Edward O. Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and Harvard research professor emeritus and has pioneered seminal works in evolution of social behavior and organization; and a commitment to conservation that has shaped the face of science, philosophy, ethics and activism for more than a half century.
Who does he admire? Charles Darwin, whose audacious ideas on natural selection, evolution, and the nature of human origins turned a Victorian public and scientific establishment on its collective ear.
On Nov. 4, Wilson will kick off Arizona State University’s Darwinfest, a series of events and speakers that will tap into what Darwin set in motion when he stepped outside of the box 150 years ago to publish “On the Origin of Species.” Wilson will speak about “Darwin and the Future of Science” at 7 p.m. at the Tempe Center for the Arts.
Wilson terms Darwin a “revolutionary” who challenged the social and cultural fabric of his time. But the Darwinian legacy is as much reviled as revered, and this concerns Wilson, as it gets closer to this grand old man of evolutionary fame’s 200th birthday. The debate about evolution in the public realm, unlike in scientific circles, is far from over.
As Wilson writes: “The revolution in astronomy begun by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 proved that Earth is not the center of the universe, nor even the center of the solar system. The revolution begun by Darwin was even more humbling: it showed that humanity is not the center of creation, and not its purpose either. But in freeing our minds from our imagined demigod bondage, even at the price of humility, Darwin turned our attention to the astounding power of the natural creative process and the magnificence of its products.”
Darwin’s four best known works are: “Voyage of the Beagle” (1845), “On the Origin of Species” (1859), “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (1871), and “Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872). Before thinking it’s all dusty old concepts, the bold ideas that Darwin laid bare before an astonished public has deeply influenced philosophy and laid ground work for modern medical discoveries and research in psychology. There is not a single field in biology that is not affected by Darwinian evolutionary theory. Darwinian concepts have even been adopted in economics, technology and engineering.
So why should people with daily concerns peel themselves away from the television set to attend Wilson’s lecture, especially on what will likely prove the most exciting nights in recent political history? Because, like Darwin, Wilson has wrought fundamental change in the world, and he has a message of hope – regardless of what side of the political spectrum one falls on – that each of us can be instrumental in preserving our planet or “The Creation,” as Wilson terms Earth, without irony.
Wilson has spent considerable time building bridges between those that look askance at Darwin and those who embrace his perspective, and invites people of all faiths to remember that this home we have, this “cradle of life,” deserves to be treasured, respected and preserved. Wilson will speak about Darwin’s life, his publications (about which Wilson has himself written, “From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s four great books”) and our shared future on Earth. And while more than half of the American public struggle with Darwin’s theories about evolution and natural selection and embrace the notion of intelligent design, Darwin’s theories – like those of Copernicus or Galileo before him – set the stage for new understanding of what make us human, and unite us.
Wilson is the recipient of innumerable honors, including the National Medal of Science, the gold medal of the World Wildlife Fund, and the Crafoord Prize, the Swedish equivalent to the Noble Peace Prize for ecology. He sits on the boards of the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and the American Museum of Natural History.
Two of his more than twenty-five books have received Pulitzer Prizes, “On Human Nature” (1978) and “The Ants” (1990) – authored with ASU’s School of Life Sciences Professor Bert Hölldobler. Hölldobler and Wilson will unveil their latest collaborative venture, “The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies” at Darwinfest’s companion event, a national book launch and book signing held at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden on Nov. 5. For more information: http://darwin.asu.edu.
This ASU Darwinfest kick-off event is free and open to the public. Seats are limited and tickets required. To reserve your tickets, contact Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ 85281; (480) 350-2822.