E.O. Wilson on Altruism and Enlightenment

New Scientist
Stories from New Scientist.
April 30 2012 6:30 AM

Altruism and the New Enlightenment

An interview with E.O. Wilson.

(Continued from Page 1)

Yet at the end of your new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, you seem upbeat, arguing that by the next century we could turn the world into a permanent paradise for humans.

It's a statement of hope. I was not going to say we have intrinsically screwed up. I had to finish it as a full-blown American optimist saying I think we are going to find our way out of this and we are going to do it with education and science.

But the clock is ticking ...

That's right. That is why I'm devoted to the kind of environmentalism that is particularly geared towards the conservation of the living world, the rest of life on Earth, the place we came from. We need to put a lot more attention into that as something that could unify people. Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.

Do you believe science will help us in time?

We can't predict what science is going to come up with, particularly on genuine frontiers like astrophysics. So much can change even within a single decade. A lot more is going to happen when the social sciences finally join the biological sciences: who knows what will come out of that in terms of describing and predicting human behavior? But there are certain things that are almost common sense that we should not do.

What sort of things shouldn't we do?

Continue to put people into space with the idea that this is the destiny of humanity. It makes little sense to continue exploration by sending live astronauts to the moon, and much less to Mars and beyond. It will be far cheaper, and entail no risk to human life, to explore space with robots. It's a commonly stated idea that we can have other planets to live on once we have used this one up. That is nonsense. We can find what we need right here on this planet for almost infinite lengths of time, if we take good care of it.

What is it important to do now?

The title of my final chapter is "A New Enlightenment". I think we ought to have another go at the Enlightenment and use that as a common goal to explain and understand ourselves, to take that self-understanding which we so sorely lack as a foundation for what we do in the moral and political realm. This is a wonderful exercise. It is about education, science, evaluating the creative arts, learning to control the fires of organized religion and making a better go of it.

Could you be more concrete about this new Enlightenment?

I would like to see us improving education worldwide and putting a lot more emphasis—as some Asian and European countries have—on science and technology as part of basic education. To that end, the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation—a foundation I was invited to give my name to—has been working with Apple to create an online beginners' course in biology using the best animation techniques.

We're using 3D animators, educators, multimedia artists trained in science and cinema, and textbook professionals. It's a sort of portal that runs from molecules to ecosystems, from the origin of life to the modern awareness that we control the environment we live in. It will present modern biology in an exciting, compelling way. The first chapters have already been distributed for free by Apple in 32 countries, including the US.

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This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

Liz Else is a New Scientist associate editor.

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