E.O. Wilson is a scientist and author who's concerned with everything from insect society to the consciousness of humans. Over the past 60 years, he's uncovered fascinating facts about the altruism of ants, won two Pulitzer Prizes for non-fiction, and created the field of sociobiology — the study of how evolution affects our behavior today.
His latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, features his scientifically driven musings about the nature of humanity and the biggest challenges we face as a species. I recently spoke to him about what scientific disciplines he thinks are key to solving them — and why he believes we need to set aside half the Earth for other species as soon as possible.
Joseph Stromberg: The Meaning of Human Existence is a huge, huge topic to cover. How do you define it?
E.O. Wilson: In the book, I try to cover this by answering three questions about our species: where did we come from, what are we, and where are we going?
The first one involves our evolution, and how that evolution managed to produce a form of intelligence that’s radically different from all the other species in existence. And it depended, ultimately, on a number of random circumstances. You needed a eusocial species — of which there are only about 20 in the world, mostly insects like ants and termites — that also had limbs that allowed for the fine manipulation of tools and a brain that could grow in size over time. Millions of years ago, chance came together to provide those and other circumstances, and we are the result.
"By the end of the century, half of all species will be either extinct or on the brink of extinction"
The second question is about the nature of that intelligence — how we function as an intensely social species, and how our behavior is shaped by our evolution. One of the really interesting aspects of that is the inner conflict between altruism and selfishness that we all have, and the way in which it can be explained by the circumstances of our evolution as well. In short, you had some pressures that selected for selfishness, because in any given group, selfish individuals will be the most successful. But groups filled with altruists were better at working together and procreating and taking over resource-filled areas.
And finally, the last question — the one that we’re farthest away from answering — concerns our future as an intensely social, intelligent species, whether we’ll be able to fill in the gaps of our knowledge and these and other fundamental questions more fully, and whether we’ll figure out a way to coexist with the rest of the living world.
Joseph Stromberg: What areas of science are going to be important in answering these questions more fully?
E.O. Wilson: Well, I think answers are going to come from a small subset of scientific disciplines. We’re not going to get the answers from astrophysicists. It’s fashionable to go to people working on the origin of the universe, and black holes, and things like that, and say, ‘Well, you’re dealing with the ultimate, what do you think is the meaning of humanity?’ But there aren’t any answers there.
I’ve put together five disciplines that I think will help us answer these questions.
One is evolutionary biology. That’s matured now to a point where we’re getting more and more confident about the basic processes of natural selection — in other words, how the genome interacts with the natural environment to bring about evolution. The environment produces natural selection pressures that guide the evolution of the genome. We understand that pretty well now.
The second discipline is archaeology, and as you go back through time, paleontology. That gives you the direct evidence of the changes in anatomy and brain capacity. And increasingly, archaeology — as far back as Homo erectus — we can take it back that far to see what kind of settings these early groups lived in. That’s crucial. Also, what happened when their range began to expand very rapidly at the time of Homo habilis.
Of course, we also need brain sciences. They’re in an explosive period of advancement. We can learn a lot already of how the brain works, given the current state of the science — where the centers of emotion are, where the centers of decision-making are, how linkages are created, things of this sort. Those who work in neurobiology are beginning to put it together, and get a picture of what goes on. The grail is explaining consciousness — the mind. We haven’t grasped it yet, but the brain sciences are closing in on it.
The fourth discipline is artificial intelligence, and the fifth is robotics. And the reason they’re so important is that these are the means one needs to understand the human brain. Eventually, the use of robotic avatars will become essential. Meaning, we build robots that are better and better at performing, and eventually adapting and learning, and perhaps actually engaging in the process of thinking, and that will tell us about the nature of thinking itself.
Joseph Stromberg: What do you think are the biggest problems we face as a species?
E.O. Wilson: We are one species. And there are eight to 10 million other species, roughly estimated, that make up the rest of life. They are vital to both our self-understanding and our survival — because that depends on maintaining a sustainable climate and environment, to which our human species has been adapted since its beginning several million years ago.
We’re part of that environment. So what’s happening to it? There’s a lot of concern about the physical environment, which has problems like climate change, of course, and pollution, the exhaustion of resources, the diminishment of arable land, the growing scarcity of water, which is going to be the critical factor. We know all that, but a lot of people haven’t been paying as much attention to what’s happening to the living environment.
We’ve now put scientific names on about two million species, after 250 years of studying biodiversity, starting with Linnaeus. The estimated number of all species is between eight and 10 million species, based on different sampling methods. So the majority of all species are still unknown to science. They don’t even have names — we know nothing about them. And of the two million species that we know a little bit about, mostly what we have is a name and a characterization of their anatomy. Only a tiny fraction of the two million are well known, and of those, only a tiny fraction have been studied with reference to how they interact with each other to create ecosystems and the environment in which we live. So this is largely a virgin field, after 250 years.
But we do know enough about extinction of the best-studied groups, like birds and mammals, to say that the rate of extinction is roughly 1,000 times what is was before humans came along. In other words, we’re not just modifying the physical environment, but we’re also cheerfully destroying the living environment, through species extinction.
Just to give you an idea of how many species can disappear if you develop a piece of land: in one of the few places in the world where there’s been a serious effort to count all species, in the Great Smokies, 150,000 person-hours of study has turned up 18,000 species in that park. They estimate the total number of all species there is somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000. So if you took an area of that size, say, in the tropics, and wiped it out — as has been done over and over in the last few decades in Borneo for oil palm plantations — you’re endangering and perhaps even eliminating thousands of species, especially insects and other small creatures that we still haven’t made careful study of. And this is true even of big animals. Just on Borneo, the Sumatran rhino appears to have almost gone extinct, and the orangutan is down drastically.
We really are wiping out big blocks of species that are millions of years old. The living environment is dying. It’s estimated that by the end of the century, half of all species — known and unknown — will be either extinct or on the brink of extinction.
We keep talking about it, and try slowing it here and there, but it keeps on happening, largely because people who own land have priorities centered on the economy, and the needs of local people, and they take areas that were in beautiful condition with thousands of species and pave them over.
Joseph Stromberg: How do you think we can solve this?
E.O. Wilson: I’m working on a book that’ll be due in about a year, called The End of the Anthropocene, in which I lay out my idea for a solution.
First, to explain, the anthropocene is a word that some people are using to describe the current geological epoch. The idea is that so much has changed — in terms of the atmosphere, the soil, the animals of the world, etc. — that we should formally designate a new epoch dating to sometime in the 18th century, around the beginning of the industrial revolution. The world is changed, it’s increasingly human-dominated, and we ought to start calling it something that reflects that.
In the book, I’m offering a solution to end the Anthropocene. And it’s called the half-earth idea. Basically, you set aside half for humanity, and half for the other eight million species.
Of course, that sounds like lunacy to most people when they first hear it. But in the new book, I’m reflecting the opinions of an increasing number of people that believe it can be done, by combining existing reserves, and new wildlife corridors connecting them, and new marine laws that provide for open water reserves, which will replenish the areas we harvest fish from. With a coordinated effort, this can happen. And though it’s audacious, it’s entirely necessary.
Joseph Stromberg: You’ve also spoken about your optimism that future technologies can help with our environmental problems. Can you tell me about that?
E.O. Wilson: Well, think of it this way: currently, the ecological footprint of the average American is about 20 acres — that’s the amount of land required to support all needs of the average person. So this means that to achieve a US standard of living all around the world, it’d require three or four planet Earths. So it can’t be done.
But now consider the digital age — especially the industries of biology, nanotechnology, and robotics. These and other developing technologies can shrink the size of our ecological footprints. For instance, nowadays, people are buying smaller and smaller electronic devices. This is what they want to buy, not for any environmental ethic, but because they’re more sophisticated. But they also use fewer materials, and less energy is required to run them.
"The world is increasingly human-dominated, and we ought to start calling it something that reflects that"
And with information technology, meanwhile, we’re looking at a coming age of teleconferencing — the ability to gather people from anywhere in the world and sit them around the same table realistically, perhaps with holograms or large screens. I’ve appeared live, on a screen, and looked out at audiences in places like Australia, Japan, and Monaco without getting on a plane and burning up fuel. Increasingly, this is the way that people are going to communicate, and that can reduce material and energy use.
With robotics, we can have robots that run on very little energy. Right now, the most efficient robots still require something like a thousand times more energy than the human brain, but advancements of robotics can change that.
So by making use of these scientific disciplines and technologies, we can help save the living world and secure more safety for our species. It lies in an unintended consequence of the post-industrial and digital revolution. That’s the idea, anyway.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.