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E.O. Wilson’s Advice to Young Scientists

This is advice to come back to again and again. 

On charting new courses of inquiry, and finding inspiration in research and in learning, he tells us to march to our own drummer, and to not fall in with the army of the masses: 

“Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.”

And on our need to seed, stoke and feed our curiosity with as many varied influences and disciplines as we can:

“In time, all of science will come to be a continuum of description, an explanation of networks, of principles and laws. That’s why you need not just be training in one specialty, but also acquire breadth in other fields, related to and even distant from your own initial choice.

Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes.”

Finally, bad at math? You’ll be happy to know that he says not to worry too much. You’ve got plenty of time. And you can always add a mathematician as a collaborator.

(via Brain Pickings)

In time, all of science will come to be a continuum of description, an explanation of networks, of principles and laws. That’s why you need to not just be training in one specialty, but also acquire breadth in other fields, related to and even distant from your own initial choice. Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes.

[…]

In science and all its applications, what is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications.

—  E.O. Wilson’s advice to young scientists, also applicable to just about any field, but most of all to the ethos of education itself.

You don’t need good mathematics to be a scientist

When biologist E. O. Wilson gave seemingly counterintuitive advice in his book Letters to a Young Scientist, it didn’t go down well – in the media at least

YOU don’t have to be good at mathematics, a high IQ may be a hindrance, and seek goals where others don’t to make for easy wins. Such advice from science giant E. O. Wilson could only cause upset.

In Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson offers searingly honest – and, some argue, incorrect – counsel. An article based on the book in The Wall Street Journal last month caused uproar among the mathematically minded.

In the article and the book he describes how many successful scientists are mathematically “semiliterate”, and reveals how, as a 32-year-old Harvard professor, he sat with undergraduates (some his own students) to learn calculus and achieve an undistinguished C. His aim is not to deter, but to encourage talented would-be scientists who aren’t naturals with numbers. The “haemorrhage of brainpower” must be staunched.

Controversy aside, Wilson’s plain advice is refreshing, and the book, with lovely vignettes of his career, should inspire. Many tips are pragmatic: don’t be lured by a field’s “glamorous aura”, prizewinning scientists and big grants, but “go where the least action is occurring”. Some tips seem like heresy but make sense: forget the hive mind and let the solitary brain wander and dream. A few are a little dubious, brutal even. “Real scientists do not take vacations,” Wilson decrees. Fine – but only if you have his career.

Overall, you could hardly find a better mentor than Wilson. Jaded mid-careerers struggling with lab politics, egocentric colleagues, hazy career paths in the face of cuts and few tenured positions may well disagree. But Wilson has advice for them, stressing how much of the world is yet to be explored by science. “You are needed,” he urges, reassuringly.

Skilfully and elegantly written, many of Wilson’s tips could also apply to other careers. As he says: “The scientist is part poet, and by pleasure drawn from new ways to express old truths, the poet is part scientist.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “My advice is…”

The Origin of Us: Campfires As The Bedrock of Human Civilization


If you want to understand who we are as human beings, a good question to ask yourself is “Where did we come from?”

And to begin to find an answer to this big and daunting question, it’s helpful to discover more about our history and past, especially the evolutionary origin of our species and civilization as a whole.

In The Social Conquest of Earth, legendary scientist Edward O. Wilson provides us an intriguing glimpse into the story of where we came from, what shaped us into who we are today, and what natural forces contributed to our advancements in society and civilization.

Like many familiar stories of our origin, it begins with our ability to create fire and control it.

The first use of fire was likely from lightning strikes, which were helpful to flush and trap prey who’d run away from ground fires. Many animals would become cooked by these fires which likely sparked our interest in cooking meats and vegetables. This was also an easy way to get bones that could later be fashioned into tools.

However, once we learned how to create fire and control it on our own, this led to the development of campfires and campsites, which – as I will try to explain – was likely the first step toward how our civilization evolved into what it is today.


Eusociality, nests, and campfires

Eusociality is a high level of organization among animals where individuals are highly cooperative and altruistic, often acting to benefit the group over self-interest. It is a very rare form of social evolution that is often only studied in insects (like ants and bees, who work solely for the benefit of the colony).

Edward O. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in studying eusociality in the animal world, particularly in ants and other eusocial insects. However, throughout the book he demonstrates many interesting similarities between insects and humans that might help explain our evolutionary origin.

First, he shares the key characteristics of “eusociality” here:

According to Wilson, campfires and campsites can be seen as a type of “nest” that helped introduce the human species down a more eusocial path of development.

In many ways, campfires were a significant step in “group bonding” within our species. They were common places to share food, tell stories, learn from each other, and begin to form strong bonds and loyalties with the group.

Once we set up campsites, it became easier for division of labor too. Some individuals would stay at the “nest” to raise young or protect it from potential invaders, while other individuals would forage for food, hunt for prey, and bring the bounty back for others.

Over time our “nests” became increasingly more complex and sufficient, especially with the rise of agriculture and being able to grow our own food. Instead of the next generation starting their own nests, they would stay with their groups and continue building together across generations.

All of these factors were huge leaps toward the beginning of society, culture, and civilization. And in an odd way, they were all sparked from the invention of a simple campfire.



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In ‘Half Earth,’ E.O. Wilson Calls for a Grand Retreat

This week, the biologist Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University and recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, will publish his 32nd book, a personal exhortation to conserve biodiversity titled “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”

The book offers an improbable prescription for the environment: Dr. Wilson suggests that humans set aside roughly 50 percent of the planet as a sort of permanent preserve, undisturbed by man.

Q. Why publish this book now?

A. Because a lifetime of research has magnified my perception that we are in a crisis with reference to the living part of the environment.We now have enough measurements of extinction rates and the likely rate in the future to know that it is approaching a thousand times the baseline of what existed before humanity came along.

Q. Reading your book, one senses you felt a great urgency to write it?

A. The urgency was twofold. First, it’s only been within the last decade that a full picture of the crisis in biodiversity has emerged. The second factor was my age. I’m 86. I had a mild stroke a couple of years ago. I thought, “Say this now or never.”

And what I say is that to save biodiversity, we need to set aside about half the earth’s surface as a natural reserve. I’m not suggesting we have one hemisphere for humans and the other for the rest of life. I’m talking about allocating up to one half of the surface of the land and the sea as a preserve for remaining flora and fauna.

Q. In a rapidly developing world, where would such a reserve be?

A. Large parts of nature are still intact — the Amazon region, the Congo Basin, New Guinea. There are also patches of the industrialized world where nature could be restored and strung together to create corridors for wildlife. In the oceans, we need to stop fishing in the open sea and let life there recover. The open sea is fished down to 2 percent of what it once was. If we halted those fisheries, marine life would increase rapidly. The oceans are part of that 50 percent.

Now, this proposal does not mean moving anybody out. It means creating something equivalent to the U.N.’s World Heritage sites that could be regarded as the priceless assets of humanity. That’s why I’ve made so bold a step as to offer this maxim: Do no further harm to the rest of life. If we can agree on that, everything else will follow. It’s actually going to be a lot easier than people think.

Q. Why?

A. Because many problems of human occupancy that we once thought of as insoluble are taking care of themselves. Demographers tell us that the human population could stabilize at about 10 or 11 billion by the end of the century.

High tech is producing new products and ways of living that are congenial to setting side more space for the rest of life. Instrumentation is getting smaller, using less material and energy.

Moreover, the international discourse is changing. I’m very encouraged by the Paris Climate Accords. I was excited to see at the time of the Paris meeting that a consortium of influential business leaders concluded that the world should go for net zero carbon emissions. Towards that end, they recommended we protect the forests we have and restore the damaged ones. That’s consistent with the “Half Earth” idea.

Q. Do you worry that you are risking the reputation of a lifetime with such a controversial proposal?

A. Controversy doesn’t bother me. In 1975, when I published about sociobiology, I was attacked in many ways. There were mobs in Harvard Square when I was to give a lecture. I had to be escorted to the back of the hall by police! I had classes interrupted. At Harvard! And then the idea won out. Today, there’s widespread agreement: Yes, there is a human instinct and a lot of human behavior is genetic. So, I don’t think I’m risking my reputation with “Half Earth.” All I’m doing is reporting good science and the experiences of researchers who’ve described a biodiversity crisis.

Q. Do you see yourself as a naturally optimistic person?

A. Yes, I think I am optimistic. I had a rough childhood: family breakup in the depths of the Depression. I don’t know why I’m an optimist. No, that’s not true — I do know. Contrary to my childhood, I married a very wonderful person. That solved a lot. But you know, I had a lot of good breaks as a young person. At 29, I was a tenured professor at Harvard.

Q. What would you say have been the happiest moments in your life?

A. That’s easy. Exploring natural environments, especially in the tropical forests around the world, places like Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Caribbean. I did a lot of exploring when I was in my 20s. Even then, you could see the ravages visited upon the natural world, and I was conscious of extinctions. At that time, I didn’t see it as serious enough globally to require immediate action. Maybe I saw the flora and fauna of the world as immortal.

Q. Do you think connecting to your own mortality sensitized you to the fragility of nature?

A. I would think a vivid sense of one’s personal mortality is part of the wisdom of old age, which is not overrated. You know so much more. In my case, the older I got, the more audacious I got. Now, I’m ready to speak out and gamble a bit.

Source: @nytimesheadline

NEW! FREE! SCIENCE! (Or, E.O. Wilson Attempts to Educate the Entire World)

E.O. Wilson, famed ecologist and stunningly eloquent communicator, has recently published a biology textbook online, for free. Complete with gorgeous visuals and interactive multi-media tidbits, you can download it here.

Although some have had mixed feelings about the sample chapter published in 2012, I think it will be a great resource for the public looking to learn a bit more about biology, high school students interacting with concepts for the first time, and grad students who’ve had parts of their brains melted and can no longer remember what a nucleosome is. My only critique is that this should also be available to those who don’t enjoy the benefits of Apple products… 

However, I’m an advocate for anything that makes science fun, free, and widely available. This is one of those things! Good for you, E.O.Wilson, putting all those high school textbook publishers out of business.