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Natural Wonder : At heart, Edward Wilson's an ant man. But it's his theories on human behavior that stir up trouble.

October 21, 1994|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most of its findings, dealing with lower forms of life, won praise. But Wilson set off alarms when he suggested that biology shapes human nature as well. Although he won a National Medal of Science in 1977, criticism was fierce and some faculty members shunned him.

Indeed, his opponents insisted that culture is more influential in determining human nature. In 1975, anthropology professor Stephen Jay Gould and 15 other colleagues wrote a blistering letter about Wilson to the New York Review of Books, saying he provided a "genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex." These arguments, they said, led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

"I had no interest in ideology," Wilson says, "yet I had to fight back. I felt keenly betrayed, because my colleagues were politicizing science."

Twenty years later, many of Wilson's conclusions have been accepted as mainstream. He has since clarified his theories to argue that human behavior is a product of cultural and genetic evolution. The great challenge facing science, he says, is to probe the way those two influences interact.

Meanwhile, he's received numerous honors, winning the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for "On Human Nature" (Harvard), a response to sociobiology critics, and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for "The Ants" (Harvard), a 700-page opus written with Bert Holldobler. Yet memories of his bitter conflicts have eased only slightly.

The day he was doused with ice water "may be the only occasion in recent American history on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, for the expression of an idea," he writes. "How could an entomologist with a penchant for solitude provoke a tumult of this proportion?"

*

The answer is politics. Once a scientist speaks out, Wilson suggests, the niceties of academic discourse and professional courtesy can quickly disappear. His experience with the biodiversity crisis is a good example.

Wilson couldn't help but notice the inexorable destruction of tropical rain forests during research trips he took to Asia and Latin America as far back as 1956. Urban sprawl, pesticides and overpopulation were wiping out the precious habitats, and it wasn't simply an aesthetic problem.

Rain forests contain more flora and fauna than any other part of the world, he notes. They're a gold mine of medicines, such as cyclosporin--a valuable immune-suppressant that comes from a fungus--and taxol, a drug from the Pacific yew that's used to treat cancer. More miracle drugs are waiting to be discovered, yet as the rain forests shrink, these resources are threatened.

"What we need is a citizens' wake-up call for the planet," he says. "It's a genuine emergency. Nothing should distract us from this task."

But politics intervene. Along with other biologists, Wilson testified before Congress, urging passage of an expanded Endangered Species Act to protect entire ecosystems, not just individual animals. He also pushed for congressional ratification of the 1992 Rio Pact on Biodiversity.

Both measures are currently blocked by Washington gridlock, however, and Wilson has been attacked for his efforts. The notion that he has exaggerated the rate of species extinction in shrinking rain forests exasperates him.

"These are not smart criticisms," he says tartly. "They're absurd."

Reciting what he calls an ironclad law of ecology, Wilson says the more you reduce the area in which a species lives, the more its numbers will decline. He cites evidence from studies in the Philippines, Madagascar, Brazil, Florida and the forests of the eastern United States to prove his point.

And then . . . weary of the debate, drained by the endless back and forth, Edward O. Wilson stretches his long legs and allows a smile to cross his face. It's late in the afternoon, and an autumn chill settles on the campus outside.

"Some people may find it odd, but I never forgot the upbeat attitudes of the Southern Baptist experience," he says. "And that really comforts me. It's a rock, especially when you deal with all these conflicts."

Has the ant-chasing biologist found God in his twilight years?

"I wouldn't phrase it that way," Wilson says. "But Southern Baptism is a good-news faith, and I always try to stress the positive in science. So sure, put me down as a good news secular humanist. Let the word go forth."

*

In a packed lecture hall, he spreads the word.

Here, biodiversity is more than an abstract concept. Dimming the lights, Wilson shows students a dramatic slide--a nighttime photo of Earth taken by satellites--and points out eerie flames stretching across the Equator, across Latin America and Asia.

They're fires burning out of control in the rain forests on any given evening. It's a disturbing sight, yet Wilson says there is still time to save the planet.

On another morning, he compares human beings to ants. Consider man's selfishness and ambition versus the insects' drive to help their community. They'll sacrifice their lives for the common good, if need be.

Biology doesn't get more basic than this, and Wilson ends the lesson amid gales of laughter by raising the subject of Marxism. Why did it fail?

"Good ideology," he says dryly. "Wrong species."

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