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BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. Our 6-year-old grandson is a celebrated ant-catcher in our household. He gave me this latest specimen for my recent birthday — When I look at it and find myself wondering that a child's curiosity can lead to a lifetime of learning — and finally to an encyclopedia of all living things.

I'm not making that up. That's exactly what happened to E.O. Wilson as a boy in Alabama, he discovered the fire ant and went on to become one of the world's preeminent scientists. Renowned as a biologist, with 25 books to his credit, two Pulitzer prizes and honors galore. The ivory-billed woodpecker counts him a soul mate, and there's not an anthill in the world that wouldn't recognize him peering down into it.

All this, a great marriage, a fine daughter, a film on his life in the making. Laurels to rest on from now to kingdom come, if there is one. Now in his 8th decade, he's been offered one more wish. You're about to find out what it is. At the recent T.E.D. Conference -- an annual gathering of big thinkers in technology, entertainment and design, E.O. Wilson was asked to make a wish that could 'change the world.'

WILSON AT TED: "The search for life to understand it and finally above all to preserve it. That is my wish and let us call it the Encyclopedia of Life."

BILL MOYERS: He showed them a mock-up of what he has in mind; a digital online encyclopedia of every single living species on earth. Scientists and laymen everywhere could refer to it, and would be encouraged to contribute to it. It would start out as a scientific compendium of everything we know about a given species, and become a magnet for new information, immediately translated into most languages, open and free to everyone, from first graders to biologists in the field or in the laboratory.

E.O. WILSON It's always been a dream of mine, Bill, of classifying all the species and finding out what makes up the biosphere. We're maybe today about 1/10 through the discovery of species, maybe 90 percent --

BILL MOYERS: That's all we know today? Ten percent of the existing species?

E.O. WILSON Yeah. It's amazing, isn't it? That we do not know the vast majority of kinds of animals mostly and microorganisms on Earth. We live in an unexplored planet.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that shows how uninformed I am because I figured you all had pretty well made the final census of everything that's alive on Earth.

E.O. WILSON Well, you make my point. We have scarcely begun.

E.O. WILSON Once it's online it will allow you to go to your computer anywhere in the world, single access on command, pull up any species out of the tens of millions on Earth, pull up ways to identify species if you have a plant or an insect in front of you need to know about, and find out everything that is known about it up to that time.

BILL MOYERS: Sort of a YouTube of bugs, insects, and fungi, right?

E.O. WILSON Yes. And everything.

BILL MOYERS: Everything.

E.O. WILSON And people say this is amazing. "That can't be done." I had recently --

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, it's amazing, Ed. It can't be done.

E.O. WILSON Well a very distinguished scientist wrote me recently when I published an article on this several years ago, that this was what we must do. And he says literally -- "Ed, what have you been smoking?"

BILL MOYERS: So, I can see what this will do for the protégés of Ed Wilson. What will it do for my five grandchildren?

E.O. WILSON A lot. Consider how ignorant we are and what difference it makes. We don't know the great majority of the kinds of creatures living in most ponds or patches of woods that you would pick even around here. This means that when we're trying to stabilize the environment, we're trying to get sustainable development, we're trying to stop the ecosystem from collapsing in the face of global warming or whatever. We really need to know what's in each one of those habitats. It's like undertaking a medical examination by your doctor -- maybe not feeling too well, you know? Something's happening but your doctor examines you and he only knows ten percent of what's inside you, in all of the organs. We need then to move ecology way ahead of where it is today, really change things…

BILL MOYERS: No one in our time has added more to our understanding of earth's ecology than Ed Wilson. One of the worlds best know scientists, Wilson's exploration of nature started in Mobile, Alabama. As a 13 year-old boy, he discovered the very first fire ant colony in the United States.

E.O. WILSON Yeah. Well, I was at the place where they were first introduced. I discovered the first colony of fire ants -- in the little population when it was just beginning to spread.

BILL MOYERS: Near Mobile?

E.O. WILSON Yeah. In Mobile. We lived five blocks from the dock area. So I caught one of the first colonies when it was multiplying. It belongs to a group of species of ants that are potentially serious pests.

BILL MOYERS: I think we both would probably still be living in the South if it weren't for those infernal fire ants, right?

E.O. WILSON That's right. They come from Uruguay. And they just keep spreading. And down South -- you know, we refer to them as "far ain't." And that's not dialect. It means they come from far away and they ain't going home. Well, there are thousands and thousands of these species, and some of them really aren't that funny.

BILL MOYERS: He is the preeminent expert in ant behavior and communication. His research on these highly social creatures has taken him across the globe -- from the Pacific Islands to the Caribbean and has lead to discoveries of hundreds of new species. His continuing work on ants and other insects helped form new views about how animals and humans evolve.

E.O. WILSON on NOVA: "Not all ants use violence to dominate their world, some use more subtle methods…"

BILL MOYERS: Where did you get this passion for ants?

E.O. WILSON When I was a kid.

E.O. WILSON at TED conference: "As a little boy through my teen age years I became increasingly fascinated by the diversity of life. One day when I was only 7 years and fishing I pulled a pinfish, they're called, with sharp dorsal spines up too hard and fast and I blinded myself in one eye. I later discovered I was also hard of hearing possibly congenital in the upper register, so in planning to be a professional naturalist, I never considered anything else in my entire life. I found I was lousy at bird watching and couldn't track frog calls either, so I turned to the teaming small creatures that can be held between the thumb and forefinger. The little things that compose the foundation of our ecosystems. The little things that, I like to say, who run the world."

E.O. WILSON You know, every kid has a bug period. And I never grew out of mine. I just started, as most kids do, you know, catching bugs and frogs in bottles and so on.

BILL MOYERS: When the Wilson family moved north he carried his curiosity about nature with him. His family settled in a place perfect for a budding naturalist.

E.O. WILSON I was in Washington, DC. And providentially, we lived within walking distance of Rock Creek Park and the Washington Zoo. So a child interested in insects combined with the federal magnificence -- displaying, you know, the wonders of nature, and reading the National Geographic. Mustn't miss the National Geographic. The National Geographic was an inspiration to me. You know, all those great pictures of what they called beetles. Jewels of the jungle. And, you know, butterflies, magnificent insects of the world and so on. You know, I pored over that. And that's -- I said, "How can I be otherwise?" other than an naturalist. That's what I want to do all my life.

BILL MOYERS: I would have thought that growing up in Mobile you might have become a devotee of -- what was it? The Lord God bird?

E.O. WILSON Yes. If I had only known. The Lord God bird. Interesting name for that. That's the ivory-billed woodpecker of course as you well know.

BILL MOYERS: No, that's right. And people would say, "Lord God, what kind of bird is that?"

E.O. WILSON That's how it got the name.

BILL MOYERS: It wasn't that common.

E.O. WILSON No, I know. You know, these --

BILL MOYERS: We had some over in Louisiana near East Texas, you know?

E.O. WILSON Yeah, at the Singer Tract.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

E.O. WILSON That's where the last one was seen in 1944.

BILL MOYERS: The last one?

E.O. WILSON Yeah, a little boy used to go out to see the last known one at a certain spot in Singer. It was a very sad story. The Singer Reserve had been cut over. And the ivory bills just went down. And then there was finally just one left. A little boy would go and watch it until one day a storm came over there, and then he couldn't see it anymore. And that was the last it was seen until fairly recently.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, one was spotted in eastern Arkansas.

E.O. WILSON Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: '05. 2005.

E.O. WILSON Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: But why should we care if the woodpecker goes? I mean, we've lost -- how many species have we lost? We don't know how many species we've lost in the millennium.

E.O. WILSON No. But how many species going extinct or becoming very rare do you think it takes before you see something happening? We now know from experiments and theory that the more species you take out of an eco -- you know, an ecosystem like a pond, patch of forest -- a little bit of marine shallow environments, the more you take out the less stable it becomes. It now is less likely -- you have a tsunami or you have a severe drought or you have a fire, the less likely that that ecosystem, that body of species in that particular environment is going to come back all the way. So it becomes less stable with fewer species. And then we also know it becomes less productive. In other words, it's not able to produce as many kilograms of new matter from photosynthesis and passage through the ecosystem. It's less productive. It sure is less interesting, though, isn't it? And more than that, we lose the services of these species.

BILL MOYERS: The services of these species.

E.O. WILSON Yes services of these species to us. Like pollination and water purification --

BILL MOYERS: That we get free from nature.

E.O. WILSON Yeah. Here's an easy way to remember it. We get from nature scot-free, so long as we don't screw it up and destroy it, approximately the same amount of services as far as you can measure them in dollars as we ourselves produce each year. it was about $30 trillion a year. T. Trillion. And these creatures, they have built in them, in their genes and then in their physiology an endless array of defenses, many of which we could use and we have used, like producing antibiotics we never heard of using chemicals that we never even dreamed existed. And so we have already benefited immensely from wild species in that way. But, you know, let me get to the bottom line as far as I'm concerned. And that is -- isn't it morally wrong to destroy the rest of life, you know, in any way you look at it -- for what it's going to do to human spirit and aesthetics? Or --

BILL MOYERS: Are we destroying it?

E.O. WILSON Well, yes, we are. If we do not abate the various changes we're causing -- climate, habitat destruction, the continuing pollution of major river systems and so on, we will, by the end of the century, lose or have right at the brink of extinction about half the species of plants and animals in the world, certainly on the land.

BILL MOYERS: Half that we have now?

E.O. WILSON Yeah, half.

BILL MOYERS: Will be gone by the end of the 21st century?

E.O. WILSON If we don't do something, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Many biologists believe we're on the verge of a massive wave of extinctions across the natural world. Everything from coral, butterflies, tigers, and apes are threatened. The U.N. recently reported that in just 30 years, one quarter of all mammals will be extinct.

As we continue to chip away at natural habitats, alter the climate and consume the earth's resources at an unsustainable pace, scientists say we're triggering an extinction crisis unlike any the earth has seen for millions of years. Ed Wilson's 2002 book The Future of Life was a wake-up call. Now he's written this one The Creation addressed to religious folks in particular, stating that if this rise in extinction continues, the cost to humanity will be catastrophic.

BILL MOYERS: So this is what you mean when you write that we humans have become a juggernaut?

E.O. WILSON Yes.

BILL MOYERS: You use the metaphor of a giant meteorite. We human beings are a giant meteorite.

E.O. WILSON Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: The biggest and most damaging the Earth has ever known.

BILL MOYERS: What does it mean that we are a huge meteorite?

E.O. WILSON Well, 65 million years ago, this now is pretty well established, Earth was struck by an unusually large meteorite, off the coast of what is now Yucatan. And even though that may have only been about ten kilometers across, its power-- when it struck the world-- caused gigantic tsunamis over a large part of the world. It rang the Earth's surface like a bell. Volcanic eruptions occurred. Clouds formed over the Earth that dropped, knocked out the sun and greatly reduced photosynthesis. A majority of species of plants and animals died. And among the groups that died out finally and conclusively at that time were the dinosaurs. So what we are doing if we don't take care of the living environment, then we're going to go start, by the end of this century, getting pretty close to the impact of that big meteorite 65 million years ago.

BILL MOYERS: And how would that change life on Earth?

E.O. WILSON Well, we just live in an impoverished environment. It'd be a lot tougher. We wouldn't have as many pollinators. We wouldn't have as many future crops and genes to feed ourselves. We wouldn't have the same kind of security given to us free in terms of water management. All sorts of things would happen in the most practical way. But it -- I mean, it should be a horror to people.

BILL MOYERS: I'm sitting here trying to believe -- is this distinguished man, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, author of 25 books, telling me that he conceives of the obliteration of nature?

E.O. WILSON Yes.

BILL MOYERS: The obliteration of nature?

E.O. WILSON Yes. And did you know that there are people actually say that'll be a good thing?

BILL MOYERS: Why?

E.O. WILSON Because they think that it's the fate of humanity to go on humanizing the planet and turn this planet literally into Spaceship Earth. In other words--

BILL MOYERS: Live in a synthetic ecosystem.

E.O. WILSON Yes that's right. Or people who say, "Well, let's keep on going the way we're going. Let's use up the Earth. And by that time, our smart scientists" -- trust me, I'm a scientist, and I'm -- none of us could be very -- that smart. But they figure that they -- that by that time maybe we can make it to the next planet, terraform it, you know? Turn it into an Earth-like place and so forth. Dream on. This is crazy. This is the only planet we're ever going to have. This planet has taken tens, hundreds of millions of years to create this beautiful natural environment we have that's taken care of us so well that is, in fact, our greatest natural heritage. And we're throwing it away in a matter of a few decades.

BILL MOYERS: But what is the serious response to the argument that, look, we human beings have always adapted to severe -- toenvironmental change. I mean, some come, some go. The Mayans are gone. The Sumerians are gone. The Aztecs are gone. But human beings are still here. We have constantly adapted. We will adapt to the circumstances Wilson is describing.

E.O. WILSON Yes. But consider this. In terms of evolution -- you know, the common response is, "Well, evolution always provided new species." Yeah. Well, the problem with that is the birth rate of species is going down. Why is it going down? Because we're destroying the cradles in which new species are born, the natural environment. So what difference does it make? Well, if humanity as a whole decided that it wants to live in a world where everything is artifactual and the product of our brains we give away this great heritage and all of this mystery and beauty and complexity that we haven't even begun to explore, well, I guess if that's what people want, that's what they're going to get. But I have more faith in human beings' intelligence and taste than that.

BILL MOYERS: But wasn't civilization purchased by the subversion of nature?

E.O. WILSON It was. And that's why we destroyed so much already. We -- when the agriculture revolution began, as you know, about 10,000 years ago -- we went from a hunter/gatherer existence where we were more or less in balance -- we weren't wiping out species at any great rate -- to one in which we began to turn the natural environments, particularly forests and the grasslands, into agricultural fields. That proceeded to an extent that it did form the economic basis for great human population growth and for the evolution of civilization. And who can say that that's not a good? It's just that having -- that it took a million years for humanity, you know, coming through these early stages struggling to survive in nature -- to finally learn how to break nature. And we did that 10,000 years ago. And we're continuing to break it. And now we realize that -- we've got to put on the brakes and bring this to a halt. Otherwise we're going to be down -- it's down now -- many of the natural ecosystems in the world, the most beautiful ones took ten percent of what it was. And we're not stopping. We're going to be through the whole bit of it in many parts of the world unless we do something. It's just that we're near the end of nature in many parts of the world.

BILL MOYERS: The end of nature. The end of -- what do you mean by --

E.O. WILSON I mean the end of a large part of the rest of life on the planet.

BILL MOYERS: The life that can -- could survive without us.

E.O. WILSON Oh, it would do wonderfully well without us. [laughter]

BILL MOYERS: Well, that's what I wanted to ask. I mean, let's -- nature was doing a pretty good job before we arrived as the latecomers, right?

E.O. WILSON Wonderfully well.

BILL MOYERS: Wonderfully well. So where did this idea come from that we're the crown jewel of creation?

E.O. WILSON Well, you know, I sort of think we are, in one sense. That is to say we are the brain of the biosphere. We are the ones that finally, after 4 1/2 billion years of evolution -- that's what it took to get to where we are -- actually developed enough power, reasoning power, to see what's happening, to understand the history that created us and to realize almost too late what we're doing. So in the sense that we are something new under the sun and on the Earth -- we have an enormous -- we're the ones that can destroy the world. No other single species ever had anything like that power. We have the power to destroy the world, the living world. And we also have the knowledge to avoid doing it. And it's sort of a race, a race to the finish line that we will develop the intelligence and the policies and the decency to bring it to a halt, not just for life itself but for future generations before, you know, the juggernaut takes us over.

BILL MOYERS: Why are we escalating so rapidly now the destructive impact of our behavior? What's going on?

E.O. WILSON It's mainly that it -- we're just being the kind of reckless, ignorant, uncaring species we've been up 'til now that's doing the damage. We're still increasing in numbers. We're at 6.5 billion. However, we're going to -- we're slowing.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, the prediction is that when we reach nine billion we'll begin to --

E.O. WILSON Yeah, we'll peak. So that's 40 percent more than what we have now. I think we can handle that. That right now is a serious problem. It's not the big problem. The big problem is consumption. Rising per capita consumption around the world. So this is why the world has got to have a green revolution. We --

BILL MOYERS: And by that you mean?

E.O. WILSON I mean let's keep on improving our quality of life, but let's figure out -- and we've got the brains to do it -- of how to increase the economy growing and the quality of life improving with fewer and fewer materials and less and less fossil-based or non-renewable sources of energy. It's as simple as that.

BILL MOYERS: So you're putting your hope in new technology?

E.O. WILSON I'm putting my hope primarily in human common sense. You know, I like what Abba Eban once said during the 1967 war. He said, "When all else fails, men turn to reason." And I think we are at the stage now we are ready to turn to reason. Especially if we can only persuade the leadership of the strongest and wealthiest country in the world to gain this understanding, then the technology will become relatively easy. That is to go green and put less of what we call the ecological footprint onto the world. We'll ease up on the rest of the world and become sustainable and allow the rest of life to survive and come through. I like to call it the bottleneck. Come through the bottleneck we're in now. We'll come out the other end if we use our head with the kind of improved lives that we all dream of and with bringing as much of the rest of life with us as possible. You know, that's why I say what we're doing now, if we don't stop it, is the folly our descendants will least likely forgive us a hundred years now, 200 years. They said, "What did they think they were doing?"

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that so many smart people remain passive in the face of the destruction of the conditions for survival?

E.O. WILSON I wish you would tell me.

BILL MOYERS: I'm a journalist -- I ask the questions, Ed. You're a scientist. You find out the answers.

E.O. WILSON You talk to so many smart people, I was hoping you would come up with a quick answer. If I knew, I would figure out with others better ways of persuasion. It really is slow. It's slow in taking over.

BILL MOYERS: What would the stewardship of the Earth mean to us personally? If I said, "I'm going to take my share of the responsibility," what would that mean to me personally? I think most people listening want to do something. They want to know what to do.

E.O. WILSON It can be from -- just being locally active in saving a woodland along a nearby river or regionally in allying yourself with a department of environment, which -- or one of the conservation organizations that works locally -- to ensure that a certain biologically rich area or wetland is set aside as a park and a reserve rather than being turned over to developers. But let me tell you the one that I think most people might be listening to us know the answer. We need leadership. We desperately need leadership that works off of what we have learned through science, that has produced a consensus about what is happening to the Earth's environment, including the living creation. And sees the potential in it and not just the need in it and gives, in this country especially, the kind of vision of a future that we can work for as a people toward, as a people, that I think people are hungry for.

BILL MOYERS: There is a bias, though, at the moment against science that disrupts our religious belief or science that diminishes our economic growth.

E.O. WILSON Right. Both based upon misconceptions.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

E.O. WILSON A greening of America means new markets, new ways of developing resources, new technologies, new directions, new eras of education, training, and on. So as far as economy is concerned, that's a no-brainer. As far as religion is concerned, I have a very different view from what many scientists and environmentalists have of the religious community. And that is, having grown up as a Southern Baptist.

BILL MOYERS: You answered the altar call. You went under the water.

E.O. WILSON I did. And I grew up in one of the reddest of the red states. And I have the highest respect for them, you know, folks who are called these days, even fundamentalists and the 42 percent of Americans identified as evangelical. I like them. I think they're highly intelligent and a large percentage of them highly educated and so on. So it's always occurred to me that the schism between scientists, agreed most are liberal and non-believers, and the great majority of Americans, 75 percent, you know, who could be called religious to some extent was -- might be an artifact.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think you have in common with conservative Christians?

E. O. WILSON: Well, actually, just about everything except certain beliefs of where it all came from and who's looking over us. We are much closer together. I could go down, you know, and pick a pastor from some small country church along the byway of the high -- of Alabama and I'll bet we'd -- as I suggested in that book-- we sat down and talked about our deepest beliefs together, we'd come up with more agreements. Agreements on more things than disagreements. And then isn't it the American way? We could say, "Let's put that aside for awhile and work together when we really have something we need to work together on."

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but, Ed, there -- but many of the Christians who read the Bible literally reject the conclusion of you scientists that we've evolved from lower forms. I mean, they believe the Earth is not our home. We're heaven bound. Some of them believe the second coming of Jesus is so imminent --

E.O. WILSON I know.

BILL MOYERS: -- that caring for the Earth is of little consequence. But you --

E.O. WILSON Now --

BILL MOYERS: -- you addressed this book --

E.O. WILSON Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: -- your latest book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, to a Southern Baptist pastor. You and I know many of them.

E.O. WILSON Yes.

BILL MOYERS: We grew up with them.

E.O. WILSON Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you write this book to a Southern Baptist pastor?

E.O. WILSON Well, I did partly because that's my background. Although, I'm now a secular Humanist. A real -- a thorough going secularist. It's my background. I understood it. I respected greatly the people of the culture I grew up in. But, also, there was the New York effect. What I call the New York effect. In addressing Evangelicals instead of Unitarians.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there's a lot more of 'em for one thing. There are more Baptists in Texas than there are people. And I guess that's probably true of Alabama. So, you addressed them --

E. O. WILSON: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: They're muscular. They're powerful.

E. O. WILSON: Well, also as I say, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. In other words, if you can make it with Southern Baptists, you can make it anywhere. And the argument I make in The Creation is extremely simple. It's that -- I said "Let us, in the service of a transcendent moral obligation and concern put aside our differences for the time being and not fuss with each other over evolution. In other words where it all came from. Let us agree looking at the evidence that is disappearing. And let us, dare I use the word, gather at the river." Come together on common ground where we can exercise the extraordinary power we have jointly. And I argue and few people disagreed with me that science and religion are the two most powerful social forces in the world. Having them at odds at each other all the way up to the highest levels of government and the popular media all the time is not productive.

BILL MOYERS: In your book, you ask both science and religion to set aside their differences about metaphysical issues.

E. O. WILSON: Meet on the near side of metaphysics.

BILL MOYERS: Meet on the near side of metaphysics.

E. O. WILSON: Right.

BILL MOYERS: But, can you ask religion to do that when by nature religion is concerned with the metaphysical, with unseen deities?

E. O. WILSON: Sure, you can. You know, I have a lot of physicist friends working on string theory who are also preoccupied with things they can't see or measure. But, however, the point here is yes you can and we've done it.

RICHARD CIZIK: To imagine a world in which science and religion cooperate together…

BILL MOYERS: It was that last year Ed Wilson played an important role in organizing a coalition of scientists and evangelical Christians to meet on global warming and habitat preservation.

RICHARD CIZIK: We will not allow evangelical Christians with scientists here today -- we will not allow it -- The Creation -- to be degraded, destroyed by human folly.

BILL MOYERS: You say you're a secular Humanist. What do you want me to hear when you say that? What do you mean by that? That term drives the Evangelical -- the Christian right into a frenzy.

E. O. WILSON: A Humanist is a person who believes that in matters ethical and in matters of esthetic and central concern should put humanity as the first and final purpose of it all. That we have just this one planet to live on. We are not being looked over. but we are on our own, essentially. And we are responsible for ourselves and we better get together as a species and work it out and stop relying on supernatural powers. That's basically what Humanism is.

BILL MOYERS: You describe the world as it is and, yet, you're not a man who's a pess -- you're not a pessimist. You're -- there's a lot of hope in The Creation. What can we do to try to make a difference on the footprint that we humans are leaving on this earth?

E. O. WILSON: I think probably it goes down -- let's go down one layer of thought from what we had earlier, and go to the deepest level. If we could change our world-view, it would be somewhat radical, but it would mean seeing ourselves as a biological species in a biological world. That we are a species exquisitely well adapted to this planet and that we originated here and that our peculiarities including the ones that threaten us all the time, that threaten our own existence are -- can be understood by the history of the way we originated in that living world. And if we could just place ourselves realistically in that context and stop thinking of ourselves as semi angels, you know, on the way that this is just a weigh station on a way on up to an idealized existence -- change that. Then, I think we would get pretty serious about peace and long-term security and saving the rest of life. And keeping our options open for the future.

BILL MOYERS: E.O. Wilson, thank you very much for joining me on the Journal.

E. O. WILSON: Thank you so much for having me.

BILL MOYERS: E.O. Wilson's wish is one step closer to reality.

E.O. WILSON This certainly has been a dream come true.

BILL MOYERS: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently made a grant of 20 million dollars toward creating the Encyclopedia of Life.

Biologist E.O. Wilson on Revering Life

July 7, 2007

“Every kid has a bug period…I never grew out of mine.” — E.O. Wilson

Edward Osborne Wilson grew up off the gulf coast of Alabama and Florida, becoming fascinated at a very early age by the diversity of the natural world surrounding him. After blinding himself in one eye while fishing at the age of 7, Wilson explains that he no longer was very good at bird-watching, so decided to “turn towards the little things in life,” namely ants.

At 13, he discovered the first U.S. colony of fire ants near the docks of Mobile, Alabama, well on his way to becoming one of the country’s foremost myrmecologists (ant biologists), discovering the ways intricate chemical signals affect colony behavior. While a professor at Harvard, Wilson used his insect expertise as the basis for larger study into animal and human behavior, releasing in 1975, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, advancing Darwin’s study of evolution into the realm of behavior:

“In a Darwinian sense, the organism does not live for itself. Its primary function is not even to reproduce other organisms; it reproduces genes, and it serves as their temporary carrier.”

Though highly praised and extremely popular, Sociobiology proved equally controversial, primarily due to its last chapter, which extended analysis of the animal kingdom to human behavior and culture.

“Wilson seems to have been unaware of the full political implications of his final chapter,” explains Paul Gross of The New Criterion online. “He saw no more harm in deploying biology in the study of human behavior than in the study of ants or chimpanzees.” Eventually, the controversy subsided, the new field of sociobiology was legitimized, and Wilson was already finishing what could be his most important book, The Diversity of Life (1992), a 424 page work about the tremendous interconnectivity of Earth’s biosphere, and how human civilization is gravely threatening its natural symbiosis. Over half of the world’s species could die out by the end of the century due to man-made ecological hardships, what Wilson calls the “sixth extinction.”

“This is the only planet we’re ever going to have. This planet has taken tens, hundreds of millions of years to create this beautiful natural environment we have that’s taken care of us so well that is, in fact, our greatest natural heritage. And we’re throwing it away in a matter of a few decades.”

But just as humans have the power to destroy our natural surroundings, Wilson optimistically believes that we too have the power to change our course, and develop a sustainable civilization that maintains the diversity of life on the planet. “Humanity is not suicidal…We are smart enough and have time enough to avoid all environmental catastrophes of civilization-threatening dimensions.” His latest book, Creation, calls on society to put disagreements between science and religion aside for the greater good of the planet. “Science and religion are the two most powerful forces in the world. Having them at odds…is not productive.”

While accepting his 2007 TED Prize, E.O. Wilson made a wish: “to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth’s biodiversity: the Encyclopedia of Life,” and many have since answered this call, most notably the MacArthur Foundation, awarding Wilson $20 million dollars to bring the encyclopedia of life into being.

“It’s always been a dream of mine, of exploring the living world, of classifying all the species and finding out what makes up the biosphere. We’re maybe today about 1/10 through the discovery of species…We live in an unexplored planet.”

Find out more about biodiversity, and what other governments around the world are doing to protect the planet on the Bill Moyers Journal archive site.

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