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Arousing Biophilia: A Conversation with E.O. Wilson

In March of 1990, a group of twenty-some scientists, writers, and educators came together at Williams College to discuss how to bring about a new cultural commitment to the environment. The title of the colloquium, which was sponsored by the Myrin Institute and the college, was taken from an essay by Edward C. Wolf, "Arousing Biophilia" (Orion, Summer 1989), in which he wrote: "To arouse biophilia, science is not enough. Money, for all its power, is not enough. Culture--literature, drama, music, painting, filmmaking, the humble activity of learning itself--may be the way to engage the heart."

"Biophilia" is the word coined by E.O. Wilson for the human propensity to affiliate with other life forms, and Professor Wilson himself opened the event Friday evening with a talk on the conservation of biodiversity. The next day in the music room of Mount Hope Farm, an estate house belonging to the college, a two-day conversation began.

One of the highlights came at the end of Saturday morning. Moderator George K. Russell, Orion's editor-in-chief, had begun the discussion with a statement of the theme of the colloquium:

"Imagine a very large circle that represents an environmental studies program. It includes several scientific disciplines, focused on solving the problems we are facing in the environment. Imagine another circle that encompasses what you could call nature writing. Imagine that these two circles overlap. In that interface is our theme, which is biophilia, the root of environmental concern.

I will read a few paragraphs from one of the concluding chapters of Dr. Wilson's book Biophilia, because it sets out what I think we will be talking about here.

'It is time to invent moral reasoning of a new and more powerful kind, to look to the very roots of motivation and understand why, in what circumstances and on which occasions we cherish and protect life.... We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms....they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth....'"

The conversation that followed ranged widely over environmental education, nature writing, and the need for individual concerns and interests to find a broad constituency and emerge in the political process--what Benjamin Labaree of the college's Center for Environmental Studies called the multiplier effect. Toward the end of the morning, Professor Wilson, who had been listening quietly, was asked to respond. We offer here a distillation of his remarks and some of the questions and answers that followed.

E. O. Wilson: I think we all sense that the multiplier effect is absolutely critical. Events like Yellowstone and the critical warming in summer of '88, as it was pointed out earlier, focus attention and can turn opinion around very swiftly. It becomes a matter of raising consciousness in more and more people as quickly as possible.

I was speaking with a couple of you earlier about the two themes that form the fundamental basis of ethics, the expanding-circle theme that gives rights to all species, versus the anthropocentric theme that measures all good in the coin of human welfare. The two are resolved in part by noting that for human survival and mental health and fulfillment we need the natural setting in which the human mind almost certainly evolved and in which culture has developed over these millions of years of evolution. Perhaps both of those arguments can be joined to create the prudence concerning the environment and our own populations that is so desperately needed. The anthropocentric approach is greatly reinforced by the perception of certain forms of prepared learning that I tried to collect together in Biophilia, where I discussed the use of certain organisms in myth formation. The position of the serpent in religions and art is a very powerful example, and we owe a great deal to the art historians and others who put together that story.

We have other great mythic themes that could inject environmental concerns into the popular culture, themes that have not begun to be developed in nature writing. Take the exploration of new worlds--our need to reach out and explore and control new worlds seems to me something fundamental and compelling in human nature. It's the urge that drove the space program beyond all limits of rationality, so that we continue to pour a large amount of the national treasure into it, just to step on the moon, or fly by Jupiter. The amounts are far in excess of the scientific value, yet thrilling to us all.

Many of the planetary enthusiasts drum on the idea that it is human destiny to open new frontiers. To adopt that approach is one of the best strategies for environmentalists, because we above all are aware that this is a mostly unexplored planet. To impress on the minds of the young and those seeking self-expression and careers the feeling that they literally can enter new worlds right here on this planet and even at short range is, I think, one of the most potent domains of nature writing.

There are many other mythic themes that I would like to see woven more effectively into nature writing, themes that form a potential for new styles of creative writing. One is a totemic communion with certain organisms, of the kind that some of you already have with certain places and certain times. Barry Lopez spoke to me recently about his fascination with the strength and pleasure that people can derive from identification with a particular place. We've had one self-confessed Cape Cod nut [the reference is to Robert Finch]. (laughter) Well, I'm a rain forest nut. Hopefully, we will see more votaries of particular places, of particular environments. That's a very great and old tradition of nature writing, and I think it ought to be developed to new heights and in new and hitherto alien places.

Similarly, the tradition should be extended to particular species and groups of species. In a recent article in Bioscience entitled "The Coming Pluralization of Biology and the Stewardship of Systematics," I argued that that's what scientists and biologists should be doing, particularizing the studies of groups of species all up and down the levels of organization. And then the systematists, the experts on groups of species, should regard themselves much more than they have in the past as the stewards of that group of oribatid mites, say, or elephant fish, or whatever group they have chosen for highly personal and idiosyncratic reasons--to become the official presenters of these groups to the scientific community, and to the community at large.

I hope that stewardship can be seen as a large part of the future of biology, and not just of nature writing. Such studies and writings summon what I think are the deep-lying propensities of human nature and give with each new chapter ever more reason to conserve all of biodiversity. We really can't afford to lose any species; they are a crucible of future human creative effort.

The creative potential is not going to be met by sending a handful of people to Mars. It's going to be fulfilled by the exploration of this planet, by the constant celebration and deepening of knowledge of life around each one of us, on both the scientific and popular levels. As Karl von Frisch said of the honeybee, each species is a magic well--the more that you draw from it, the more there is to draw. Whole generations of people have been working on the honeybee and finding new things all the time; this one species is inexhaustible. And the time will come when we will be ready for a new Maeterlinck, more soundly informed, who can celebrate the honeybee in poetic language. It was the original Maeterlinck, after all, who summarized so much of early knowledge with the felicitous single phrase: the God of the bees is the future. And so it can be with each species in turn.

Finally, the psychologists have got to be brought in on the act. How could our relation to nature, on which survival depended minute by minute for millions of years, not in some way be reflected in the rules of cognitive development that generate the human mind?

The psychologists have, curiously, been the missing actors to a substantial degree. Without them, the consideration of biophilia as a scientific object is Hamlet without the prince. (laughter) The psychologists are suffering what Joel Cohen once referred to as physics envy. (laughter) They tend to try to out-objectify and bleach out more color and meaning from their basic fundamental research than almost any class of scientists. They have not been inclined at all to look at this particular part of human nature. I know of no cognitive psychologist among the legions out there who is in any way seriously addressing the development of the mind in the human relation to nature. That's an astonishing fact.

In a more general context, a school of psychologists is now developing--they call themselves evolutionary psychologists--who speak about Darwinian algorithms, or what Charles Lumsden and I earlier called the "epigenetic rules," that is, the rules of thumb and steps by which the mind makes multiple choices and feels its way, as through a kind of maze, to the final form of culture. Those decision points and the rules of prepared learning have begun to get the attention of psychologists. Hopefully, they will extend this work more aggressively in the direction of our relation to nature.

Robert Finch: You were talking about the taboo among scientists until quite recently of using even the slightest tinge of subjectivity in language to the point where even scientific experiments were described in the passive voice, as though no one were actually there performing them. You obviously took a great leap, a courageous act from a scientist's point of view, in writing Biophilia, and I was curious about the reaction among your colleagues in the scientific community to that book.

EOW: Uniformly favorable. I have never seen or heard in conversation a single criticism of the personalized approach that I used in it. It was a pleasant surprise for me.

Some of the most dreadful books I've ever read are autobiographies or memoirs by aging scientists. (laughter) Like Spartans firing arrows in the last line of defense, they will not express their feelings for fear of being called nonobjective. I think we need to encourage scientists to reveal themselves. Who was it who pointed out to me a wonderful distinction in modes of expression about nature--Barry Lopez, maybe?

Robert Finch: Between private and personal?

EOW: Would someone say a few words about that? We've heard the word "liberating" several times this morning--for scientists, that may be one of the most liberating ideas to come along in a long while.

John Tallmadge: When Barry came to campus as one of our visiting naturalists, he did give a talk to the students about nature writing. Barry said that when you write about your own experience, you always have to be careful to distinguish between being personal--that is, sharing experience that has universal implications--and being private, sharing something that is primarily meaningful to you, because it happened to you, but not to anybody else. It is a question of showing respect for the reader, of not invading the reader's privacy.

EOW: I think that the expression that might fit much of the kind of writing we are talking about here is the Homeric narrative. We like to describe events of nature and the world in terms of a narrative. Many of the most successful science books are those that tell the story of how scientific discoveries were made over a period of time. It seems to me that nature writing could also be developed in Homeric style--through evolution, through ecological change, through clashing of forces and so on. The writer then could personalize these events by, being the close-range observer describing his experiences, his impressions as he follows them along.

William Grant: We talk about exploration, conservation, participation, identification leading to certain mythic themes which maybe we can even develop into Homeric epics, but I always had the feeling there's an uninvited guest at the table. And yet, that's the most important guest of all. My question is, how do nature writers address the problem of overpopulation?

EOW: One solution--I always think as an academic, you understand--is to formulate and forcefully address the optimum population-size problem. Once we get that into the public discourse and make it a subject of research and discussion among demographers, biologists, and social scientists, this will help persuade people everywhere that there is a fundamental problem, the lack of a solution to which could do in us all, as well as nature, and that it must be formulated and addressed in a technical manner within the constraints of moral reasoning. We have a national economic policy; why not a population policy?

Arthur Zajonc: A number of the themes that have been brought forward have been themes of tension. One is the tension of separation and participation. I think it comes out in the themes of conservation and preservation--that somehow we are going to preserve or separate nature from exploitation or even overpopulation. It's one thing to have a population or pollution problem which argues for separation; it's another thing to imagine even one person in their appropriate relationship to nature, which is not one of conservation only but also of participation. What will be the future relationship of man to nature?

EOW: If I understand the question correctly you're speaking to the residue of the old preservation versus progress dilemma. There is still the strong feeling that what we environmentalists are really up to, our agenda, is to fence off as much wildland as we can and keep the ravening hordes away. But I believe that most professional environmentalists today have a totally different view of our relation to the wildlands. It's one of active engagement, committed to the idea of preserving biodiversity and preserving the ecosystems while using them, and developing a new science and technology that will allow us to move in and explore and extract and base living human populations and income on them while doing minimum environmental damage. This is a technical problem, like the optimum population size, and it is a soluble one.

The other approach to this active engagement with the wildlands is regional planning. That is something that will surely engage and demand the best resources and minds of people in government and regional planning, policy analysis, and natural science. We can conceive of new schemes to set aside portions of wildland as extractive reserves with substantial human involvement. Then we can set aside as inviolate preserves those portions with the maximum biodiversity and greatest physical fragility, like some of the rain forest areas. The two zones become major reservoirs of diversity from which samples of species can be taken for translocation and use elsewhere. And then there will be areas for intensive cultivation, and still other areas for restoration, where wildlands are allowed to grow back in.

In this way we can accomplish two aims simultaneously, one for the body and one for the spirit. We will stabilize populations with a secure economic base, and we will leave intact the living planet wherein the mind can explore and the spirit grow, considering species by species through tens of millions of species, each a magic well. That's my view of a wonderful long range future.

Nan Jenks-Jay: Do you think that we have the expertise right now to create those kinds of zoned areas?

EOW: Well, in most countries you couldn't just go out now and draw the map, but the techniques for evaluating zones exist. Then, include the biotic surveys to find the hot spots--those with maximum biodiversity and maximum fragility. Identify those and then combine that information with ongoing studies of productivity, resource availability, and optimum yield. This is the approach being undertaken by various think tanks, like the World Resource Institute, Conservation International, and research groups supported by AID. Combining those studies together is the kind of foreign aid that we ought to multiply many times over.

Henry Art: You've written very convincingly at various points of the importance of taxonomy and systematics. Yet, if one looks at a reflection of what's new and hot and important in biology these days, it tends not to be systematics and taxonomy.

EOW: That's because we are facing an entrenched power structure motivated by what I call "molecular supremacy." (laughter) We need to overcome this apartheid (laughter) and open participation and democracy to systematics--for the good of the world.

Henry Art: This is music to my ears. (laughter) How do we accomplish that?

EOW: Well, I think that the new environmental movement, with all of its publicized revelations, rising public concern, conversion of Congressmen, and so on, will empower the growth of environmental and evolutionary biology, including systematics, without our doing much more about it. I'm sure that a systematics must be allowed to sit at the table and have a whole plate, too. It must, because you can't do competent environmental studies while running blind. If you can't identify any organisms, if you can't tell one tree or beetle from another, you can't begin to study ecosystems. The environmental movement will do for ecology and systematics what medicine and private health did for molecular biology and cell biology.

The distinction, of course, is between concern for personal health and survival and concern for planetary health. That's the duality now that has to be improvised. People care, first and foremost, about their personal health, longevity, and reproduction. But they also care about the world they live in and the world they're leaving their children. The planet is in poor health, and people know there is a serious problem. So we have a parallel concern at the two ends of biology.

I'd like to see the human genome project go ahead. I think we can afford that. I'd like to see the supercollider built. Our society can support these magnificent projects. But I'd like to see them demoted substantially relative to the major environmental problems. I think we should demote them in esteem by pointing out, one, that the number of discoveries made per person per year in molecular biology is declining rapidly. Furthermore, that these people have not grown rich because they made great scientific breakthroughs; they made great scientific breakthroughs because they have grown rich. And they have grown rich because the public perceives them as having solutions for the major problems of medicine. That's really what it comes down to, 5 billion dollars a year, roughly, given into the basic biomedical research programs because the public perceives that the discoveries they are making may lead to better health and greater longevity.

Perhaps we will, as stewards and writers and researchers of the environment, grow not as rich as they, but at least above mendicant status. And when we get more money, when we can train more students and build research teams and create institutes and enjoy a mandate from the public at large to do great things, we will do great things.

William Grant: I'd like to introduce a note of controversy, because I don't really agree with you. When I look at what molecular biology is contributing today, for example, in the whole area of pattern formation and development--how the genes actually make the shape of something--it seems to me that molecular biology is invading every other field of biology. When you finally come down to the question of natural diversity the molecular biologists are going to be there helping you all the way.

EOW: They will be handmaidens. (laughter) I didn't deny that great discoveries are to be made there and will continue to be made. The future of molecular biology is, just as you say, pattern determination at the cellular level in the formation of organisms.

But you cannot expect molecular biology to define and explain the amount of biological diversity, the way that communities of organisms are assembled, the way they're held together, the degree of their connectivity and the resilience of that connectivity, the degrees of fragility and instability of different systems, and why evolution has produced certain types of communities that are richer than others. None of these fundamental problems of ecology and evolutionary theory can be explained at the molecular level. You can explain them only by providing a growing mosaic, a deep knowledge about individual groups of organisms, across all levels of biological organization--species after species after species--until we begin to discern new patterns at the organismic level, which will generate in turn new ways of thinking about the assemblage of species.

That's why I referred to the coming pluralization of biology, where molecular biologists will collaborate with systematists on one group of organisms after another.

Donella Meadows: What is the equivalent figure to the 5 billion dollars that are being spent on biomedical research--what is the equivalent in ecological research?

EOW: You mean how much is spent?

Donella Meadows: Yes.

EOW: I believe that at our end of biology--I'm not including now environmental studies that may have some biology marginally, but primarily research in ecology and systematics--is under 100 million.

Arthur Zajonc: I think of Genentech or similar firms that have been created with enormous initial capital poured into them not only by foundations but also by venture capitalists in order to promote molecular research. These people see molecular biologists as colleagues and molecular biology as a fine investment leading to a bright and rosy future. If the environmental movement has been anything to that same group of people, it has been an adversary. In fact the long-term future will only be rosy if similar funding at the 5-billion-dollar level is given to this other kind of program of research. And then again they will make out like bandits in the end.

It's a rather precarious situation. On the one hand, you want to preserve biodiversity; on the other hand, you do have to have that collegial relationship with a group whose primary concerns are economic gain and which is now, for the most part, seen as adversarial by the environmental community.

EOW: At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, I think that the living environment offers the solution. That is to say, great profits can be made out of biodiversity, and a preserved environment.

For me, one of the most exciting ideas developed in the last several years has been Tom Eisner's idea of chemical prospecting. Tom, following upon the call by systematists and ecologists for biotic surveys, said in effect: sure, it's necessary to find out what the species are and something about how abundant they are and where they're living. But the next step is to set up institutes--many of them would be in Third World countries--in which, as the species are identified and catalogued and studies of their biologies are begun, we start routine screening for natural products.

Virtually all plants, animals, and microorganisms have unique reservoirs of special chemicals--secondary, plant substances, defensive chemicals, pheromones used in communication, and so on, many of which have potential commercial value. Research on these substances needn't be focused. It can be a screening for anticancer agents, but it can also be a general, open, free-association type of research. When you're exploring nature, you don't just look for something, you look for anything, in the manner of the true hunter. And here's where the expert on the group of organisms would come in, as part of this chemical prospecting enterprise.

Gary Nabhan: I think one of the most interesting things I've heard about in the last year is the kind of collaboration that you're talking about extending to include folk scientists in indigenous cultures. In Mike Balick's work at the New York Botanical Garden they're comparing the success rate from a random sampling of tropical plants selected out of the forest by taxonomists and screened for an anticancer and antifungal drug potential, versus that using a subset of plants from that tropical forest selected by medicine men and women within that culture. The catch was several orders of magnitude greater per number of plants sampled using the traditional pharmacopoeia of indigenous tropical peoples as a guide. The ethnobotanical screen was far more efficient than doing a random screen within the forest.

That's one of the interesting things I see about the work of people like Jim Nations and Mark Plotkin and Conservation International. We're at a point where we need to consider not only conserving biodiversity but remnant traditional knowledge, however imperfect.

William Moomaw: As one who's trained in chemistry, I'd like to pick up on the idea that there are different levels of organization and different ways of seeing connections. I think the molecular perspective is a very useful one. Once one examines life down at that level, it becomes obvious that DNA and its function, its operation, is ubiquitous among all living things. When you find you have DNA, at least there is a chance you have life. There is a kind of unifying sense provided by the molecular perspective, which, I think, is important and probably does need to be emphasized more.

I would like to disagree with you, however, on the notion that, yes, we ought to do the supercollider and yes, we ought to do the genome project and everything else. It's fine to make that argument in a purely abstract intellectual vein, but practically speaking there is simply not enough money to do these projects and simultaneously to obtain the knowledge needed to address the kinds of things that are really life-threatening to the planet.

I find it remarkable that we are willing to spend 7 or 8 billion dollars for the supercollider--and the price is likely 8, and it's likely to be 10 or 12 billion before it's finished. We're willing to talk about a space station, a colony on the moon in order to get us to Mars, which is in the 100-billion dollar range. We're talking about the human genome project, which is something like 3-billion dollars, and nobody wants to talk about the need for a planetary genome project. What we're really discussing here is the need for a planetary genome project to identify rapidly vanishing species and their valuable genetic endowment and develop the biological skills necessary to maintain and reconstruct the ecosystems that support them. In a metaphorical sense individual species are the genomes that need to be studied for the well-being of the planet.

Humans as a species really have an attitudinal problem, a way of thinking about things, that is not going to be overcome even by changing the thinking of the physical scientists who dominate the National Academy and the scientific decision-making processes in this country. Attitudes are far more likely to be altered, I think, by writers, and by inserting new ways of thinking into the political process from below, rather than trying to change from above. I think that's where this group may play a disproportionately important role.

EOW: Your argument is entirely persuasive. (laughter)

I just can't resist telling you one funny story. It has to do with our favorite science fiction films of the fifties, and it epitomizes so beautifully and comically the attitude you just described about exploring the universe.

In this film--I wish I could identify it, I remember only this one episode--our space explorers have landed their spaceship on the planet. The first one steps out, in his spacesuit, and talks by intercom back to the crew members still on board. The commander asks, "Is there life out there? Any signs of life?" He says, "No signs of life at all--only a few bushes." (laughter)

E.0. Wilson is Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University and curator in entomology at its Museum of Comparative Zoology. His books include Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, On Human Nature, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Biophilia, The Ants, coauthored with Bert Holldobler, and The Diversity of Life.

Henry Art teaches in the biology department at Williams College. Robert Finch has written several books about Cape Cod and is coeditor of the Norton Book of Nature Writing. William Grant is chairman of the biology department at Williams College. Nan Jenks-Jay teaches in the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams and was one of the organizers of the colloquium. William Moomaw is the director of the Center for Environmental Management at Tufts University. Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. Gary Nabhan is an ethnobotanist and author of several books on Native American agriculture. George K Russell is editor-in-chief of Orion and a professor of biology at Adelphi University. John Tallmadge is associate dean at the Union Institute in Cincinnati. Arthur Zajonc is a professor of physics at Amherst College.

This conversation was originally published in the Winter 1991 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at

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