April 2012


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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mitchel Cohen <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 30 Apr 2012 13:27:04 -0400
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E. O. Wilson wants to know why you’re not protesting in the streets

By <>Lisa Hymas
Edward O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson thinks you should get out there and make some noise.

We had lots of questions for acclaimed biologist 
and conservationist 
O. Wilson when he dropped by the Grist office 
recently while touring to promote his latest 
Social Conquest of Earth.

But Wilson directed the toughest question of the 
day back at us: Why aren't you young people out 
protesting the mess that's being made of the planet?

As we squirmed in our seats, Wilson, 82, 
continued: "Why are you not repeating what was 
done in the ‘60s? Why aren't you in the streets? 
And what in the world has happened to the green 
movement that used to be on our minds and 
accompanied by outrage and high hopes? What went wrong?"

We didn't have great answers, so we're going to 
turn the questioning on you, dear readers: Why 
aren't you out in the streets? And if you are, 
where, why, and who else is out there with you? 
Should more of us be staging '60s-style protests? 
Can online activism or lobbying in the halls of 
power make just as much of a difference, or more? 
Tell us what you think in comments below.

Now back to the questions we asked Wilson about 
his life's work and his new book. Over the course 
of his long career as a professor at Harvard, 
he's conducted pioneering research on ants, 
written seminal 
on sociobiology and biogeography, published 
ant-centric fiction 
New Yorker, and led major efforts to preserve 
His new book traces human morality, religion, and 
arts to their biological roots, and turns 
traditional Darwinism on its head, arguing that 
social groups and tribes are the primary drivers of natural selection.

Q. The title of your book has the word social in 
it. Social has become a buzzword for online 
networking, this new way of forming groups. Are 
you on Facebook? Are you using the internet to look at the way groups behave?


A. No, others are doing that.

We are entering a new world, but we're entering 
it as Paleolithic brains. Here's my formula for 
Earth's civilization: We are a Star Wars 
civilization. We have Stone Age emotions. We have 
medieval institutions ­ most notably, the 
churches. And we have god-like technology. And 
this god-like technology is dragging us forward 
in ways that are totally unpredictable.

We have not gotten beyond the powerful propensity 
to believe our group is superior to other 
comparable groups. However, we are draining away 
the instinctual energy from nationalism ­ that's 
a big help. I think we're seeing the beginning of 
the draining away from the dreadfully 
dissolutive, oppressive institutions of organized 
religion. Seeing what's happening is part of the 
reason for the Tea Party and the populist revolt 
now that has kidnapped the Republican Party. 
There's a resentment about the old bonds and the 
old groups dissolving and new groups being formed.

Q. Have you seen concern about biodiversity 
decline over the last decade? A lot of energy 
seems to be going toward climate change and not as much toward biodiversity.

A. Isn't that astonishing? We're destroying the 
rest of life in one century. We'll be down to 
half the species of plants and animals by the end 
of the century if we keep at this rate. Very few 
people are paying any attention, just dedicated 
groups. The only way we've been able to get 
people's attention is through big issues like 
pollution and climate change. They can't deny 
pollution because you can give them the taste 
test. You can say, "We just took this out of the 
Charles River. Here, drink." But they can deny 
climate change. We're in a state of cosmic or global denial.

However, there are changes. The general direction 
is going up the right way. The only question is 
how much damage are we going to do to 
biodiversity before we catch on. Right now I'm 
going to national parks around the world ­ I've 
been to Ecuador, Mozambique, the southwest 
Pacific, all of Western Europe. I'm going to 
write a series on national parks ­ what the basic 
philosophy of national parks and reserves should 
be, and how it relates to our own self-image and 
our own hopes for immortality as a species.

We have to do everything we possibly can. I like 
to tell this the way a former Southern Baptist 
would tell it, in the original accent. Then 
you'll see what I'm trying to say when I say we 
have to use every weapon at our disposal, all the 
time, everything from science to activism to 
political influence, etc. So this is 
Sunday, a pioneer in Southern evangelicalism and 
fundamentalism in the '20s: "I hate sin. I hate 
sin so much I'm going to fight it till my arms 
won't move no more. When my arms don't move no 
more, I'm gonna bite it. And when all my teeth 
are gone, I'm gonna gum it." Now you get the 
picture. We all have to do that. When there's nothing else at hand, gum it.

Q. Some of our readers sent questions for you via 
Twitter. One asked, What three lessons should we learn from ants?

A. None. We learned a lot of science from ants, 
but, for heaven's sake, let's not do what ants 
do. Ants are totally subservient to instinctual 
rules. Males are produced only a short time each 
year, and they have only one function, which I 
won't go into, and when they perform that, then 
they die. Also, ants are the most war-like of all 
known creatures. They are at perfect harmony in a 
colony, but they're always at war with any colony 
they encounter. And furthermore, a lot of species 
kill and eat their injured. So let's not go the ant way.

Q. Here's another: What findings among all of 
your research still surprise and amaze you?

A. Well, after I found them, they don't amaze me.

Q. One of our readers wants to know what your favorite ant is.

A. Aren't some of the readers worrying about biodiversity?

Q. We got four or five variations of this question: Are we doomed?

A. I'd like to say no. I'm surely not going to be 
stupid enough to say yes. What I will say is: no, I hope.

Here's my favorite little maxim. It's from 
Eban, foreign minister of Israel during the 1967 
war, one more dumb, senseless war in the Middle 
East: "When all else fails, men turn to reason."

I think maybe we are really and truly ready to 
start trying to solve problems for once in human 
history by using our forebrain.

Lisa Hymas is senior editor at Grist. You can 
follow her on 
<>Twitter and 
<>Google+. Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in. ~ Leonard Cohen