As the keynote speaker of Emory’s Evolution Revolution on Thursday, E.O. Wilson, “the father of biodiversity,” discussed Charles Darwin’s life and works as a precursor to his talk on the future of evolution.
The Evolution Revolution symposium, sponsored by Computational and Life Sciences, anticipates the upcoming 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his famed work, On the Origin of Species.
Frans de Waal, director of Emory’s Living Links Center at the Yerkes Research Center, opened the night, introducing Wilson as one of the greatest biologists of all time.
He said that Wilson, the Pellegrino University Research Professor Eeritus at Harvard University, was a fighter who pushed through the controversies that his numerous leading books have provoked. Wilson has won Pullitzer Prizes for his books, On Human Nature and The Ants, and is a recipient of the National Medal of Science.
“He’s always been a fighter. He always took home the biggest, meanest boys,” de Waal said. “His face would be pulp, but he always kept on fighting.”
Taking the stage amidst prolonged applause, Wilson began by speaking about Darwin’s young life.
Wilson spoke of Darwin’s travels around the globe, loosening the stiff atmosphere by joking that Darwin “suffered for five years on a ship with no television or radio” and that “the only reason he was asked to go was to keep Fitzroy [captain of the H.M.S. Beagle during Darwin’s sea travels] sane … but he ended up going insane anyway.”
Wilson added that Darwin was at the top of his career when he sailed around the world, collecting specimens as he went.
“Mathematicians peak in their teens, biologists peak in their thirties, and philosophers … they never peak,” he explained.
The majority of Wilson’s talk focused around what he deemed “The Four Great Books of Darwin,” which include The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
Wilson said that the four books flow like a narrative from Earth to human, venerating Darwin’s careful records.
“This man was irritatingly accurate. He seldom made a mistake,” Wilson said.
After giving a brief history of Darwin’s background and explaining the difference between functional biology, or the mechanics of biology, and evolutionary biology, which asks why evolution occurs, Wilson proceeded to speak about the future.
“We are now in a new point in biology. We are able to take apart cell membranes, and we can figure out the exact structure of mitochondria,” Wilson said.
But in order to make progress, he said, “we must go back and re-synthesize. Only in that way do we create more.”
Wilson further explained his argument with an example and said that “higher levels emerge from interaction of lower cells.”
Ultimately, Wilson said, people have the daunting goal of trying to understand the history and progression of life.
He said that human evolution is still continuing both by natural selection and cultural selection, citing conditions such as the harsh cold, oxygen levels and human progression in fields such as space exploration.
“Yes, there are other drivers,” he admitted, acknowledging both genetic drift and mutation. “But nothing else is comparable to the progression and genetic variation seen in natural selection."
Wilson said that humans are not in need of more intelligence, but of increased self-understanding.
Quoting the late Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Wilson concluded that “when all else fails, men turn to reason.’”
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