E O Wilson interview, at age 90 + The Great Insect Dying: Look at a deepening crisis

Interview: At 90, E. O. Wilson still thrives on being a scientific provocateur

EXCERPT: No one else in biology has ever had a career quite like that of Edward O. Wilson. One of the world’s leading authorities on ants, an influential evolution theorist and an author who is at once prolific, bestselling and highly honored, E. O. Wilson—his first name comes and goes from bylines but the middle initial is ever-present—has over several decades been at the center of scientific controversies that spilled out of the journals and into wider public awareness. Among activists in the environmental movement, Wilson is the elder statesman, the intellectual patriarch whose writings are foundational to the campaign. Soon to celebrate his 90th birthday, he shows no sign of losing his enthusiasm for the fray. “I’ll tell you something about Ed—he’s a bit of an intellectual grenade thrower,” observed David Sloan Wilson (no relation), an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York. “He likes to be a provocateur. That’s unusual in someone as established as he is.”

[...] In 1975, Wilson made waves with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, a volume in which he took all he knew about insect behavior and applied it to vertebrates—humans among them. This work suggested that many of the social behaviors observed in people, including virtuous traits like altruism, could be attributed to natural selection. Wilson soon found himself accused of providing intellectual succor to racists and genetic determinists. Demonstrations in the streets of Cambridge demanded that Wilson be fired. The controversy muted only after Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1979 for On Human Nature, his popularized version of Sociobiology.

Until that first Pulitzer, Wilson—a fluid and elegant writer—had mostly published for the academy. From then on, Wilson began addressing the popular audience, translating biology and his own research into an accessible form. Over the years, he’d win another Pulitzer for The Ants (1990), co-authored with the behavioral biologist Bert Hölldobler. He’d also produce a memoir, a novel and more than two dozen nonfiction works, many as contentious as Sociobiology.

Contentious or not, Wilson’s books have mostly addressed one theme: that we must know natural history and evolutionary theory to fully understand humanity’s future on the planet.(MORE - interview)

The Great Insect Dying: Look at a deepening crisis (they're not an invulnerable sub-category of life after all)

SUMMARY POINTS: Recent studies from Germany and Puerto Rico, and a global meta-study, all point to a serious, dramatic decline in insect abundance. Plummeting insect populations could deeply impact ecosystems and human civilization, as these tiny creatures form the base of the food chain, pollinate, dispose of waste, and enliven soils.

However, limited baseline data makes it difficult for scientists to say with certainty just how deep the crisis may be, though anecdotal evidence is strong. To that end, Mongabay is launching a four-part series — likely the most in-depth, nuanced look at insect decline yet published by any media outlet.

Mongabay interviewed 24 entomologists and researchers on six continents working in over a dozen nations to determine what we know regarding the “great insect dying,” including an overview article, and an in-depth story looking at temperate insects in the U.S. and the European Union — the best studied for their abundance.

We also utilize Mongabay’s position as a leader in tropical reporting to focus solely on insect declines in the tropics and subtropics, where lack of baseline data is causing scientists to rush to create new, urgently needed survey study projects. The final story looks at what we can do to curb and reverse the loss of insect abundance. (MORE - details)

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