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This legendary 92-year-old biologist has some advice for saving Earth

E.O. Wilson, who was considered a modern-day Darwin, wanted you to go out and look for new species.

Naturalist E.O. Wilson sitting at a table in a library.
In an interview with Vox, renowned naturalist E.O. Wilson shares his stories from the field, plan to protect nature, and advice for young scientists.
Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Editor’s note, December 27, 2021: E.O. Wilson died on December 26, according to his biodiversity foundation. The following interview was conducted with him on November 18.


In the spring of 1955, E.O. Wilson, then a young entomologist at Harvard, traveled to northeastern Papua New Guinea to study ants. Hiking with local guides through dense rainforests, he climbed 13,000 feet to the summit ridge in the Saruwaged mountains — becoming, by his account, the first Western scientist to reach the peak.

So much of what Wilson saw during that expedition was new to Western science, including a number of types of ants, he told Vox in a recent interview. “There were a lot of adventures like that,” said Wilson.

Today, it may seem as though scientists have explored nearly every corner of the Earth, from the thick, humid jungles of Central Africa to the rust-red, arid outback of Australia. Walking into an ecosystem and stumbling upon species that have yet to be cataloged in academic journals now seems like something you can only read about in books that people like E.O. Wilson have written. (He’s written more than 30, and if you don’t have time to read them all, you can check out a new biography by Richard Rhodes out about him entitled Scientist: E.O. Wilson: A Life in Nature.)

But that’s not how Wilson, a research professor emeritus at Harvard, sees it. In fact, much of the world’s biodiversity remains undiscovered, he told Vox. “A rough estimate suggests that there are upwards of 10 million species on the planet, and we know only a small fraction of them,” said Wilson, who popularized the term “biodiversity” in the 1980s. “The opportunities are endless.”

Sure, you might have to travel farther or study smaller organisms to find something new, he said, but there remains so much potential for discovery. And those discoveries are useful, he added, especially as we seek to conserve nature. While we already know plenty about the forces that harm ecosystems and wildlife, from habitat loss to oil spills, there’s tremendous value in knowing what we have to lose, in better understanding the planet that supports us.

I spoke with Wilson about scientific discovery for a recent episode of Vox Conversations (you can find a link below). We also chatted about how studying ants helped him understand human behavior and led to a big new conservation initiative called the Half-Earth Project. Inspired by Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which he published in 2016, the initiative seeks to protect 50 percent of all land and ocean on the planet. The project backbone is a large dataset that shows where new protected areas would be most useful to protect biodiversity.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Most species on Earth are still undiscovered

Benji Jones

One of my favorite parts of reading your books is hearing about your incredible expeditions. In some cases, you were the first Western scientist to explore these places, like in New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. What was that like?

E.O. Wilson

Exciting. That’s why I went halfway around the world. I think the most important adventure I did was when I climbed to the center of the Saruwaged Range mountains on the peninsula of Papua New Guinea as the first non-native — that is, the first scientist. With the help of locals, I went up to the 13,000-foot crest of the mountains.

Everything was new. Most of the animals that I saw, including kinds of ants, had never been found before.

E.O. Wilson first made a name for himself in the study of ants.
Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images
He made many discoveries throughout his life, including the finding that ants communicate with each other primarily through pheromones.
Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images

Benji Jones

Was there a particular wildlife encounter that stands out to you from all of your travels?

E.O. Wilson

I believe probably the most important was when I visited a little set of islands off the coast of Australia called New Caledonia and set out to be the first entomologist to arrive there and celebrate a tremendous variety of new species.

Benji Jones

Your books have really inspired people to go out and explore the world. But I can’t imagine that there are many places in the world today that haven’t been touched by humans. What you did is almost impossible to do now.

E.O. Wilson

It’s certainly more difficult, but there’s still a lot of unclaimed territory, so to speak. There are many undiscovered and unstudied species in the world — especially in remote areas in the tropics — that await even the most elementary studies, and the results are going to continue to unfold across several generations of scientists.

Benji Jones

Why is there still a strong need for basic science and cataloging more species? It seems like there’s so much pressure to solve the problem of habitat loss and other forces that are driving down biodiversity. Should we not focus instead on stopping those forces?

E.O. Wilson

We should be doing both. A rough estimate suggests that there are upward of 10 million species on the planet, and we know only a small fraction of them. [Estimates for the number of species on Earth vary, but a widely cited figure is 8.7 million, which comes from this paper.] In most cases, we just have a few specimens in museums. It would be enormously productive and useful if we made more of an effort to identify all of the species on Earth — to find out where they are and what their status is.

The opportunities are endless. They represent the equivalent of the first explorations made by people when they came out of Europe and began to explore the rest of the world. That’s what we have before us.

Benji Jones

I love this idea that there’s so much wonder still left in the world. You can go out today and find something new that might contribute to science in a productive way.

E.O. Wilson

Yes, even if you have to travel a little farther than would have been the case a few years ago. The most important discoveries are going to be made in examining the smallest of the ants, the animals, the plants. We just need to know what is on this planet. We need to have a more complete and productive understanding of how to care for the life that we’ve inherited.

Wilson discovered hundreds of species of ants throughout his career.
Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images

Benji Jones

Along those lines, why should we care about a species if we don’t even know about it? If a species that we haven’t discovered is going extinct, for example, why does it matter?

E.O. Wilson

We won’t see the magnitude of our ignorance, of our excitement, or of the useful knowledge embedded in the living environment until we set out to explore all of it. That includes large numbers of small, inconspicuous species.

Benji Jones

We need to know what we have to lose.

E.O. Wilson

Yes. We need to not carelessly let any species slip away from us. If we want to know what is on this planet and why it is a live planet — what contributes to that life and what it all means, ultimately, for human existence — we should try to save it all.

Benji Jones

If you were going to give advice to a student of biology today, to explore a type of life, a type of organism, where would you recommend starting?

E.O. Wilson

If you wish, you can take a map of the world and throw a dart. Where the dart hits, you will find animals and plants and mysteries of great magnitude.

What ants can teach us about human behavior

Benji Jones

You’ve also written a lot about the biological basis of human behavior. What has studying ants and ecology taught you about the behavior of humans?

E.O. Wilson

My early interests as a kid in the American South led me to the study of ants. And I discovered, in my hometown, the first US colony of [red imported] fire ants.

What makes ants stand out and interesting to a young scientist is that they communicate with each other using chemicals — with pheromones. My interest in chemical communication among ants led me to broader studies on the origin of social behavior more generally. This brings us to humans.

Human society can be illuminated more effectively by studying how societies are put together in the vast array of organisms, from deer to starlings to ants to bees. Each species creates societies in different ways, using different senses. From that, early on in my career at Harvard, I saw the option of doing a comparative study across many species, using different sensory modalities. I saw the opportunity of building a discipline out of this.

And so about 50 years ago, I proposed a new discipline called sociobiology. I couldn’t stay away from humans. I decided to include the peculiarities of human social behavior and how it could be illuminated — the evolution of human and social behavior — by making a comparison with societies of all kinds. That got some attention.

Benji Jones

You got a lot of flack, as Rhodes details in his book, for your work trying to understand the biological or evolutionary basis of certain human behaviors. Looking back on that now, would you have done anything differently?

E.O. Wilson

As the unfavorable attention started to fade away, I was happy that I had taken the course of study that I did.

There are not many areas of science that are sensitive to the conflict with moral reasoning. It’s a challenge — that goes way back before Darwin and the idea of evolution — that causes an outpouring from time to time due to the seeming animalization of humanity and the human condition.

I can understand why sociobiology — which included human behavior as just one more possibility in the evolution of social behavior — caused alarm. But it’s held its ground, and I think sociobiology is now well-accepted.

Benji Jones

There’s obviously a lot we still don’t know. Do you think it is important that we fully understand all the biological roots of behavior? That we fill in the remaining gaps?

E.O. Wilson

I think it’s extremely important. Human behavior, as a whole generation of poets, writers, and scientists have come to realize, is deeply rooted in instinct, and there’s a history to that instinct that occurred as humans — protohumans — evolved gradually into the full species, homo sapiens. That is history. It’s prehistory, but it’s history. And it’s enormously important because human instinctive behavior and all of its consequences and all of its possible manifestations are enormously important for our understanding of our own species, our self.

Benji Jones

Part of me is a little bit scared to know the biological basis of everything. I feel like it could be a slippery slope. So, for example, I’m gay. If you could figure out the biological basis of homosexuality, that could come with some serious and perhaps unpredictable consequences. Are there any concerns that you have about knowing too much?

E.O. Wilson

No. It’s only by completely open and honest research done to the best of our ability that we can understand where we fit as a species that has evolved in the midst of a living world that has peculiar properties that have deeply influenced what we’ve become.

Wildlife conservation “has many victories in a losing war”

Benji Jones

I can’t help but think that decades of efforts to save nature haven’t accomplished much. Do you think conservation has worked?

E.O. Wilson

We have had many successes — a rainforest here, the protection of a savanna or tropical grassland there, and so on. But the sum of it all is inadequate. We don’t have a generally recognized, universally accepted moonshot effort to combine all the activity directed toward conservation into a unified, fundamentally accepted ethic of conservation. We have many victories in a losing war.

Benji Jones

Would it be fair to say that this kind of universal ethic is in line with the Half-Earth Project — your work to conserve half of the planet, both land and sea?

E.O. Wilson

In the 1960s, a young professor at Princeton, Robert MacArthur, and I decided to create a theory together on something related to our work — research on biodiversity and on what determines the number of species in a particular part of the world. We created the Theory of Island Biogeography.

It began when I put together data for ants all through the Pacific region, island by island. I saw that there was a relationship between the area of the island and the number of species found there — in this case, of ants. It turns out it applies to pretty much any organism.

E.O. Wilson in Gorongosa National Park, one of the many locations where he did field work.
Courtesy of Jay Vavra

A relatively small increase in the area of an island resulted in a different number of species. If you can set aside 15 percent more area when building a nature reserve, you can increase the number of species that can live there, stably, by about 85 percent.

This suggested to me — just this one phenomenon — that we ought to translate that into a policy. I suggested that idea in a book entitled Half-Earth. If you can somehow make half of the Earth a reserve, you could save the vast majority of species on it.

Benji Jones

There’s been a lot of criticism of approaches that aim to increase the size of protected areas. In the past, some of those efforts removed Indigenous people from their land. Can we both add more reserves and protect the rights of Indigenous people?

E.O. Wilson

Yes. Generally, we have enough examples now from around the world to show that reserves can be created or enlarged in a safe and thoughtful manner with due consideration given to people living there — who own the property and have the methods and philosophies of conservation of their own. We can accomplish both.

Benji Jones

What advice do you have for scientists or biologists that are just starting their careers today?

E.O. Wilson

If you have even a glimmering of interest in entering the field of biology, it’s a career that, at this point in our history, is potentially enormously useful. We know that reserves are very fragile and that we need to have a science and technology of reserve creation. We need to know what is in the reserves, down to the smallest invertebrate, animal, alga, fungus, and so on — down to the last species. I would hope every student with any interest in biology at all carefully considers this type of career.

Benji Jones

How about for people who are not scientists and are just trying to live in a way that doesn’t harm the planet? What do you tell people about their own responsibility?

E.O. Wilson

Don’t cut down a boreal forest or the Amazon and have a general sense of responsibility for the remaining natural areas of the world. That doesn’t require a PhD in biodiversity. It requires a sense of personal responsibility and merit to save parts of the world that are very valuable for our history, for our welfare, and — unfortunately — are very vulnerable to careless destruction.

Benji Jones

What does that actually look like for someone in their day-to-day? What is the behavior that we should be living by?

E.O. Wilson

I’ve found that, in different parts of our country and in foreign countries, when people become familiar with what’s in their natural environment, what’s interesting, what’s important on a broader scale, what gives them pleasures, that depth of understanding leads to a long-term improvement in their quality of life.

Correction, December 3, 11 am: Due to a transcription error, a previous version of this article misstated when E.O. Wilson proposed the new discipline of sociobiology. It was 50 years ago.