Text excerpted from the book: PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN: 978-1-63388-225-6)
Budd Titlow & Mariah Tinger
Several prominent books came along in the last half of the Sixties. First in 1967, two Princeton biologists—Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson—developed a general theory to explain the richness of isolated natural communities in their book, The Theory of Island Biogeography.
For biogeographical purposes, an insular environment or island is any area of habitat suitable for a specific ecosystem, surrounded by an expanse of unsuitable habitat. While this could be a traditional island—a mass of land surrounded by water—the term may also be applied to many nontraditional islands, such as the peaks of mountains, isolated springs, lakes surrounded by desert, and non-contiguous woodlands. The Theory of Island Biogeography is now a standard work of ecology, and guides conservation policy and the planning of nature reserves throughout the world.
If Mother Nature designed the perfect naturalist, he would look and act exactly like Edward O. (“EO”) Wilson. Tall with a long, ambling gate, casually swept across hair, and “aw shucks” good looks, Wilson still appears to be a boy reveling in the natural wonders of his native Alabama than the prolific writer and Harvard University professor emeritus that he is.
Wilson is considered to be both the “Father of Biodiversity” and the “Father of Sociobiology”. Plus, he is a Past Environmental Hero to us in more ways than one. In 2001, he presented our family with the Sudbury Valley Trustees “Conservationist of the Year Award” at a ceremony in Concord, Massachusetts. Then he served as my (Mariah) inspiration while I was studying for and attaining my Master’s Degree in Environmental Management at Harvard University.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929, Wilson spent almost every waking moment—at least, when he could escape going to school—patrolling the swamps, marshes, and coastlines of south Alabama and the western Florida panhandle. He attended the University of Alabama—where he received his BS and MS degrees—then matriculated to Harvard University where he attained both his PhD and his home for the rest of his career.
Well-known in scientific circles as the world’s foremost authority on ants, Wilson’s description of how he came to specialize in insects is typical of his forthright personality and downhome humor. The way he tells it, he was blinded in one eye when he whipped a fish he had caught up out of the water and the spines on the fins caught him in the eye. Also he was congenitally unable to hear sounds in the upper register. So since he was blind in one eye and couldn’t use binoculars—plus couldn’t hear high-pitched bird songs —his first love of being an ornithologist went out the window. Wilson also couldn’t hear the croaks and calls of amphibians, so studying frogs also went by the boards. But since he was bound and determined to be a naturalist—he says he never considered doing anything else—he had to find something to study and insects were about all that was left. At least, he could catch the little guys and hold them between his thumb and forefinger to get a really good look at them.
In hindsight, Wilson’s decision to study insects was propitious for all of us involved with the science of biology. No one—before or since—has done more with regard to insights into the study of and analysis of the biodiversity of lifeon earth. His findings have opened all of our eyes and minds to things we really don’t know about a planet that we thought we knew very well. Wilson’s work has also enlightened the scientific and environmental communities about the critical need for stopping the mass extinctions that are proceeding more rapidly now than at any other time in human history. He emphasizes the point that every time we lose a species to extinction, we are sacrificing something that may have provided human society with untold medical or sociological benefits.
Through his research and writing, Wilson has developed a cadre of concepts and theories that have placed him on an academic sphere attained by very few other scientists in history. Being named a Junior Fellow of Harvard’s Society of Fellows opened up the world for Wilson’s research. His scientific travels have taken him from Cuba and Mexico to Australia, New Guinea, Fiji, New Caledonia, and Sri Lanka.
By the late 1970s, Wilson was actively involved in global conservation, adding to and promoting biodiversityresearch. His 1984 book, Biophilia, explored humanity’s attraction to the natural environment and played a major role in shaping the modern conservation ethic. In 1988 he edited the volume, BioDiversity, which first introduced the now heavily used term biodiversity into the scientific lexicon.
Wilson’s work has not been without controversy. In his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), he proposed that the essential biological principles on which animal societies are based also apply to humans. In summary, he maintained that as little as ten percent of human behavior is genetically induced, with the rest being attributable to environment. This thesis provoked condemnation from prominent researchers and scholars in a broad range of disciplines, who regarded it as an attempt to justify harmful or destructive behavior and unjust social relations in human societies. Wilson vehemently denied such intent with this work, but it didn’t stop demonstrators from picketing his talks and– in one case—dousing him with water as he stood at a podium.
Through all this commotion, Wilson staunchly defended his viewpoints and in 1978 published another highly acclaimed work, On Human Nature, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. In this book, Wilson thoroughly examined the scientific arguments surrounding the role of biology on the evolution of human culture. By the end of the decade, the furor over sociobiology had subsided and researchers in many fields accepted Wilson’s ideas about human behavioral evolution as fundamentally true.
While holding onto his professorship at Harvard, Wilson continued to expand the multi-faceted horizons of his writing. With Bert Holldobler as his co-author, Wilson returned to his first scholarly love when he produced his monumental work, The Ants (1990), which earned him a second Pulitzer Prize.
Since he retired as an emeritus professor at Harvard, Wilson has continued his activism and publishing—both at phenomenal rates. His conservation efforts have benefitted the Columbia University’s Earth Institute, American Museum of Natural History, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund.
All of Wilson’s books are great works and excellent reads, but two in particular are worthy of special merit. His novel, Anthill (2010), seems to describe gargantuan battles between two rival trampling hordes from ancient worlds—perhaps the Visigoths versus the Huns! In reality the warring factions are marauding “tribes” of ants. The details of how competing anthills go about attempting to establish themselves as the dominant colonies on a piece of property rival anything ever written about war—complete with physical intimidation, violence and gore galore, and titanic battles to the death. On a much lighter note, his memoir, Letters to a Young Scientist (2013), should be a must read for any school child who is considering pursuing biology as a profession.
In a question and answer session conducted on April 30, 2012 by Lisa Hymas, Senior Editor at Grist, EO Wilson asked, “Why aren’t you young people out protesting the mess that’s being made of the planet?” As (the students) squirmed in their seats, Wilson continued: “Why are you not repeating what was done in the ‘60s? Why aren’t you in the streets? And what in the world has happened to the green movement that used to be on our minds and accompanied by outrage and high hopes? What went wrong?”
“Destroying a rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”
– EO Wilson
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
– EO Wilson
In his subtle, down home way, Wilson is hitting the nail right on the head when it comes to doing something that will actually make a difference in counteracting Climate Change. If we can’t get enough people out in the streets, demanding change, then all of our individual efforts collectively just aren’t going to get the job done. Our social political history in the US has proven, time and again, that grassroots organizations and mass demonstrations supported by millions—not hundreds, not thousands, but millions—are what it takes to get the attention of and action from the decision-makers in Washington, DC and in other power broking countries around the world.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.