Who is E.O. Wilson?
(Part 2 of a four-part series. See also The animal issue that made Donald Trump a presidential candidate; How the Twin Towers fell on animals too; and Questioning the claims of “crisis.”)
Perhaps the most influential author and thinker from the rise of the late 20th century environmental movement to today, and certainly one of the most prolific, has been Harvard University entomologist E.O. Wilson.
Wilson in The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967) contributed to the concept of “island ecology,” which uses the interactions of limited numbers of species in isolated habitat as a model and metaphor for how ecological change occurs in general. The “island ecology” model postulates that mainland habitats are also “islands” for the species living in each place, overlooking that animals and plants in mainland habitats, unlike those on actual islands, are continually challenged throughout their existence by abundant rivals and predators, and have omnipresent opportunity to either migrate or adapt to new habitat niches.
In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) Wilson argued for “social Darwinism.” Unlike any theory that Charles Darwin himself advanced, “Social Darwinism” asserts––as the Teutonic Naturists believed––that the socio-economic status quo exists as an inevitable outcome of evolutionary processes which better equip the affluent ruling classes for success in life.
Darwin, as American Museum of Natural History paleontologist and “punctuated equalibirium” evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in rebuttal to Wilson, was aware that changing circumstance could dramatically change the requirements for evolutionary success, so as to doom the mighty dinosaurs while enabling meek rodents to inherit the earth.
Wilson had already been lecturing about a purported “extinction crisis” for several years before detailing his case for it The Diversity of Life (1992). Extrapolating from the “island ecology” theorem, Wilson projected that tens of thousands of never detected and never to be detected insects and microbes nonetheless exist in unique “biological islands” of mainland habitat, and are being lost to habitat destruction at astronomical rates.
Further drawing from actual island examples, Wilson blamed species not native to “biological islands” for much of his projected species loss rate.
In The Creation (2009) Wilson proposed that “Science and religion…should come together to save the creation” of either evolution or God.
Between writing his other books Wilson produced four tomes about ants, of which the most influential may be Success & Dominance in Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects (1990).
Though not a eugenicist, creationist, or climate change denier in the simplistic, fundamentalist sense, Wilson’s work as a whole reinforces the Teutonic Naturist notion that all species and human socio-economic strata have a particular and relatively unchanging place in the natural order, and ideally function with each element in that place––like an ant hill. Wilson in essence postulates that the world was a perfect Garden of Eden until humans began moving species around contrary to the natural order.
Critics, feminists especially, have noted that Wilson’s world view appears to reflect his upbringing in then-segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and Washington D.C., and his subsequent success as a tenured faculty member at Harvard University, a gender-segregated institution for most of the first half of his career.
Wilson’s central ideas have become canon among both mainstream conservationists and many political conservatives, most of whom seem to be unaware that they were considered the best ideas of the 18th century.
Frustrated ecological nativism
Before 2001, ecological nativists, including Wilson, were mostly unsuccessful in their incessant efforts to rally support for eradicating popular animals whom the nativists perceived as threats to their own favored species.
Often these animals were debatably termed “non-native” as a pretext for extermination, but back then the term “non-native” carried relatively little emotional punch––at least with the public.
Time and again, nativists were rebuffed–for example, in seeking to kill mute swans to expand trumpeter swan habitat, cutthroat trout blamed for depleting native trout in Lake Yellowstone, and mountain goats who were accused of eating rare alpine flowers in Olympic National Park.
Nativist purges of hooved species from the Channel Islands and of feral cats from many locations were waged mostly against public opinion, and were often possible only when privately funded organizations such as The Nature Conservancy bought the land to be purged, then funded the killing themselves before turning the land over to the U.S. or state governments.
The public has generally supported campaigns against the likes of the lake weed Eurasian watermilfoil, lampreys, zebra mussels, and gypsy moths, but even these efforts have been stalled at times by concern rising ever since Rachel Carson published her opus book Silent Spring in 1963 that the chemicals used to kill so-called pests may be more harmful, in many instances, than the target animals and plants.
For most of the 20th century wildlife management publications and conferences openly and often discussed ways of persuading the public to share nativist antipathy toward non-native species. But dire warnings that popular non-native species might displace seldom-seen native animals and plants had little or no effect.
Introducing the term “alien species” in place of “exotic species” was eventually attempted. Like “exotic species,” however, “alien species” failed to kindle public alarm. Indeed, for the first decade or more that “alien species” appeared in print, it was associated mainly with science fiction and teenage behavior, rather than ecology and biology.
Only in 1993 did “alien species” gain even marginal visibility in keyword searches of mainstream mass media. Even then, the term “alien species” was never used at more than about a third of the frequency of “exotic species.”
Coincidentally, 1993 also brought an almost fourfold increase in coverage of human “illegal aliens,” and an almost fivefold rise in coverage of human “illegal immigrants.”
Indicative of which non-native species were of most public concern, human “illegal aliens” were mentioned seven times more often in 1993 than other “exotic species” and “alien species” combined. Human “illegal immigrants” were mentioned three and a half times more often.
In short, the discussion of non-human “alien species” appears to have been mostly spillover from the discussion of human “aliens.”