The Allegheny Front Rewind: E.O. Wilson Plays With Ants, Influences People

Environmentalists are sometimes accused of making mountains out of molehills. This week on The Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple burrows into our archives to unearth interviews from an eminent biologist who has made environmental news out of anthills.

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OPEN: †Environmentalists are sometimes accused of making mountains out of molehills. †This week on The Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple burrows into our archives to unearth interviews from an eminent biologist who has made environmental news out of anthills.

HOLSOPPLE: Edward O. Wilson is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, scholar, naturalist, teacher, and for many, the premier ant man. †

But Wilson turned his attention to animals small AND large when he explained to The Allegheny Front in 1998 why he saw the loss of biodiversity as the biggest environmental threat facing the world today.

WILSON: †The average species life has in the geologic past run from 1 million years roughly to 10 million years, before human interference. Weíve increased that rate of extinction, almost all experts agree, by between a 100 times and a 1000 times, an thus shortened the lives of species accordingly. †

HOLSOPPLE: †Wilson said the problem isn't surmountable, like changing our behavior to reverse pollution.

WILSON: These species cannot be replaced except by more tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. †Periods of time, I think, beyond human comprehension. †So that when we lose the creation, or a big part of it, the creation being the fauna and flora of the world, we are losing something that is extremely precious to humanity, and is not recoverable.

HOLSOPPLE: †This loss weighed heavily on his mind. †Wilson shared a reoccurring dream that was more like a nightmare. He's on an island, studying nature, but he can't find any:

WILSON: In the dream, that repeats itself over and over, I see on the horizon, a fringe that looks like a forest, and so I head there--running or in a car--and come up to the edge of this and discover that it's just a hedgerow. †And that thereís an agricultural field on the other side. Actually, that's a dream that many biologists find a reality.

HOLSOPPLE: Changing that reality, he said, would take more than pure science. Wilson became famous for his idea of fusing natural sciences and the humanities to form a more complete picture of human nature and the world around us. He's also known for his outspoken environmental activism--on display in Pittsburgh in 2007 with his take on Rachel Carson's message:

WILSON: We just can't go on living like this folks. †We're doing fine. †Our health is better, our incomes are up, our energy use continues to climb, and so on. †But weíve got to find a better way to achieve that, because right now we're achieving it by eating up the environment, †using up our resources, running out of water and generally all around living like a family of drunks who want to assume there is no tomorrow.

HOLSOPPLE: †Wilson has described himself as a man who never outgrew his childhood phase of playing with bugs. †"Anthill: A Novel", his first book of fiction, was published last year. †It's semi-autobiographical--about childhood and wilderness--and brings his career full circle. He discussed the book and his thoughts on future conservationists with The Allegheny Front last summer:

WILSON: I've been calling myself a cautious optimist. Now, I'm calling myself, particularly after incidents like the great oil spill, a scared optimist. And I'm going to stay optimistic because there isn't any other way to be.

HOLSOPPLE: For The Allegheny Front Rewind, I'm Kara Holsopple.

OUTRO: To listen to the full 1998 interview with naturalist E.O. Wilson, visit our website, www.alleghenyfront.org.