E.O. Wilson on the Century of Biology

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: Well, I’ll tell you what, if I knew, for sure, even though I’ll be 80 next year, I’d be on it. However, I can tell you the main directions that biologists are going to be taking, at least one of the big ones. This is a century of Biology. Physics has had its good time, but now, it’s going to be Biology. This is the century of [synthesism]. Biology has had its reductionist period, wonderful. We hope it will continue. It’ll be the cutting edge reductionism and heavy reliance on the knowledge of Physics and Chemistry systems at the molecular level, for sure.

But, it’s also going to be the century in which the other level from superorganism, from social systems to ecosystems, to species organization, will a necessity emerge as major areas of illuminating research. And here is the main trend overall, it will be to study the major transitions in organization, molecule to organelle like the nucleus and mitochondria, to cell to advance cell structure, to organism to Superorganism [that are not]. Those major transitions then can only be understood by [synthetic] studies of how all the elements and basic processes that are being discovered have been discovered by more reductionistic biology are put together.

We’ve got to re-synthesize them to understand the next level up step by step. A unified Biology will be one in which the major transitions between biological group, by level of biological organization are clarified, and the general principles work out of how this is achieved from one level of organization to the other in evolution, what happens, why it happens and when it happens.

 Recorded on: December 4, 2008