phenomenon. My explanation for it comes from my childhood as a Southern Baptist: It is the intense religiosity of most Americans. Why is it you have intelligent, well-educated people who are willing to deny all these [scientific] things — particularly evolution? The answer is, we're still a frontier country.

People come into a frontier country from areas that had theologians and hierarchies. But on the frontier, they're thrown on their own resources, settling land where the nearest neighbor might be miles away. They have no guidelines except one — faith in the literal acceptance of the holy Bible, St. James version, and that's what fundamentalism is. They regard science as just another way of knowing: There's law, there's religion, there's science, and why should we accept that?

What are the consequences of this attitude on, say, climate change?

I've been asked this numerous times: Are we going to be able to pull this thing out in time? I believe in a dictum I first heard from the [deputy] prime minister of Israel, Abba Eban. He said, when all else fails, men turn to reason. Maybe this will happen in time, but right now we are pouring species and biodiversity down the drain for nothing.

The biologist J.B.S. Haldane explained "kin selection" when he was asked whether he would lay down his life for his brother. No, he said, but he would for two brothers, or eight cousins. In the journal "Nature" in 2010, you challenged kin selection and created a stir, to say the least.

I was one of the main promoters of kin selection back when it looked good. By the '90s I thought I heard the whine of wheels spinning. Willie Hamilton's [British evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton] generalized rule [of kin selection] was that if you've got enough people looking after [relatives], society could become very advanced. It wasn't working. By 2010 I had published peer-reviewed articles on what was thoroughly wrong [with kin selection]. I said we've got to go back to "multilevel selection." Groups form, competing with one another for their share. It's paramount in human behavior. The spoils tend to go to groups that do things better — in business, development, war and so on.

I knew the biology. I saw that multiple-level selection works, but in different ways in different cases, and [with] my mathematics colleagues, said [in the Nature article], kin selection cannot work. We knew that was going to be a paradigm changer. We published it and the storm broke.

Why such a fuss?

[Scientists] have built their careers on it. Richard Dawkins was in a paroxysm of rage. He is a dogmatist and polemicist. Those who publish peer-reviewed articles are called statured scientists, and Mr. Dawkins is not [anymore]. [An Oxford professor] who had just published about kin selection was particularly scandalized, and from what I heard, led the collecting of signatures objecting to our article. One leading scientist in Britain who will go unnamed said they were acting like a cult. Science is not advanced by polling or by letter writing.

What's happening now is what should happen: younger people coming into the field [saying] wait a minute, [the journal article] might just be right. We're in a breakthrough period and there are going to be a lot of advances. I love quoting Schopenhauer. He said every new idea is greeted first by ridicule, then outrage, then "That's just another way of saying what I knew all along."

I was surprised to read that you, a man not very interested in technology, have collaborated on a digital textbook and there's an Apple app for it.

[I] didn't need a lot of selling. The big job was selling Steve Jobs. We met with him; we had a product to show, a spectacular demonstration of how a molecule actually looks, and cells dividing and other animations.

I was teaching a lot of this for years in my course at Harvard and adapting it for high school students. We saw that this could revolutionize education. We had a bottom-up approach, biology as adventure, biology as it actually looks. When Apple went looking through a lot of projects for ideas like this, it apparently rejected them all [but] ours.

We wanted to have this course free, to anybody, anywhere, any time. Apple liked that too. They finally said, well, we're with you. The wanted to have it on iPad. Now it's apparently in 32 countries.

Your first field of study was ants. Why don't kids get as caught up anymore in that phase where they are fascinated by being outdoors and observing the natural world, as you did?

I think they just get swept up in peer groups. Peer groups are powerful and they take kids away from things like this. It's not cool to want to go out and watch birds or collect snakes the way it used to be. That's a big problem. It should be a primal part of growing up.

The important thing about learning is the kinesthetic sense of it. If you learn by doing it, handling it, making it, you know it. That's what we haven't been doing. That's what natural history does. We were just sitting on the [Sun Valley] porch of Greg Carr [Carr is funding the restoration of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where Wilson does fieldwork] and the kids were catching insects!

You did pioneering work with ants' "trail pheromones," which are a kind of chemical secretion. Did you laugh when you saw perfume ads start commercializing "human pheromones"?

I did! This is a billion-dollar industry. They used the word "pheromone" and now it's being slathered all over. I encouraged work in vertebrate pheromones. So gradually the idea of human pheromones took hold, although human pheromones may be very weak and restricted in what they do.

Did you ever see that '50s sci-fi film "Them," about giant ants in the Los Angeles River?

I love it. That was one of the first films about "monsters in the sea, under the ground," [in which] radioactivity created mutations and it comes back to us. I watch a lot of science fiction; I love even the grade-B movies. Now the monsters come from secret government laboratories developing super-animals from fooling around with DNA.

There must be ants named after you; do you have a favorite?

I have a lot of ants named after me. I favor much more the cockroach named after me in Australia. It's genus Eowilsonia, a whole genus. And it's big, and it's black, and it's ugly!


Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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