An interview with E O Wilson – of ants and ambition

I had the privilege of interviewing E O Wilson over the summer. I’d been commissioned by Third Way magazine. Its one of the perks of being a writer, that every now and again you get asked to meet people who you have read, and read about, for years. Sometimes the meeting disappoints – but not this time.

We met on Skype. A poor substitute to talking with a table and a couple of cups of coffee in between, but vastly better than nothing. Edward is clearly not as young as he was when he did his first research, but his mind has lost none of its alertness and his ambition is still fuelled by a thirst for greater knowledge: he’d just come back from a research expedition to visit some of the island he’d studied 5 decades earlier.

And I was struck by the islands. I asked him why work on islands. His explanation was that they are perfect natural laboratories – particularly ones in relatively close-packed archipelagos. Each island is it own almost-closed ecosystem. It has its own fauna and flora, and if separated by great enough differences this can include its own sets of birds – as Charles Darwin discovered when he ventures to the Galapagos islands in H.M.S. Beagle. Tracing the similarities and difference is these isolated evolutionary systems gives clues and insights into ecosystems and evolutionary mechanisms. You can see species adapt, and speculate on the consequence of such adaptation over time.

In one set of experiments he eradicated all life on one island in a group, and then monitored its return. An interesting way of seeing life return, not be being re-invented, but by re-population.

As well as being known for his work on ants, E. O. Wilson has become a passionate campaigner for the ecosystem. His Biodiversity Foundation aims to “to promote worldwide understanding of the importance of biodiversity and of the preservation of our biological heritage.” It’s interesting though that despite the fact that he believes all life has evolved randomly and has its own right and value, he quickly these becomes highly anthropocentric in his rhetoric. The site states “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.” Is it really just about our use, and the value to us as humans? An interesting thought…

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