AN AFTERNOON WITH E.O. WILSON

Scientist, thinker, humanist Before the world made ubiquitous connections through a web of packet-switched data, books mattered. Carried innocuously in backpacks and bare hands, books served as collections of big ideas and gateways to adventures. In 1990, there were clues all around that the world was on the edge of an epic transformation, from the recent end of Soviet-era geopolitics, to a hard-to-predict explosion in data processing and transmission. It was as if a massive tidal wave of ideas was suddenly swelling on the horizon, and the expectant world was about to receive the deluge.

In 1990 I was selected to give the commencement address at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had recently written a short book for my honors thesis in biomedical ethics, and anticipated that I might develop a career in related fields. As the commencement speaker that year, I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with college VIPs and honorees, one of whom would be the great biologist E.O. Wilson, selected to receive an honorary degree from the school.

Wilson is not only one of the great scientific minds of his time, but of any time. Formally an expert on myrmecology—the study of ants, of all things—he may be most scientifically influential in the development of his theory of sociobiology, which proposes that culture and social behavior is direct product of biological evolution. He’s the author of many books, including a stunning, shimmering novel (Anthill), and has largely restructured the collective conversation on environmental advocacy, sustainable ecology, and more. He’s got a bright sense of humor, a warm aura of easy engagement, and despite his endless awards, accolades, adulations, and adventures at august institutions like Harvard, he’s as approachable as your favorite avuncular uncle.

In my home growing up, he had been a bit of a hero, too. My father had dug deeply into Wilson’s 1975 landmark book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and it had become the taproot for endless probing, exciting conversations. The concept of ants maintaining complex societies and behaviors-- rather extraordinary declarations at the time-- fueled endless metaphoric comparisons to the state of modern human cultural trends, political disputes, and evolutionary trajectory. That Wilson could also write about his complex ideas like a master wordsmith on top of being a world-class scientist solidified his merit. In my home the ability to have a sophisticated insight into just about any subject didn’t matter much if it could not be communicated clearly and rationally, with bonus points for a dash of poetry. Wilson could do all of the above.

Graduation day came, and I found myself sitting in comfortable chairs next to the great man sharing tea and cookies. At twenty-one, I couldn’t help but feel a little out of time and place, dressed in jacket and tie, a big day speaking to thousands, discussing the potentials of my own future and listening to many of my betters enjoying the day with the seasoned perspectives that are only possible by greater years. Wilson and I found ourselves in an easy conversation about everything and nothing at all. I confided that his book had been an intellectual revelation for me, with resonant effects on my family. Whether it was just polite southern gentility (Wilson hails from Alabama) or genuine interest, I recall how he earnestly asked me about my honors thesis and enjoyed the thought that I might head into a field that he regarded as vital and stimulating.

But what I recall even more is how we shared stories about growing up. We talked about walks in the woods for him outside of Birmingham that introduced him to the power and beauty of the natural world, and he asked me questions and then listened intently to my own teenage forest adventures—comparatively more recent than Wilson’s, to be sure!

It’s ironic as I look back on that day now in the digitally wired future that his famous research into ant culture demonstrated a collective intelligence to those lowly bugs that transcended individual abilities and ambitions. The colony was greater any one person; communication among the colony members was an elegant, surprisingly sophisticated system of data exchange and transmission. Wilson had described a biological expression of modern networking, a metaphor I think about almost every day that I interact with bits of data in the interconnected space of modern life.

After my graduation address, Wilson came over to me and shook my hand, made some very personal, specific comments about my speech—something that mattered immensely to me because it told me he genuinely listened. Perhaps more than anything else that day, I recall most of all how he sought me out after the ceremony. For all his remarkable achievements and reputation, Wilson presented himself as a genuine person, a down-to-Earth man who listened closely, observed intensely, and didn’t miss anything.

Life fleets by so fast. For a twenty-one year old about to set out to find his way in the world, the afternoon spent with him reaffirmed the values I still regard as most important: don’t take life for granted; don’t miss a minute, and above all, work hard to find value in the relationships you make with others, because the colony is stronger the more individuals re-invest themselves in shared experience.

--MS

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