September 24, 2010

The Great E.O. Wilson

What I’m Reading Today: I can’t wait to dip into Russell Banks’s Trailerpark, which I just received yesterday. A lot of people have recommended it to me over the years. However, last night was spoken for with kids gymnastics. A hoot to watch, let me tell you.

I went to see the great E.O. Wilson speak yesterday. It was like getting to hear Darwin speak. If you don’t know who E.O. is, you should. He’s the Stephen King of science, the Abraham Lincoln of sociobiology. He’s one of those people who shape the way we think. Not only that but he’s recently ventured into fiction, with fabulous results! He wrote a novel called Anthill. I haven’t read the whole novel ~ but I really want to. I’ve only read the part that was published in the New Yorker, called “Trailhead.” It tells about the birth to death of an anthill in a way that satisfies both the fiction and the science reader. Here’s an excerpt:

The Trailhead Queen was dead. At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness alone failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them. She lay there, in fact, as though nothing had happened. She had become a perfect statue of herself. While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone.

Isn’t that amazing?

He is just the best speaker too. He looks like a 50s teacher ~ tall and thin and a bit stooped, white hair carefully parted on the side and combed and slicked into place, big black-rimmed glasses in that 50s shape, a gray suit with a red tie. He talks with his hands, and his voice has a bit of a lisp from his teeth. The minute he opens his mouth, you know you’re in the presence of greatness.

His talk was about how we are very rapidly decimating our planet’s species diversity. He said we are paleolithic in our emotions, medieval in our institutions, and futuristic in our technology ~ which is very scary. He also said that we are making good progress saving our physical environment but ignoring our living environment. If we save our living environment, the physical environment will be saved too, but if we save only the physical environment, we will lose both the physical and the living.

He went into great fascinating detail about our planet and its species. Did you know that there are literally millions of species that we have yet to discover right here on our own planet? I had no idea. Granted, most of them are nematodes or bacteria or viruses. He said that a scientist could spend his or her professional lifetime just investigating the perimeter of one single rotting tree stump, and he talked about how we see the ground as a two-dimensional thing when really it is layer upon layer of living ecosystem. He would talk about a group of species (a phylum? an order?) and then he would say, “And so for all you students in the audience, if you would like to make a huge splash in your career, have all these discoveries to make, you should go into bacterial biology.” Something like that. Then, he would introduce the next group of species and end it with, “And so, students who are listening, if you want to make a huge splash …” He named a number of species that recently went extinct. He called the ivory-billed woodpecker the Elvis of birds; people keep sighting it, but it really is extinct.

He ended his speech with a quote (I don’t remember from whom): “A civilization is measured not just by what it creates but also by what it decides not to destroy.”

His talk got me thinking about our world. We take it for granted and think of it as fixed. When we want to feel pulled out of our world and taken to an alternate universe, we read science fiction. But really alternate worlds/universes exist right here under our noses if we just take the time to investigate. He talked about the worlds that exist in our backyard on a very small scale (he discovered his first species ~ a type of fire-ant ~ in a vacant lot when he was 13), and I would argue that alternate worlds exist on a human scale in our backyard, if we just take the time to discover them and try to convey them. If we can get past our preconceived notions and really see what’s going on, try to make sense of it, convey it in all its glorious detail, we’ll have something. We don’t need to go to Borneo to get the exotic (though E.O. would argue that places like Borneo hold the greatest species diversity); all we need to do is see it in the world around us and really comprehend its strangeness. Make the world new!

Questions of the Day: Do you get inspired like I do when you go to hear people speak? Do you think the exotic is right in your back yard?

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