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Nature is More Than a Machine


David Rothenberg Remembers E.O. Wilson

When I started college forty years ago, there was this contentious idea of a core curriculum, where everyone had to take some science, some history, some literature, even some computer programming. In my freshman year at Harvard, I signed up for Science B15, with Professor E.O. Wilson, who died yesterday age 92. 


Actually my introduction to the great scientist and science writer, author of thirty-five books and recipient of dozens of major awards, already began in high school. I was the recipient of a book award where I received copy of his at-the-time recent book On Human Nature, perhaps the first general interest science book I ever read, long before I would find myself writing books that one could say fall into this genre. 


Wilson was the undisputed master of this genre. Who else could win a Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction for a 746-page very technical book on ants? It makes for gripping reading, as do all of his many books. He even wrote a novel called Anthill which alternates between a human perspective and the ants’ perspective on one particular hillside. The parts about humans are actually better written. He could do it all. 


That lecture class with a few hundred students was one of the highlights of my first university year. It was the first time I realized how much evolution still mattered to a changing human society, and how simply paying attention to the natural world was still the root of how biology itself evolved. One day Wilson came into class dressed as a bee. Another time he urged us to take time off in our life’s trajectory, being sure to enjoy a Wanderjahr as he called it, before getting too sure about where our lives would go. 


A few years after I took Science B15, I wrote to Wilson that what he taught us about insect pheromones proved very useful when, in Kathmandu, I had to repel an invasion of ants into the place I was staying. Simply smear a few ants dead, make a U-shaped line with the paste on the wall, and the ants will turn about face and follow the black mush, going right back to where they came from. It worked! 


Sorry to kill so many ants inspired by science. He did write back, “your letter is the kind of thing we professors always dream of.” That began a correspondence I tried to keep up for years.  


I did have my disagreements with his ideas over the years. Like many scientists, or really anyone who imagines their own particular discipline to explain the world, he tended to assume science was more serious than other forms of human knowledge. His radical book Consilience aimed to bring the arts and sciences together, as long as biology was understood to include and surround human culture, not simply ground it. Understandably, most humanists were none too pleased with such a statement. 


If he was really serious about making human culture subservient to biology, that ought to include the cultural product we call ‘science’ as well. Still just another human attempt to make sense of the world. I’m sure Wilson realized that; he too knew that literature was another form of knowledge and he devoted considerable energy to it for that reason. 


Wilson was always gracious and genteel, standing up to his critics and treating them with respect. I once heard him debate philosopher/magician David Abram, who asked the great evolutionist if he really thought nature was a machine, to which Wilson replied, “No, of course not, we have way better metaphors than that, but they’re too complicated for the general public.”  


Everyone laughed. Wilson’s writings are full of these deeper and more complex metaphors. 


A few years later I got to play for him a few examples of the music of insects I had collected for my book Bug Music, and he was honestly amazed by sounds he had never heard before. “What’s this?” I asked him, and he responded, “Beats me.” 


“But Professor Wilson, I thought you knew everything,” and he smiled, “No, I just know a bit about ants.” 


Last year I released an album of music dedicated to my mentors and heroes, and I included a piece called “Moth Smoke” with the astonishing sounds of the Death’s Head Hawk Moth. These critters are scary enough even without making this weird squeaking bat like alarm call, a sound too beautiful to resist. 


Wilson was not afraid to assess himself critically. “I came to conservation rather late,” he wrote in the 1990s, preferring to believe that science and politics ought to be kept separate. But in the last three decades of his long and productive life, Wilson became one of the foremost scientists in the environmental movement, arguing forcefully in Half Earth for the radical idea that at least half of our planet should be kept free from human influence, for the exclusive use of the rest of nature’s creations. The proposal sounded radical, but in reality, Wilson's was deeply conservative, a last-ditch attempt to stave off mass extinction, and, in the process, slow climate change. 


Maybe we can pull it off, but not without cultured scientists of Wilson’s caliber. Let’s hope he remains an inspiration to the students of today, and that many more are inspired to blend science and literature with has much elegance as he has done.

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David Rothenberg is a clarinetist, philosopher and author. His most recent CD is 

In the Wake of Memories, a collaboration with Wassim Mukdad and Volker Lankow.

In the Rainforest : Spotify

Moth Smoke: Bandcamp

Moth Smoke: Spotify

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