The American biologist EO Wilson was in Britain last week to attend a ground-breaking ceremony on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. The first soil was being turned on the site of what will eventually become the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO), a collaboration between a British educational charity and Wilson’s own Biodiversity Foundation. The idea is to build a “global beacon for biodiversity” on the south coast, and to this end, MEMO has hired the architect David Adjaye to design a conference centre that will be hewn, on a fairly monumental scale, from the local Portland stone.
When I met Wilson, who is a sprightly 85, in London a couple of days after the ceremony, he told me he sees the work that MEMO and his foundation are doing as a moral crusade. “We have to make species survival a moral issue with transcendent, meaning human-wide, acceptance,” he said. “As long as the other eight to ten million species are regarded as in some way fungible against the needs of people, then they’re going to lose. And despite the best efforts of NGOs and global conservation groups, the rate of species extinction is continuing at a high level, and may even be increasing. We could be dooming ourselves by taking the biosphere to a point of no return—a tipping point. And we don’t seem to be capable of [reversing] it any other way except by making [the preservation of biodiversity] a moral precept.”
Wilson, who owes his reputation to his work in the fields of sociobiology and biodiversity, was eager that our discussion stick to terrain that might be thought to be the province of philosophers rather than biologists. His publisher describes his latest book, a terse little volume entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, as his “most philosophical work to date”—presumably because it sets out to explore the “broader meaning of our species”, though Wilson seems to take it for granted that the really interesting questions to ask about human behaviour are genetic ones, questions about its origins as opposed to what we’d usually understand by its “meaning.” And history, he argues in the book, is on his side—or at least intellectual fashion is.
“As late as the 1970s,” Wilson writes, “the orientation of the social scientists was primarily…