The Future of Life: Introduction

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Series: The John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment
2nd National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment
Primary Speaker: Dr. Edward O. Wilson
Date: December 6, 2001
Location: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Steve Hubbell, Board Chairman, NCSE:

I have an astonishingly difficult task. How do you introduce the singly most famous living scientist in the world? Ed Wilson has been truly an intellectual giant for the last forty years, with a history of revolutioniz­ing field after field. I’d like to try to intro­duce him from a very personal perspective.

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1960s, Ed had just published a revolu­tionary book, The Theory of Island Biogeogra­phy, with his colleague from Princeton, Robert MacArthur. I remember studying this book in a graduate seminar, and it threw out almost everything I had ever learned in ecol­ogy. The theory set forth a radical notion that dismissed the rules that we thought operated to construct ecological com­munities of species. Yet the theory seemed to predict things extremely well.

The theory wasn’t uniformly accepted, but it started a revolution in at least three separate disciplines that I can name, one of which is conservation biology — which really is the founding of much of the environmental movement today dealing with endangered species and the future of biodiversity on the planet. Another was revitalizing the then-languishing field of biogeography, the study of the distribution of species on large landscapes. The third, neutral macroecol­ogy, wasn’t really realized until I began applying the theory to my own work and I found that there were implications of the theory that went far beyond what was in that original book. I’ve recently published a book building on his theory, which he was kind enough to review favorably.

That said, it is remarkable that after reinventing my field, Ed Wilson went on to reinvent three or four others. About 10 years later he published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which revolutionized behavioral ecology and the study of social behavior in animals and humans, and had a huge impact in the social sciences. He followed up with his seminal book On Human Nature, which won him his first Pulitzer Prize. Then, not content to rest on his laurels, he took a look at the biodiversity crisis. First he helped edit a National Academy of Sciences book on biodiversity with a collection of distinguished authors pointing out the fact that indeed, there was a crisis, that we were losing species at an accelerating rate worldwide, and that we had to pay attention to this problem in a serious way.

He then wrote two more books in that vein. Biophilia examined his hypoth­esis that perhaps people have an inborn love of nature and an evolutionary hypothesis for why this was so. Then he wrote The Diversity of Life — a beauti­ful book that probably many of you have read — which makes the case that we really have a moral and ethical obligation to save nature. And so he explored the evolutionary underpinnings of our love for nature and our care for it, which doesn’t necessarily follow from many traditional evolutionary hypotheses.

More recently Ed is championing an international effort to catalogue life on Earth. It is desperately overdue. Many of you are probably aware of the fact that we are still largely in the Linnaean stage of describing and naming new species. We don’t know how many species there are on this planet even to the nearest order of magnitude, and this is scandalous. The science of biodiversity is essential­ly in the Middle Ages — in a sense, it’s as if we were still cutting open bodies to find out what organs are inside. And so we need a crash program — a Manhattan-like project to understand life on Earth and what we need to do to save it. If we don’t know where and how nature lives, it’s extremely hard to design policies to preserve it. And Ed is championing that effort in a very effective way.

I have one personal story to tell about Ed’s connection to me and my father, who was an evolutionary biologist, an entomologist at the University of Michigan. Ed tells me that when he was a young graduate student presenting a controversial theory on subspeciation, my father, then an older entomologist, was in attendance. A very kind and wonderful gentleman, my father came up to Ed afterwards and said “Ed, I wish I had written those words.” And Ed wrote to the editor of my recent book, “I am now happy to recycle those words about Steve’s book.” I was very touched by that.

You can get to know Ed by reading Naturalist, and I recommend it. It is an “ant” of a good read [audience laughs]. He really tells you what it was like to grow up being a “natural” naturalist — it just happened automatically. He simply fell in love with critters and made the study of critters the centerpiece of the rest of his scientific life. And of course, he wrote the definitive book on his favorite critters, The Ants, with his colleague Bert Holldobler, for which he won his second Pulitzer.

Ed has transformed so much of science in this country and the world that he truly is a giant. He’s probably my greatest living scientific hero today — and probably that is true for a great many of you as well. I am truly honored to be able to make this introduction.

I give you Professor Edward O. Wilson.

This is a chapter from The Future of Life (Lecture).
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Environment, N. (2008). The Future of Life: Introduction. Retrieved from


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