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The Unity of Knowledge – The Story of Edward O. Wilson

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Almost from our first day in school we are taught different subjects in separate compartmentalized ways. As we grow older these differences are made even more clear and by the time we end school we are made to chose between subjects – history on one side, physics another and sociology a third. Nature and the universe are however “one.” Edward Wilson, considered the greatest biologist since Charle Darwin writes that:

“The fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship. The ideal is of the unity of learning – the [combining] of the sciences with the social sciences and humanities in scholarship and learning. Every college student should be able to answer the following question: what is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare.”

The New Darwin and the Study of Ants

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Alabama, US, in 1929. He grew up in a rural environment surrounded by nature and was always interested in studying birds and animals in their natural homes. He was particularly interested in learning about birds but as a child he had a accident while fishing that left him blind in one eye. As a teenager he also became partly deaf. Wilson did not give up his dreams of being a biologist and focused on the study of insects.

As a young student he made important discoveries, including finding the first colony of fire ants in the US. In 1955 he completed a Ph.D. from Harvard University and has been a professor there ever since. At 91 he continues to work long hours. He is called a workaholic which he says is “not a bad thing.” He says that “I’ve always made it my custom to work long and hard. Doing something unusual requires hard work.”

Wilson’s speciality was in “myrmecology” which is the study of ants. Most of us think of ants as creatures we need to keep out of our kitchens. For Wilson ants have major lessons for human beings. Wilson writes that “It is in altruism and the social organization of ants that students turn to in order to learn more about these traits in human beings by comparison.” Altruism is the selfless concern for others. Individual ants sacrifice themselves as needed to protect their ant colonies. Wilsons says that humans have in part the same abilities, to share with and help others.

Sociobiology and Global Conservation

Wilson is the founder of “sociobiology”. This is a combination of learnings from many disciplines to explain the social behavior of animals and human beings. How do animals communicate? What division of labour is seen in animals? What behaviours help an animal family to survive? Biologists consider Wilson’s book on the subject as the most important book on animal behavior of all time.

His studies also led him to see the destruction humans are causing to the planet. In the 1970s he began to be involved global conservation and is the founder of the Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. A 2019 United Nations report found that “Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” Wilson’s foundation aims to preserve and protect the incredible diversity of life on our planet. He is the driving force behind the “Encyclopedia of Life” which aims to have a detailed web page for every one of Earth’s species.

He says that there are many ways to help conservation, this also includes new ways to consume foods. He says, “I think we could produce an almost unlimited new industry of food production. People have begun to talk a lot about making hamburgers from vegetables. I like that. If we could just take the cattle off the ranches, and stop slaughtering them, and somehow produce substitutes for the things that are harming humanity most, we would make a great leap forward.”

Wilson’s dream is “That somehow we have as a value to not destroy but to protect and study and understand and love the environment that was our birthplace.”

The Unity of Knowledge

On big issues facing humanity he says that “Most of the issues that vex humanity daily – ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, environment, endemic poverty – cannot be solved without integrated knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities.”

We may all make a better world if we imbibed Wilson’s thoughts. False divisions may be brought down and in the unity of knowledge the world could become a more peaceful and happy place.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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