Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who has been called the "father of biodiversity," received the medal before a crowd of several hundred people inside the fieldhouse, including Bozeman and Belgrade high school students.
"I am, of course, deeply honored by this," said Wilson of the medal. "I wear it with pride, and I am especially proud to be now associated with Montana State University."
The medal, only the third ever awarded by MSU, recognizes people of international stature whose intellectual and humanitarian contributions, innovation, courage and character have inspired people to think globally.
After receiving the medal, Wilson spoke to the audience about the contributions of famous naturalist Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday fell on Feb. 12.
"Charles Darwin is arguably the most important person who ever lived," Wilson said. "He was the one who, of all scientists, most fundamentally changed the way humanity sees itself."
Darwin's four evolution-related books, including the well-known "Origin of Species," have formed the foundation of modern biology, Wilson said, and have influenced discoveries that Darwin could never have dreamed of.
"Great scientific discoveries like this are like sunrises," Wilson said. "They illuminate the steeples of the unknown, then its dark hollows. The four great books of Darwin have spread light not only on the living world but fundamentally on the human condition."
In addition to thinking about the physical origin of species, Darwin also considered emotions and behavior, Wilson said. That connection, which Darwin wrote about in 1872, is just beginning to be understood and proven by modern science, he said.
"We are approaching it from many directions," Wilson said. "I now believe that consciousness will be understood on a physical level within 10 to 20 years."
Furthermore, he said, advances in scientific thinking will lead to a unified theory of biology, one that takes into account not only the "how" of evolution but also the "why." It will be a system that looks more at systems rather than at individual organisms, he said.
That, Wilson said, will ultimately help bridge the gap between science and the humanities and will help us understand human nature. And changing human nature will be the key to solving the global problems that face humanity today, such as global warming and overpopulation, he said.
"The major questions of biology will be those of systems," he said. "The results of all this research will yield discoveries and understanding of enormous benefit to humanity."
Later Thursday evening, Wilson took on the presenter role as he awarded six scientists with the inaugural E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Awards.
The awards went to David Ward of MSU, Steve Running of the University of Montana, Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University, Benoit Mandelbrot formerly of Yale University and IBM, Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe of Princeton University, and Michael Soule from the University of California-Santa
Ward uses molecular approaches to understand microbial diversity, ecology and evolution in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. He is a professor in MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences.
Running shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He studies climatology, global warming and other aspects of atmospheric science.
Lubchenco is an environmental scientist and marine ecologist who was chosen by President Barack Obama to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is one of the world's most highly cited ecologists.
Mandelbrot founded the field of fractal geometry, the first broad attempt to quantitatively investigate the notion of roughness. He is interested in both the development and application of fractals.
Rodriguez-Iturbe is known for describing and modeling how water shapes the environment and revealing how climate, soil and atmosphere interact. He received the Robert E. Horton Medal in 1998 and the Stockholm Water Prize in 2002.
Soule, a research professor emeritus in environmental studies, founded the Society for Conservation Biology and The Wildlands Project. He is known for promoting the field of conservation biology.
The MSU events were sponsored by MSU, the American Computer Museum in Bozeman and the museum's director, George Keremedjiev. Sponsors within MSU are the MSU Humanities Institute, the President's Office, the College of Letters and Science, the College of Engineering, NSF/EPSCoR and Phi Kappa Phi.
The previous two MSU Presidential Medals were awarded last year to famed primatologist Jane Goodall and Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
"MSU to give presidential medal April 9 to 'Father of Biodiversity,'" March 9, 2009 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=6910
"Two to receive new MSU Presidential Medal for Global and Visionary Leadership" at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=5772
"Jane Goodall tells MSU crowd to work hard and seize opportunities" at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=5873
Contact: George Keremedjiev at the American Computer Museum of Bozeman at 406-582-1288; Michael Becker at 406-994-5140 or firstname.lastname@example.org