E.O. Wilson on Modern Biology Education

Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism).  Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular humanist ideas concerned with religious and ethical matters.

A Harvard professor for four decades, he has written twenty books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species. Considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, Dr. Wilson is often called "the father of biodiversity," (a word that he coined). He is the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.

  • Transcript


Edward O. Wilson: Well, when I was in college 60 years ago and Biology itself has gone through a major transformation.  Keep in mind that science itself, and certainly this is true of Biology, has for most of its history going back to the 1600s been doubling in size, measured by information, measured in terms by number of journals, and in the input of new information measured by the number of scientists been doubling roughly every 15 years for what… 300 years, 350 years. 

This means that even from 1948, say, or 1946 when I entered college and took Elementary Biology to the present time, we’ve had something like a doubling four times over.  So to the fourth, we’re talking somewhere in 15, 20 times more knowledge, and that is dramatically illustrated, for example, by the birth and growth of [electron] Biology.  In the late ‘40s, those of us who took Basic Biology would learn a little Biochemistry, but that was very tenuously linked to the rest of Biology which had to do with subjects that have now been crowded down into a more smaller section of what is considered Elementary Biology. 

But we were expecting to be able to cover all of that and most of knowledge, you know.  If you were a Biology major, then in your four years you’re expected to know something about almost all of Biology.  When I got to Harvard and took my PhD, it was legendary and then I were nearly 50s that the qualifying examination given to each PhD student ostensibly, officially was to attest what you knew all across Biology, so you were as likely to be asked a question of Biochemistry as you were in vertebrate anatomy, as you were in the classification of the Crustacea and so on.  

And it’s amazing that that expectation was there, it wasn’t always followed, but that was the expectation.  That has changed totally making the totality of Basic Biology very, which we’d call elementary or beginning, Basic Biology very difficult to transmit.

Recorded on: December 4, 2008