E.O. Wilson on 'Superorganism'

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: Bert Holldobler, who will also be talking with you, and I have worked for nearly 40 years together on ants, and Bert’s great contributions have been in the biology of ants, organization of ants’ societies, of communication and the like, and I’ve done a lot of work in that area too, but I’ve been more over into ecology and bio-geography and systematics, so we had a complimentarity in our work together. When Bert finally got fed up in around the late ‘70s with the lack of support for our kind of biology, with all of the major support, big science support at that time was going into molecular biology, cell biology and biomedical research. That’s good. I mean, the more the better, but very little was being dribbled in to the kind of biology we’re doing.

Bert needed a laboratory, you know, comparable to a molecular biology laboratory for the kind of work he was doing, because he was doing microscopy, various forms of analysis, a Doppler laser instrumentation, that sort of thing. And he decided finally, among other reasons including his own origins to go to the University of Wurzburg. So the two of us at this time decided that modestly that between us, we knew everything that was to be known about ants, so I said, “Before you go, before you go, Bert, let’s write a book. We’ll put down everything known about ants.” So that was “The Ants” that’s the title of the book. In 1990 and 1991, it won the Pulitzer. It’s the only book I know of that on science, real science and everyone at Pulitzer.

Then, as time went on, new conceptions about how insect societies are organized, what the evolution of [altruism] is, the importance of self organizing in ant societies have implications for self organizing of complex biological and other systems. All of that began to grow in the ensuing two decades… well, actually, one decade which when we conceived the “Superorganism” and then almost two decades before we got it out. Then, we decided while he was still in Wurzburg that we would do another book that brought together everything mainly known about ants with some of the social insects as well to address, to give the basic information again, but to now address this new, newly conceived and clarified biological problems of social evolution and organization of a society, and that’s why we wrote the “Superorganism.”


Recorded on: December 4, 2008