EO Wilson told Folha in 1998 what he learned from animal observation

In an interview in 1997 to Folha , biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, aka EO Wilson, who died this Sunday (26), to the 92 years, talked about his studies and about the influences of thinkers and other scientists in his work. In addition, he explained what he took from the detained observation of animals, including men. Read the entire article below.


On the wall to the right of his desk at the Harvard lab, Edward Osborne Wilson has four images. The most colorful is that of a beetle between metallic blue and green that lives in the canopy of the Amazon rainforest, Agra eowilsoni, named by a friend in his homage. But it is the photo of a military man that has the most to say about this reclusive and gentle scientist, named in 1997 by Time as one of 26 America’s most influential people, whose ideas are now on the cover of influential publications such as Atlantic Monthly and Wilson Quarterly.

The military is Admiral James Stockdale, hero of the Vietnam War. A prisoner of the Viet Cong for years, he created a kind of Morse code so that isolated marines could communicate. The professor tells the story with emotion and points out the revealing detail: on the table behind which Stockdale posed for the official Admiralty photo rests a copy of “On Human Nature”, the book that won Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize in 1978 (another would come in 1978, for him and Bert Hölldobler, for the monumental “The Ants”).

Wilson never wore a uniform. The closest he came to that dream was the gray and white uniform of the Gulf Coast Military Academy (in Gulfport, Mississippi), where he was sent a boy under the promise of making him a man, that is, a noble Southern officer. He tried to enlist in 947 in Alabama, his home state, but was turned down because of blindness in the right eye resulting from a childhood fishing accident. In his autobiography, “Naturalist”, he says that he cried that day and vowed to become an important scientist.

Fifty-two years later, his list of awards is impressive. It can only be summarized with numbers: 16 research awards, 13 literary, 7 environmental, 25 honorary academic titles, research in 16 countries, 814 technical articles, 16 books. More than badges, some of these works are true combat weapons, such as the multi-warhead bomb launched this week on the feudal North American academy, the volume “Consilience – The Unity of Knowledge”.

The interview below is the summary of three meetings with EO Wilson to discuss the path from sociobiology to biodiversity and even the proposal to unify knowledge that the specialist in ants (myrmecologist) calls “consilience”. The meetings took place in January, February and March at the laboratory he maintains at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, even after he retired.

The first contacts were in November, but the first interview it was late in coming out because Wilson was finalizing the “Consiliency” review (one of his collaborators in that process was Newt Gingrich, chairman of the US House of Representatives, a Republican politician). The last interview took place on Friday, 13, the week the volume hit bookstores.

Only on the first date Wilson wore a tie, as most professors at Harvard do . In the last two, the dress shirt gave way under the pale green wool jacket to another, jeans, looking more than comfortable. But whoever thinks he is relaxing is wrong: he is still working 60 hours per week (until retiring in 1997 were from 80 The 90) and, no sooner has he finished writing “Consilience”, he is already engaged in another heroic task — to describe 315 ant species of a single genus, Pheidole. Just leaning over the microscope will be well over a thousand hours, drawing each bristle of the desiccated insects on graph paper.

Wilson speaks with enthusiasm about this conceptual silversmith work. Shows the drawings of the species Dinoponera grandis, who received from a collaborator at the USP Museum of Zoology, one of the largest ants in the world (soldiers can reach 3 cm, justifying the “dino” of the first name). He says that in the nest of these giants lives another tiny species, apparently from remains in the garbage dumps, and he laughs when he explains its scientific name, Pheidole dinophila, the monsters’ friends.

Brazil is a living presence, literally, in the laboratory. To the left of those entering, hundreds of sauvas circulate through a dozen flasks interconnected with glass tubes, one of them with a bamboo pole bent as a walkway to another tray containing orange leaves and peels.

On the wall, a map with endangered bird habitats in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest. On another table, an atlas with satellite images of the Atlantic Forest. In the middle of the conversation, Wilson recalls, with amusement, the report that Paulo Vanzolini, a former colleague at Harvard, zoologist (and samba artist) made to him of solitary walks through the cerrado, accompanied only by a horseback ride: “Donkey, donkey, donkey”, he repeats between laughs, almost no accent.

The following are the main excerpts of the conversation about what Wilson believes he has learned from the close observation of animals, including men.

I was amazed when I read “Sociobiology” to see an American natural scientist quote Camus in the opening of the book, particularly a sentence like that (“the only serious philosophical issue is suicide”). Mr. Do you read philosophy to complement your work or questions about human nature, or are you already interested in philosophy as a student? The first answer. I never studied philosophy, I never took a course. My reading —I used this training to write “Consilience”— is not only technical, scientific, but I also read in a broad academic sense journals and reviews like “The American Scholar”, “Orion”, “New Republic”, “Commentary” , “New York Review of Books”, I gather information in this way. And sometimes I dedicate myself to reading private books by different authors.

Obviously it’s very select, because I’m very connected in terms of writing and research. I usually pay more attention to ideas that I believe fit with the ones I already have.

People who deal with subject in which mr. is interested. When they provide information, substance, or views that are new to me.

And Was Camus something special for you at that time (1978)? I just thought that Camus had an unusual insight into the human condition. But he understood nothing of biology, like so many original literary figures, geniuses. He intuited some profound truths.

Mr. has worked with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Is it your objective to influence policy in the environmental area? What is the role of environmental themes in your work? I’ve been associated with organizations such as the North American section of the WWF, Nature Conservancy and, recently, I’m closer to Conservation International, which has done a good amount of work in Brazil and in Central America.

What I do there is participate in the board of directors, as a scientific consultant. Many of these organizations have excellent programs and a board of directors with influential, and often wealthy, people from the business, professional and government worlds. But there is a certain shortage of scientists familiar with the study of ecosystem and endangered species.

In addition to NGOs, mr. do you have or would like to have a presence in the public debate on climate change, on biodiversity? For example, his relationship with Newt Gingrich. What is your relationship with him? And this has to do with environmental issues?

Yeah, in general it has to do with these themes. Generally, because I’m not a personal friend, in the sense that I play golf with him or some other famous person I’ve had contact with. But in the case of a political leader, I would work —hopefully to work a lot in the future— as a scientific adviser. In Gingrich’s case, we went further and discussed issues raised in “Consilience” beyond the environment.

As mr. met him? I never go to Washington unless I absolutely have to. I’m not a very social person, I don’t travel around like many of my colleagues who are in government or the social sciences — a shame, a very bad thing, because the scientist really needs to get more involved. I met him because he is deeply interested in animals, personally.

He goes to a lot of zoos and loves natural history, something not very well known about him. He cares about the environment, although you won’t hear that often because of his leadership position in the Republican Party, which doesn’t currently have a very strong pro-environment position.

*)Many would say it has a strong stance against the environment.

Yeah, conservative Republicans include a lot of people who are just plain wrong, destructively wrong . In any case, it was this connection that led the director of the Atlanta Zoo to bring together several scientists interested in nature, conservation and the environment to talk to Newt. We met him several times and I continued that relationship after that because I was writing “Consiliency” and we shared ideas that were part of the book. That’s where we are right now.

What place does environment occupy in your thought system? He seems much more important in “Consiliency” than in his autobiography, “Naturalist” (1978). Was it a late discovery in your intellectual life?

No, I have always been aware of the destruction of ecosystems and worried about it. But I didn’t become an activist, someone really concerned about having some effect as a scientist on the issue of biodiversity, until 13 years ago.

The reason for this to surface in “Consilience” is twofold. types. First, because it’s really an urgent problem. Overpopulation, destruction of the environment and natural reserves on which humanity depends — these will be the big themes, in my opinion, in the next ones 20 years.

There is urgency, and very few people in positions of leadership v eem it that way. The other reason it’s featured prominently in “Consiliency” is that it’s a natural-logical development, I should say, of what might be called a naturalistic worldview.

It’s not hard to accept the contemporary view that mind and brain are inseparable, but what about culture? First, it is collective, not individual, and it also, in a sense, has an existence outside of individual actors. Literature, art, architecture are works, documents, not exactly thoughts. The fact that its transmission takes place in individual brains does not exclude, in my opinion, the possibility of a separate status, independent of biological determination.

I believe that true culture is living culture, which becomes culture only when it is the object of active, collective minds. Artifacts that exist separately from the practical or artistic use of living minds are outside the realm of culture.

Even when we explore the culture of extinct civilizations, artifacts do not exist until they are reintroduced into use by the study of living minds. This would be my definition of culture in the pure sense: collective activity of minds, transmitted in most cases through artifacts from one generation to another in society.

Mr. don’t you think that essential features of this product can emerge from a structure that is unrelated to the biology of particular minds? I don’t believe it (laughs).

Is it just a matter of belief? The question is how to interpret the phenomenon of emergence. It is possible that entirely new, independent phenomena will emerge from sufficiently complex systems, based on the interaction of many, many elements, in this case the human mind. I don’t believe that happens. Certainly they acquire general properties that are unique, and so does cultures, but they are not separable as physical processes from the multitude of acts of individual behavior. This is at the heart of the “consilient” argument.

It would be correct to describe your project as not just reductionist, but also deterministic?

Yes, if you add an important element of perception, synthesis. Reductionism is meaningless without synthesis, and all good scientists have synthesis in view as the ultimate goal of reductionist analysis. When you break a cell into molecules, this implies thinking of the cell as a more complex system, to be reconstituted as soon as the elements are understood.

But this is not the predominant image of scientific activity. This is a misunderstanding about what happens in science, partly because of the scientists, because they find it much easier to reduce as a step, as an analysis procedure, than the synthesis. Synthesis is extremely difficult compared to reductionism. Science commonly presented to the public is only the reductionist phase, not the synthetic one. It is much easier, or was, to find a new chemical element or compound than to say how we conceive of the functioning cell or the brain.

Mr. it basically refers to two examples of cultural traits with biological roots, the prohibition of incest and the vocabulary of colors. Would they be the only ones with mr. feels confident enough to present as evidence and, in this case, it’s not too little to support the entire foundation project (of the humanities)

No, it really wouldn’t be enough. What I am doing is presenting a worldview — this is the correct procedure in science when examining a complex system, a whole new class of phenomena; it’s finding an entry point.

That is, paradigms, examples that can serve to illustrate the principle that you believe exists everywhere and then focus on the paradigms better to understand and analyze in the beginning.

For example, when hormones were discovered, the principle quickly took hold, although only a few were known, how they work, their chemistry. It now seems encouraging that the mind is actually made up of epigenetic rules.

In “Consiliency”, Mr . he says that Freud was factually wrong when he attributed the dream mechanism to wish-fulfillment, but later concluded that he and Jung might end up confirmed by neurobiology, at least approximately. Mr. don’t you think they had no other choice, with the limited empirical methods of the time? That’s true. They did very well with what they had. I would not say at all that Freud and Jung drew the wrong conclusions from the information they had, they just didn’t have enough information and guessed wrong.

However, as I also said, there are elements in your thoughts that are valid, particularly when Freud points to disinhibition, you know what it is like, in dreams, when you do something amazing in your mind, sexual or whatever. To draw attention to this, even if the model is not very good, it was probably correct and an original contribution.

Trying to see things from the point of view of social scientists: how could they accept “cooperative exploration” between humanities and natural sciences, if in the end only one of the fields –The biology– is able to provide a foundation? This is true of all sciences, whenever you consider two sciences at adjacent levels of organization, the one dealing with the most fundamental and simplest is always foundational. But this does not mean that the above field is subordinate.

For example, cell biology has its foundation in molecular biology, but cell biology is a discipline in its own right. In the case of the social sciences, the same thing is emphatically true, anthropologists and sociologists will always be the discoverers of new phenomena, they will discover strange effects by comparing societies of pre-literate peoples, or new phenomena in slums and in degraded urban centers .

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