Benji Jones in Vox:
E.O. Wilson died on December 26, according to his biodiversity foundation. The following interview was conducted with him on November 18. In the spring of 1955, E.O. Wilson, then a young entomologist at Harvard, traveled to northeastern Papua New Guinea to study ants. Hiking with local guides through dense rainforests, he climbed 13,000 feet to the summit ridge in the Saruwaged mountains — becoming, by his account, the first Western scientist to reach the peak. So much of what Wilson saw during that expedition was new to Western science, including a number of types of ants, he told Vox in a recent interview. “There were a lot of adventures like that,” said Wilson.
Today, it may seem as though scientists have explored nearly every corner of the Earth, from the thick, humid jungles of Central Africa to the rust-red, arid outback of Australia. Walking into an ecosystem and stumbling upon species that have yet to be cataloged in academic journals now seems like something you can only read about in books that people like E.O. Wilson have written. (He’s written more than 30, and if you don’t have time to read them all, you can check out a new biography by Richard Rhodes out about him entitled Scientist: E.O. Wilson: A Life in Nature.) But that’s not how Wilson, a research professor emeritus at Harvard, sees it. In fact, much of the world’s biodiversity remains undiscovered, he told Vox. “A rough estimate suggests that there are upwards of 10 million species on the planet, and we know only a small fraction of them,” said Wilson, who popularized the term “biodiversity” in the 1980s. “The opportunities are endless.”
Sure, you might have to travel farther or study smaller organisms to find something new, he said, but there remains so much potential for discovery. And those discoveries are useful, he added, especially as we seek to conserve nature. While we already know plenty about the forces that harm ecosystems and wildlife, from habitat loss to oil spills, there’s tremendous value in knowing what we have to lose, in better understanding the planet that supports us.
I spoke with Wilson about scientific discovery for a recent episode of Vox Conversations (you can find a link below). We also chatted about how studying ants helped him understand human behavior and led to a big new conservation initiative called the Half-Earth Project. Inspired by Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which he published in 2016, the initiative seeks to protect 50 percent of all land and ocean on the planet. The project backbone is a large dataset that shows where new protected areas would be most useful to protect biodiversity.