Montana State University

Spring 2013

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Mountains and Minds

E.O. Wilson meets with MSU students and fellow American Computer Museum honorees last fall. Photo by Kelly Gorham.

The world of E.O. Wilson May 07, 2013 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 05/07/13

The biologist who began his work studying ants now has enormous stature among scientific thinkers

Edward O. Wilson has been dubbed the "Father of Biodiversity" and "Father of Sociobiology." He is a renowned biologist who has won two Pulitzer prizes for his books. He is a leading authority on ants and one of the world's great thinkers.

He also visits Montana State University every fall for an awards ceremony that honors other intellectual pioneers and inspires the students, faculty, staff and general public who participate. His visit also strengthens a friendship with George Keremedjiev, who organizes the event. Keremedjiev is founder of the American Computer Museum in Bozeman and recipient of an honorary doctorate at MSU.

Learn more about the American Computer Museum

Keremedjiev first met Wilson when he invited him to accept the George R. Stibitz Computer and Communications Award in 2006. Three years later, Keremedjiev established the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award, which brings Wilson back to Bozeman every year. Wilson has now visited MSU five times and has already committed to a sixth.

Keremedjiev and Wilson now meet every spring at Harvard University and every fall at MSU. When Keremedjiev visits Harvard, he and Wilson spend the day "immersed in conversation, campus walks and a superb lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club." When Wilson comes to MSU, they continue their conversations.

He initially wanted to honor Wilson with a Stibitz award because of Wilson's revolutionary use of the Internet, Keremedjiev said. Although his reasons were logical, he was still stunned by Wilson's response.

"I was completely taken by surprise when Ed accepted as we had never previously honored anyone outside of the computer or communications sectors with the George R. Stibitz Computer and Communications Pioneer Award and were not sure if someone of Ed's stature and global recognition in biology would accept the award," Keremedjiev said.

"Up to then, I had been reading Ed's books for decades and he became, over time, a mentor who I had never met until relatively recently but who had instilled within me a profound appreciation for all forms of life, their evolution and our need to be stewards of its preservation."

The two felt an instant connection when Wilson arrived in Gallatin County to receive the Stibitz award, Keremedjiev said.

"In the days that followed, Ed was so fully and unreservedly supportive of our museum's range of human progress displays, that there was also a powerful intellectual bond formed," he added.

Others who have met Wilson express similar appreciation for the opportunity.

"MSU is very fortunate to have Professor Wilson spend time with our students, faculty and broader public. None of this, of course, would be possible without the inspiration and support of the American Computer Museum," said Robert Rydell, MSU's Michael P. Malone Professor of History.

"Professor Wilson is a public intellectual par excellence," Rydell continued. "What I mean by that is that Professor Wilson brings his vast knowledge to bear on issues of pressing public, even planetary concern. Where are we, as a species, heading? How will religion, science, and technology shape our shared futures? And how can we better prepare young people for the challenges of the future?"

Emily Gordon, one of several Advanced Placement biology students who came from Belgrade High School to meet with Wilson, said she was struck by his passion for science and learning. She was inspired by his dedication and realized that learning is more than looking for answers. It also means exploring possibilities.

"I need to incorporate more of this into my life as an aspiring investigator in the science world," Gordon said. "After going to Wilson's talk, I found that it is necessary to be consumed by interest and excitement for the unknown."

When Wilson was a student, he lived all over Alabama, as well as in Pensacola, Fla., and Washington, D.C., because his father was an auditor who moved often for his work. As a result, Wilson attended 16 schools in 11 years and spent much of his time alone exploring nature. He wasn't unsociable, Wilson said. But it didn't help him fit in with his classmates when he--"a runt to start with"--skipped third grade. Going directly from second grade to fourth grade was a mistake, he said.

He finally realized when he was in his 60s that he had disabilities as a child, but "It never occurred to me that there was anything different about me when I was growing up," Wilson said.

He referred to the fact that he lost the sight in his right eye because of a fishing accident at age 7. He was also mostly deaf in the upper registers.

Yet, Wilson won his first Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1979 for his book, On Human Nature. He won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his book, The Ants.

On his latest visit to MSU, Wilson--now professor emeritus at Harvard University--signed copies of his book, The Social Conquest of Earth. He talked about a book tour that would take him through the South to promote his book, Why We are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City. He described another book, Letters to a Young Scientist, that he hoped to publish before the end of this school year. 

"At 83, if anything, I'm speeding up," Wilson said.

Sitting in the lobby of MSU's EPS Building, signing autographs and waiting to meet with more students, Wilson answered a few questions about his life and work.

Mountains & Minds You adapted in many ways early in your life. How important has that ability been to your success?
E.O. Wilson It's the secret to my idiosyncrasies. I was always thrown on my own resources, alone... But it didn't bother me at all because my big thing was catching butterflies, then snakes, then ants. That kept me highly motivated to get out in the woods. ...I was not unsociable, but I had to change constantly, find new friends. I spent a lot of my time exploring the woods. That perhaps destined me to be, I suppose, a naturalist.

M & M Considering all the things you could be doing at age 83, why do you return every year to MSU for the annual awards presentation organized by the American Computer Museum?
E.O.W. I have been given the considerable honor of having a special award named after me. Every year, I come back to join the award winners and to make presentations to them. I'm now a very good friend with George (Keremedjiev). I think what he is doing is wonderful.

M & M You have received two Pulitzer prizes and many other awards and accolades. You are considered the Father of Biodiversity and the Father of Sociobiology. Time magazine has called you one of the 25 most influential people in America. At the same time, you have received significant criticism for some of your views. A member of the International Committee Against Racism once poured a pitcher of ice water on your head. How much does it matter to you what others think of you?
E.O.W. You don't make advances without getting blowback. Anything really new guarantees resistance at first... The more important the idea, if you are correct, the more resistance it meets. You can't just keep adding facts to old theories...It doesn't faze me at all. I think the more original you are and the more confident you are in what you are doing, the more objections you get.

M & MOut of all you have accomplished, what do you see as your greatest legacy?
E.O.W. I will not pick among
my own children.

M & MWhat initially made you want to pursue science? Can you explain your fascination for insects?
E.O.W. Science was the only way I could stay outdoors unless I became a park ranger or state policeman. (The latter was aimed at the highway patrol officer who provided security for Wilson while he was at MSU).

M & M What would you have done if you couldn't have been a biologist?
E.O.W. I never gave it a thought. I went to military school for a while, but just one year as a grammar school student. It was a very tough southern military school. Those old military schools are legendary, southern schools that led up to military schools, prep schools. If my parents had let me stay and I hadn't injured my eye, I probably would have gone into the military.

M & M You have encouraged scientists and American religious leaders to form an alliance for conserving biological diversity. How would that work? How do science and faith fit together?
E.O.W. The response was pretty favorable. I got a warm response from evangelicals and Mormons, but it wasn't as significant as I would hope. It didn't stir great passion. I think evangelicals are more interested in saving souls before the world comes to an end. Saving fauna and flora is not high on their list.

M & MYou are considered the world's leading authority on ants. What is the greatest lesson they have taught you?
E.O.W. Don't imitate them. Don't go to them for wisdom. Realize they are different from us and what you might expect to find on some alien planet....Ant colonies are all female, with no place for males. ...If you get sick as an ant, you are expected to leave, and they do. Sick ants walk out of the colony and walk outside so they don't infect others. If we acted like ants, I would be out sitting in a field waiting to die. Another thing, they are always at war. They do not tolerate workers from other colonies who come in from other territories. They kill them if they catch them. We are pretty bad, but we haven't quite reached that level yet. Ants don't need police or state police. They are all absolutely obedient. They all do the same thing. There's no such thing as a criminal ant. No such thing as a speed limit. If they could get out to dead cockroaches and drag them home at record time, that's just great.

M & MWhat is the single most important piece of advice you would give a student?
E.O.W. We are in a technology and scientific age now. We are not ever going to go back.