E. O. Wilson: Runaway population growth at epicenter of environmental problems

By Marian Starkey | June 2019
Population Connection magazine

After a weekend of reading Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies and formulating questions to ask its author, the renowned biologist E. O. Wilson, I spent a sleepless night anticipating the next day’s interview. Edward Osborne Wilson is the world’s foremost authority on myrmecology (ants). He has written 35 books and well over 400 technical articles. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction twice. He was a Harvard professor for nearly 50 years. Surely, it would be intimidating to sit across the table from him.

My fears couldn’t have been more unwarranted. I found Prof. Wilson (Ed, as he’s known to the people in his life) waiting for me in the lobby of his lovely retirement community, where he resides with his wife of 64 years, Irene, or as he affectionately referred to her, “Reenie.” He greeted me wearing a seersucker blazer, khakis, and a warm smile.

Wilson turns 90 on June 10, and is just now trying to get used to walking with a cane, which he doesn’t seem to actually need. He’s been blind in one eye since early childhood (fishing accident), and his hearing started going in adolescence (he went back to his apartment for his hearing aid shortly into our conversation). But, physical degeneration aside, he might as well be 30 years old. He is witty, well manicured, and more active now than many people are when they’re fresh out of college. Case in point: He left a couple weeks after our meeting to spend a month in the bush in Mozambique, in southeast Africa (more on that later). He has an iPhone, he referenced Joe Six-Pack, and he ate avocado toast during our lunch date, so he’s basically a millennial trapped in a nonagenarian’s body. Wilson is my new retirement role model.

Challenges and Solutions

Wilson wanted to start our conversation by hearing everything about Population Connection, my role there, and my goals for the interview. When I told him that we were dedicating the entire June issue of our magazine to his career and scientific contributions, he put his hand over his face and said, “Oh my goodness,” clearly embarrassed by the attention.

Modest as he was, Wilson had a lot to say about human pressures on the environment, and how we should be trying to get ourselves out of the mess we’ve made. After I described the mission and programs of Population Connection, he responded:

I think the epicenter of all of our problems in the environment is runaway population growth. I know I’ve been optimistic, particularly in the book Half-Earth, that the population problem could solve itself, but nonetheless, there’s a residual problem that comes from too many children and too many demands by people wanting to move up economically in too many countries for the world to come out in the condition it should be aiming for.

He apologized in advance for sounding like a lecturing Harvard professor, and then identified which environmental challenges he sees as the most critical today (after first saying, “We’ve already determined that [human population growth] is, environmentally, possibly the central and most important part of the modern environmental movement.”) The three major challenges, in his view, are climate change, water shortages, and species extinction.

All of [these crises] have as one of the primal causes human over-reproduction. Climate change is just one of three major environmental crises facing us. After climate change is shortage of fresh water. Something like 4% of water in the world is in lakes and rivers, and it’s running out fast, and it’s a primary cause in several parts of the world of major migration. The third one is the mass extinction of species. We don’t know how ecosystems are formed, what makes them stable, or how they equilibrate, and we can’t say what happens when some obscure little species is taken out. We have no way of guessing.

Wilson has decided that the study of ecosystems, which he believes will be the “next big thing in biology,” will be his next research focus. One of the things he does so well is make scientific concepts accessible to non-experts. He understands that without widespread concern over environmental crises, the political will to solve them won’t materialize:

We need a phrase that has a major effect soon: ecosystem collapse. That’s something people can understand. It means the collapse of species that make up the natural ecosystems, including a lot of which are absolutely important for human existence, such as watershed forests and maintenance of arable land. You want to get people starting to talk about things that they can understand and they can themselves see as potentially ruinous. People are not going to be concerned as long as they think that humanity is right to take control of the natural world and make us prosperous and safe by taking control of it. You have to have something that stirs people who are thinking about their private lives and what their opportunities might or might not be.

Wilson is optimistic that women’s empowerment can solve the challenges of population growth.

As soon as women get some kind of economic independence, they tend to reduce the number of children they have. It’s psychological, and it’s also an understanding that they and their family will have a better life.

And he’s on the same page as Population Connection with regard to “population control.”

Should nations have a population policy? Should religions have a population policy? It seems to me that one is scurrying on the edge of fascistic ideas if one tells people how many children they can have, altering the entire nature of the society.

Intro to Insects

During our three-hour meeting, Wilson told me about his childhood in Mobile, Alabama, growing up in the house that his great-great-grandfather built in the 1840s. At the age of 13, he set out to “make a thorough study of the vacant lot” next door, having decided that he wanted someday to be a scientist who went to “far-off places” to collect and photograph “wonderful things.” What he ended up finding during his survey of the lot inspired his university studies a few years later, and his career for the past 70 years: the first record of the red imported fire ant in the Northern Hemisphere. Mounds of 200,000 or more stinging fire ants started appearing all over Mobile and the surrounding farmland. A local reporter “heard about this kid” who had been studying ants, and used Wilson’s expertise in his reporting of the problem. By the time he went to the University of Alabama, he was all in on ants. When he graduated with his bachelor’s degree at age 19, he immediately went to work for the state of Alabama studying the fire ants that were by now damaging crops and wildlife across the region. The Department of Agriculture was proposing to spray the fire ant range with insecticide, which concerned Wilson, and horrified the as yet little known environmentalist Rachel Carson.

I was pretty well known as an expert on fire ants, and I got a letter from this lady in Maine named Rachel Carson [laughs], and she said she was writing a book on the misuse of insecticides and pesticides, and that she thought they were damaging the environment. Rachel Carson read [about the Department of Agriculture’s plan to spray] and said that she was horrified. She wanted to come down to Harvard to talk to me about fire ants, because the idea of spraying everything where there were fire ants meant killing off a large part of the natural environment of the southeast to do it, including birds. I said, “Sure, please, come.” She wrote me a little later to say she’d grown ill and could not, whereupon I did one of the several really stupid things of my life: I didn’t bother to go up to Maine to meet Rachel Carson.

But, she set out to write this book Silent Spring as we were about to spray a large part of the United States. In the book I’m preparing now, I got bold enough to say that the imported fire ant launched the new environmental movement [laughs]. I know very well that if I’d gotten in my car and driven a couple hours, I could have met her and plotted with her. That was the most stupid thing I have ever done, not to take the opportunity. I didn’t know history when it was coming.

I saw a ceramic ant sculpture at a craft fair leading up to my interview with Wilson, and couldn’t resist giving it to him as a token of my appreciation for his time. His reaction upon opening it was better than I could have hoped it would be:

This is a queen ant. I know because she has a well-developed alitrunk, and worker ants have skinny little alitrunks. The one you just gave me has a big, muscular looking thorax, so that’s a queen. And why would a queen have a big alitrunk? The reason is that a typical ant queen, when she leaves the nest as a virgin, makes a nuptial flight where she meets males. She mates, she drops her wings, breaks them off, and she digs in somewhere and then lays the eggs that will become the first group of workers. To raise the eggs, she’s converting a lot of fat body, which she has in the abdomen, but she’s also converting her wing muscle into foodstuffs she can cough up to her babies when they’re in the larval stage. And that’s how I can tell she’s a queen. She’ll be on my desk. Thank you very much.

What’s Next

Just two weeks after the publication of Genesis, Wilson set off for a month in Gorongosa National Park, in Mozambique. He works as a scientific advisor on the restoration of the park, which was ravaged by poaching and a 15-year civil war. He’s been working with philanthropist Greg Carr (“a good billionaire”), who signed a contract in 2008 to spend $40 million on the park over a period of 20 years.

And before the hard copies of Genesis were even shipped to bookstores, Wilson had already nearly finished his next book, Tales From the Ant World. The book will tell 25 stories of “the most amazing, startling, thought-provoking things we know about different kinds of ants.” It takes a special human to get this excited about ants, and special is, indeed, what Edward O. Wilson is.

***

E. O. Wilson’s latest book, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, makes the case that humans are one of the 18 eusocial animal lines[1] identified thus far that operate via group selection (as opposed to individual natural selection). Wilson theorizes that eusocial behavior is due to an altruism gene, a theory that is not without its detractors. He argues that “advanced social organization entails an increase in the complexity of the gene networks affecting social behavior.”

Categorizing humans as altruistic seems an odd assertion if you’ve ever seen the news or read a history book. But Wilson means that humans are altruistic in terms of their biology, social complexity, kin selection, and division of labor, not necessarily in terms of their good will toward others.

Humans are able to look beyond our own individual needs and the needs of those immediately related to us. We are tribal as we compete for survival among species and groups.

Left open is the question of whether we can transcend tribalism in an era when our power to create and destroy has been magnified beyond reckoning. What is there about our species in terms of its derivation and characteristics that might enable us to halt the wanton destruction of our planet? It’s no criticism of Wilson’s work to note that remains to be seen.


[1] The others are various species of alphaeid shrimp, vespid wasps, bark beetles, naked mole rats, ants, termites, sphecid wasps, allodapine bees, augochlorine bees, thrips, and aphids.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. What a fascinating man! I found this article very interesting, and I agree that overpopulation is the root of so many of our environmental and societal challenges.

  2. The neuro-biologist Robert M. Sapolsky says of E.O. Wilson : "E.O. Wilson is arguably the most important naturalist of the last half of the twentieth century, an architect of the sociobiology synthesis along with a number of other fields, a biology god."
    Quoted from : BEHAVE The biology of humans at our best and worst. by. Robert M. Sapolsky, PENGUIN PRESS, Copyright c. 2017 by Robert M. Sapolsky.

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