The Eyes of a Visionary

At age nine, E.O. Wilson was unraveling secrets of the natural world in Rock Creek Park. Nearly 70 years later, he's ensuring that today's nine-year-olds can follow in his footsteps.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

Dr. Edward O. Wilson’s resume is already so full of accomplishments that we’d have to kill a few trees to print it all here, and that probably wouldn’t make him very happy. A few highlights: Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes and spent 41 years teaching entomology and other courses at Harvard. He popularized the term “biodiversity,” and discovered a new ant species, Pheidole harrisonfordi, named in honor of a close friend. He’s also published 20 books—most recently, The Creation, written as a letter to a Baptist minister, which moved a large number of evangelicals to rally behind the conservation cause.

As Wilson enters his 80th year, he remains a vocal, innovative part of the conservation community. Among his latest creations is the cutting-edge database called the “Encyclopedia of Life” (, which provides scientific information to the public on every documented species in the world.

Last April, NPCA presented Dr. Wilson with the Robin W. Winks Award for Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks at its annual gala in Washington, D.C. National Parks assistant editor Amy Leinbach Marquis spoke with Wilson before the event.

Q. Talk about your early experiences in Rock Creek Park and your interest in ants. Are they directly connected?
A. Yes, indeed. It’s where I did my first entomology expedition. When I was nine years old my father, who was a government auditor, came up for a couple years’ service. I went to a local school, where I did badly, but it didn’t matter. Our apartment was within easy walking distance to Rock Creek Park, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, and the National Zoo—heaven on earth for a nine-year-old. And for some reason—probably from watching Frank Buck movies about adventures in the jungle, and reading National Geographic magazines—I got this urge to go on little expeditions.

So I went out to Rock Creek Park with bottles and collected insects, tried to preserve them in alcohol, and built up my first little collection. Then I would go to the National Zoo and walk around in a state of wonderment at all the creatures from all over the world. At the National History Museum I spent long periods of time pulling out drawers of butterflies, with guards watching me anxiously. I dreamed of someday being a curator, one of those demigods that lived up high in the National History Museum and spent all their time studying insects.

Q. You also focused part of your career on Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area in Massachusetts, right? Tell me more about their significance.
A. In 1967, I created the “Theory of Island Biogeography” with Robert MacArthur, a young professor from Princeton. It became a means of analyzing how many different kinds of plants or animals live on an island in a sustainable manner, and how they got there and continue to live there.

That’s been important work in the new field of conservation science—and you can see why. In a less literal sense, all national parks are islands. So when Boston Harbor Islands were cleaned up with a very expensive waste disposal system (the harbor went from being ranked as the dirtiest in America to one of the cleaner ones), my colleague, Brian Farrell, and I began promoting the islands as a serious recreational area—made more serious by the Park Service acquiring most of it as a protected area. And that’s where we introduced the idea to make national parks centers for research and education, which is going on full-blast now: Harvard has hired a resident entomologist to conduct surveys of the islands and lead tours for the park.

I foresee a time when all national parks become centers for research. They already are to some extent, but I mean serious centers, not just for archaeology, but for biodiversity and ecology too. This will be especially effective in engaging the public in science, because people love to go to parks.

Q. Can you say more about the importance of conducting research in the parks?
A. Certainly. National parks are the best places in the world to host biodiversity studies, and they’ve already been successful in the Great Smoky Mountains. Biodiversity is one of the two fields of science, along with astronomy, in which citizens can actually do primary scientific research. The public can add specimens and photographs, consult with scientists, and join organized groups that actually hunt for new species and get evidence of endangered species… and scientists need this help and information. Science education is a big problem in this country, and this is a superb way to introduce the public—and kids, for that matter—to science in a way that has meaning, because they can actually see it being done and take part in it.

Q. Talk about the impact of the parks on the survival and recovery of species, like the California condor in the Grand Canyon, and the fishers that were just reintroduced to Olympic.
A. Species, on average, live for roughly a million years before they go extinct—and we’ve increased the rate of extinction by as much as 1,000 times. You don’t see it happening every day, but it’s happening. One percent of America’s plant and animal species have gone extinct in the last century, and somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of the rest are known to be in some state of endangerment, or at the very least vulnerable to further impacts like climate change. I think America has lost more bird species in the last 100 years than any other country that we know about.

The national parks are among the best refuges for many plants and animals left in the United States. They’re centers for research and last-ditch conservation movements—bringing back wolves, holding on to grizzly bears—and there should be more parks to increase that coverage. We’ve got to get started on protecting these wildlife corridors, because it’s one of the few ways we can actually accommodate climate change.

Q. What can we as citizens do to honor the parks and prepare for their centennial in 2016?
A. I think that aside from constantly increasing support for the National Park System, we must consider the vision of what is to come. We should think about the use of national parks in mitigating the effects of climate change, promoting science and science education, saving endangered species, and increasing the quality of life in America by growing the parks in number, in total area, and accessibility to the American people.

The National Park System needs a vision. And I don’t want to seem like I’m underrating visions that have gone before—but I believe that right now, with the immense advantage that new technology offers for studying and understanding biological diversity, the National Park System can make huge advances in science and education. There ought to be a lot more science introduced into the National Park System, and it can be done by increasing the budget for scientific research, and finding ever better ways for inviting the participation of scientists outside the system and outside government.

That’s what we should be talking about—expanding the National Park System, not scrambling for crumbs to keep it going. It should be part of the national vision of what will make America great.

Q. Why is science education important?
A. For survival of the nation. Quote me. And if anybody can’t explain that statement, they’re out of the loop. I think it’s understood by many people in this country who see the signs, the handwriting on the wall, that if we become less competitive in science and technology—meaning we do not produce people who can be leaders—then we will be overtaken rather quickly. And this would have a huge impact on our economy. So we need to regain and sustain leadership, and find the ability to advance across broad fronts and many fields that are going to be important not only for basic science, but for whole arrays of technologies—some of which haven’t even been imagined. That will be the source of sustainable economic growth. Right away, anyone could list biomedicine; biotechnology; or the search for sustainable, alternative energy. Why does science matter? For our survival.

Q. A lot of nature and science books are written for people who already love nature and science. But much of your book is directed at people who may not have an immediate interest, and the format, being a letter to a pastor, helps you continue that theme. Talk more about why everyone should care about these issues of biodiversity.
A. Here’s the rationale: The conservation movement in this country has been conducted by a relatively small fraction of America. And considering the importance of that movement, surprisingly few Americans know much about it or have bought into it. So we really have been preaching to the choir. I saw that our political leaders are afraid to bring it up. I was well aware, as most people are if they think about it, that political leaders in the United States generally do not lead—they sense what the public wants, and then with an eye on elections, they shape the issues they address and the positions they take. Many of them are very principled and they will risk their reelection for principled reasons, but generally speaking, the political leadership in America is driven by public opinion.

And that made me think something’s out of kilter here. Americans really ought to love the environment. They ought to love the fauna and flora of their land and their great natural heritage. They ought to—and yet they don’t. Why not? It’s because nobody from the left—from the scientific, liberal, or conservation professions—is addressing them. They’re mainly addressing each other and leaders they consider sympathetic to their mission.

So I asked myself, who are the Americans? Three-quarters of Americans are religious believers. And it would be a conservative estimate to say that one-third or more Americans are evangelical. I was raised a southern Baptist, and I know how they think—basically they wish the country and others well, and they should be natural conservationists. So I wrote The Creation, because I don’t think any fairly well-known scientists had ever held out the hand of friendship, and said, “I respect you—many of us respect you. We need your help,” and then presented the case.

Evangelicals do not want to be sneered at, they don’t want to be told to go to school and learn something—they simply want to be treated decently and asked for their help, and shown respect and treated as somebody necessary to achieve something they basically want to believe in anyway. And that worked. The response has been marvelous.

Q: Sometimes, in the conservation field, at least, it feels like there’s competition between focusing on issues in our own national parks versus these critical biodiversity hotspots that are in much more exotic places in the world. So how do you say, “You know what, we know our national parks are already protected, but they need that kind of intense attention too”? How do you juggle that?
A. My feeling is that every country—every industrialized country that has the wherewithal, the money—should certainly take care of its own first. We have the responsibility not to let our own species die. But the rest of the world’s threatened fauna and flora and its oceans—much of which is under the domain of developing countries too poor to look after their own heritage—need help, and that’s what we should give them. We’re not talking about large amounts of money. Do you know how much it would cost? It’s approximately equal to one part in a thousand of the combined gross national domestic product of the countries of the world. Of course America has a big chunk of that. But we can’t expect countries in these very impoverished third-world areas to devote a lot of their resources and attention to conservation, if we ourselves are letting our fauna and flora go.

Q. We’ve been pretty successful in exporting the national park model to other countries, which take the idea and make it their own. Do you think this model would work in some of these places that need this help?
A. Yes, it already has. Studies by Conservation International have shown that national parks tend to work even better than we deserve to expect. There are a lot of imperfections, of course: When you have civil war, rebellion, and so on, the whole thing can go down the drain. But if there’s any kind of stability at all, even though people around the parks are impoverished, they tend to respect the park.

You get the picture of hoards of starved people, breaking through the fence and shooting animals. They really don’t live like that. They’re proud people. They know that if they destroy the park, cut down all the trees, and shoot all around, they’re not gonna have anything left. And that’s why one of the best messages of building and preserving these international parks is to make it pay for the people who live around them. And that doesn’t take much money. People don’t realize how cheap it would be to help protect the parks.

You’ve got on the order of a billion people living on about two dollars a day or less. You personally, without a heavy sacrifice, could actually support a couple of the guards in one of these parks—like Manu National Park in Peru. For pennies, we could make a big difference in preserving a park by making life better for the people around it.

- Amy Leinbach Marquis

This article appears in the Summer 2008 issue.

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