Edward O. Wilson went from collecting ants around his childhood Alabama home to being the world’s leading expert in myrmecology. Now, the 83-year-old two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner is ready to pass the torch to the next generation of scientists. In Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson dispenses a lifetime of wisdom gleaned from the lab and the world’s far-flung places.
What can humans learn from ants?
We’ve learned a great deal about basic biology from ants, and we can learn a lot more about how advanced social behavior—in terms of instincts—evolves in ants and, to some extent, evolved in prehumans. But what we have learned about ants is not very applicable to the optimal design of our society or of morality. Ants are the most warlike of all animals, to the extent that colonies will wipe out other colonies. And certainly these are not examples of social or moral behavior that we would want to emulate.
What will be the main concern for future scientists?
I have to say (and not just because it’s my field): the study of biodiversity. We’ve only begun to explore the living world on this planet, and of the roughly 1.9 million species of plants and animals and microorganisms that we’ve discovered (which could represent as little as 10–15% of the variety of organisms alive on Earth), only a tiny fraction have been studied at any depth. We need a far better idea of what makes up the rest of life on what I like to call our “little-known planet” in order to understand how to help sustain our own lives, and create sustainable ecosystems to take us into the indefinite future.
Will we ever reach a point where we fully understand the universe?
No. Never! There’s just too much to discover about life on Earth. And I don’t need to repeat what the astrophysicists keep telling us—that we’ve scarcely begun to understand the universe, either at its astrophysical base or even the full extent of the contents of our own galaxy. There is no endgame in science.
You’ve said that “the true evolutionary epic retold as poetry is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic.” Do you predict that religions and their holy texts will be replaced in the future by science-based alternatives?
The mythologies and creation stories that are the foundations of organized religion today were developed 1,000 to 10,000 years ago when very little was understood of the world. Now is the time to gradually replace the creation stories with real information about who we are and where we came from as a species, and how the world and the universe beyond works. I believe that as we come to understand the realities of our existence, then we can begin to express [them] on solid bases in more poetic terms, and in place of the traditional religious devotions there will arise a devotion that is a great deal more secular and human centered. That’s not going to be an easy transition, but that’s where science—that is, provable knowledge of reality—will eventually take us. And it’ll be a much more interesting science and a more fulfilling poetry and expression of human meaning than we have now.