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Seeking The Micro, Scientists Find The Big Picture


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan from the Aspen Environment Forum. This gathering presents the opportunity to talk with two eminent scientists who have seen the world through very different lenses, E.O. Wilson and Sylvia Earle.

Ed Wilson started with his eyes trained on the ground and followed ants as they led him to studies of biodiversity, evolution, civilization and human nature. Sylvia Earle dove into the Gulf of Mexico to focus first on aquatic plants and then to the profound relationship between degradation of the seas and life everywhere.

If you want to know more about what a lifetime of experience has taught E.O. Wilson and Sylvia Earle, give us a call, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

We're going to take questions, as well, from the audience here at the Paepke Auditorium in Aspen, and thanks, everybody, for coming in today.


CONAN: Later in the program, a giant of another sort, Stewart Brand joins us to talk about bringing back extinct species. But first E.O. Wilson and Sylvia Earle join us here at the Aspen Environment Forum, and it's really great to talk with you both again, nice to have you back.

DR. SYLVIA EARLE: Great to be here.

DR. E.O. WILSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And Ed, are you guys pals?


CONAN: Are you guys pals?

WILSON: For years and years, all the way back to her graduate student days.

EARLE: It's almost 50 years.

CONAN: Almost 50 years.


CONAN: I wonder: Have you learned anything from each other?

WILSON: Well, I've learned an awful lot from her.

EARLE: And vice versa.


WILSON: She was the one who really kept on at seminars and talks that I gave reminding me that I was leaving out 70 percent of the Earth's surface.


CONAN: And he probably reminded you, Sylvia, that you were leaving out 70 percent of the species.

EARLE: The problem is there aren't any aquatic ants that I know about, right.


CONAN: E.O. Wilson, what is the most surprising thing you've learned about ants over all that time?

WILSON: Well, first of all I want to mention some breaking news that I've just been handed. I think it's relevant to this. Lonesome George, the last surviving member of his race, has died. And efforts to get him mated with a neighboring race, females of a neighboring race, failed.

I was with him a year ago, and we were all wondering how long this would take. Well, poor Lonesome George has died, and his race is gone forever.

CONAN: Lonesome George, a Galapagos tortoise.

WILSON: Yeah, now you better return that question and ask me that again.

CONAN: I was going to say: What is the most interesting or surprising thing you've learned about ants in all those years?

WILSON: Just about everything. When I started as a graduate student, we knew surprisingly little about these world-dominant insects. In many places of the world, they make up as much as one-third of the biomass, the total weight of all animals. And during my career, I've seen the - developments include the working out of the code of chemical communication that they use, how their caste systems have evolved and what are the determinants - what determines an individual to belong to one caste or another.

And we've begun to use ants very effectively in expanding our knowledge of the living terrestrial environment because they are everywhere and so abundant. And all of that body of knowledge has increased exponentially up to the point that we know an awful lot about ants today.

CONAN: And how do we get from ants to, well, your recent studies of human civilization?

WILSON: Well, let me just say, since we're very limited in time, I'm commenting on what we can learn from ants about our own behavior, our economies and our public policies. And the reason I bring that up right away because I can make a relatively brief answer: nothing.


WILSON: What we've learned, however, and I wish we had time to spin it out more, I've covered it in the book you just mentioned, "The Social Conquest of Earth," is why ants became dominant elements in the environment is through their social behavior, but why did their social behavior take so very long to appear, just as ours took an immensely long time, geologic time to make its appearance in the history of life on Earth.

And that entails deeper investigation into the nature of altruism, what it is, what effects it has on individuals, how it originates and how it can lead to superior competitiveness in the environment. So we've learned a lot from ants that way, by working out basic principles.

CONAN: Sylvia Earle, let me turn to you, and what is the most surprising thing that you've learned about aquatic plants in this time that you've studied them?

EARLE: The most surprising thing, well, I think their importance in the way the world works, and it's not just the conspicuous photosynthesizers that you can hold in your hand but the micro-beasts that generate most of the oxygen in the atmosphere and take up a lot of the carbon, as well, drive the way the world works.

You can call them plants if you will. If it photosynthesizes, I suppose it's on the edge. Although bacteria, which definitely are not plants as we think of them but do photosynthesize in the sea, are really important. And just the joy of getting to know something about life in the blue part of the planet during my lifetime, the first time that humans have had the kind of access that we now enjoy.

It really gives me more hope than not to realize that what we now know, not just about plants or ants or climate change or any of it, it's just that we are the luckiest people ever to come on the planet because we, for the first time, can see ourselves in context of all the rest of life on Earth and realize how special it is to be alive at all.

Again, dolphins may wonder, looking up at the stars and see those sparkly things, and elephants are pretty smart. A lot of creatures have great intelligence, including my dogs. But, you know, they don't know what we know, and we're just beginning to discover the limits to what we can get away with on this little blue speck in the universe.

CONAN: It was interesting that Ed Wilson says we now know a lot about ants. In your lifetime, we found enormous mountain ranges under the water that were unsuspected 50, 60 years ago. We found the true geology of the planet. We've discovered all kinds of things, and yet to paraphrase I think you, we don't know squat.


EARLE: Well, we've learned more since Ed Wilson and I first met on a beach at Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys than during all preceding history, I think, it's safe to say. And at the same time, it's also safe to say that we've lost more of the natural world than during all preceding human history.

The point that gives me hope is that I see where we are now as the sweet spot in history, that is this is the first time that we have had the capacity to know what we know, the technology that has given us the ability to see ourselves in the context of all of the universe and to project the future.

Fifty years ago, it was too soon to know what we now know or to take action that we now know we can take to perhaps secure an enduring place for ourselves within the systems that keep us alive. And 50 years from now, if we don't do something right now, we will have lost the chance to do things that are now available to us.

CONAN: And what is it, given all the degradation of the oceans and the seas that you've also seen, what is that gives you that hope, the knowledge?

EARLE: Well, a number of things. I think the resilience of nature. It's not infinitely resilient from our standpoint, but if you take care, if you protect natural systems, I think it's the most important thing, should be at the top of our list, protect the systems that work on the land and in the sea, the fabric of life that provides the resilience that we have always taken for granted, but now it's at risk.

I mean, look at the plants and the photosynthesizers. Change the chemistry of the ocean, tweak it just a little bit, and it's being tweaked, we're seeing acidification at a level in the last 10 years that is new in all of history, human history as far as we can tell. And that doesn't bode well for the way the world works, the way the ocean works.

Is that going to affect the photosynthesizers? Stand by, we don't know. But I wouldn't want to risk taking a chance. We should protect, to the extent that we have the capacity of the natural world, and make peace with nature.

CONAN: And Ed Wilson, I know that's been a subject of discussion here this week in Aspen, of what do you protect. Is the battle lost? And if so, what do you do about it? Do you have hope?

WILSON: You slow down the losses. We reckon, that is I think people who try to make rates of extinction and extend it into the future, that if nothing is done, I mean, if we continue at the rate, say, we have been causing of extinction in the past 10 to 20 years, by the end of the century we will have lost about half of the species of plants and animals on - in the - on the land and or else they would be extinct or else categorized as critically endangered.

CONAN: I know you've asked a question this week. Where do you plant the white flag?

WILSON: Repeat, please?

CONAN: Where do you plant the white flag?

WILSON: Well, I raised that metaphor with a fellow panelist because the conversation was going, in my opinion, the wrong way. The conversation was going in the direction of, well, we've messed up the planet so much now. We can't turn it back. There is no such thing as a really pristine environment. Therefore, we should adjust ourselves to much less in the way of biological diversity in natural areas, and let's start thinking about how to get adjusted.

That to me is defeatism in planting the white flag that we don't need to plant. We just need to take vigorous new efforts to create large protected, preserved areas and pay a great deal more attention on the totality of the surviving species of organisms on Earth, species by species, and learning how to hold on to them until humanity, well, comes to its senses.

EARLE: This isn't just for the ants, though, right? This is for all of us.


WILSON: Of course.

CONAN: We're talking with E.O. Wilson and Sylvia Earle. If you'd like to know more about what a lifetime of experience has taught them, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll also get questions from members of the audience here at the Paepke Auditorium at the Aspen Environment Forum. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Aspen with NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News; I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Environment Forum. Our guests are E.O. Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist; and oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle, two rock stars in their respective fields.

We're talking about what sparked their interest in science, what fuels that passion many years later, what they've learned along the way. If you'd like to know more about what a lifetime of experience has taught E.O. Wilson and Sylvia Earle, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll also take questions from the audience here at the Paepke Auditorium in Aspen, and, well, why don't we start there, go to the microphone.

CHIP: This is a question for Sylvia: Sylvia, what sparked your passion to dedicate your life to the oceans and oceanography?

EARLE: I got knocked over by a wave when I was three, and the ocean got my attention. But what has held my attention for lo these many years is the life in the sea; horseshoe crabs on the beaches of New Jersey. And then when my parents moved to Florida when I was 12, there were horseshoe crabs, again, these creatures that have a history going back at least 300 million years, and they're still with us.

And I think what has gripped my attention and really drives me right now is the recognition that on our watch, the fate of horseshoe crabs will be determined, perhaps, that we could lose them, or our actions might secure a future that includes them and us. The changes I've witnessed since I first splashed in the oceans, as I first went underwater in the Weeki Wachee River as a teenager and then off St. Marks River in the Gulf of Mexico with SCUBA for the first time, with two words of instruction: breathe naturally.


EARLE: And seeing the world where most people don't get to go. I've been as much as two and a half miles beneath the surface, and I long to go where Jim Cameron just returned from, the deepest part of the ocean. I mean, it's only seven miles, and people in this audience listening, you've been seven miles in the sky in airplanes, eating lunch and watching movies and things, taking naps.

But underwater, there are only three people who have made that descent successfully and come back. I mean, round trips count.


CONAN: Not lunch, mostly peanuts up there. Ed Wilson, let me ask you the same question that Sylvia just answered. Where did the passion come from?

WILSON: I think every child has a passion. You know, as Camus put it, all of a person's work is just that travel through the routes of art to those two or three great images in the presence of which his heart first opened. And mine included dreams, after reading - this was not preplanned promotion - reading the National Geographic.

And from that, I dreamed as a little boy of 9 to be an explorer in the green hell of the tropical jungles.


WILSON: I dreamed of doing it, exploring it, you know, seeing those marvelous creatures that were displayed in the National Geographic especially, but also that I saw in the museums and the park, the Rock Creek Park in Washington during a two-year period our family stayed there.

And I just transferred that at the earliest stages to going forth into whatever woods I could find, and I had beautiful woods in Alabama and Florida, armed with a fishing net, later with a snake snare and field guides and then finally, as soon as I could, as a new Ph.D. at Harvard I went to the green hell, and I've been living in that magnificent, dreamed-of environment, often, when I can, ever since.

CONAN: Chip, you're still at the microphone here, did you have another point?

CHIP: Yes, this is a follow-up for Sylvia. What - how much of the Earth's oxygen comes from the ocean, and how much CO2 does it sequester?

EARLE: That's a slippery question, and we're just beginning to get a grip on the significance of the blue part of the planet. But this is for sure: No blue, no green. Got to have water, and where there's water, there's likely to be life, as far as we know, and maybe elsewhere in the universe but certainly here.

Just a few decades ago, like 30 years ago, an MIT scientist, Penny Chisholm and her colleagues found a tiny organism in the sea that had previously gone undetected, Prochlorococcus. Now we know it generates about 20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere. It's a bacterium, a blue-green bacterium, and we didn't know that it existed until those clever oceanographers were able to detect its existence, and now we know abundant it is.

So you hear estimates, anything from half to 70 percent, but we're still discovering so much about how the world works. But generation of oxygen is principally an ocean issue, and the taking-up of carbon dioxide, similarly, it's photosynthesis, generating O2, bringing down the CO2 and producing food, producing oxygen, and all life from Earth somehow is dependent on that process plus the newly appreciated chemosynthesis in the deep sea that doesn't require sunlight and is much more abundant and occupies much of the planet.

Anyway, we really need to learn so much more before that straight question can be given a straight answer.

CONAN: Here's an email from Richard in Birmingham: It's just great to know that a native of Alabama and a University of Alabama alum has done so much to add to our scientific body of knowledge and has made such a contribution and continues to humanity. Thank you, Dr. Wilson. He adds: Roll Tide. I don't think that's a reference to Sylvia Earle's work.

And this from Brian(ph) in Colorado: As a student at the University of Colorado interested in this area and creating change, what kind of career can I pursue to help? Where do we need people now? Ed Wilson?

WILSON: Repeat that, please.

CONAN: Where do we need people now? What career would you advise a young person interested in following vaguely in your footsteps?

WILSON: Well, let me put it this way: We are right at the crest of the crisis, or I should say the nadir, the trough of the crisis facing the world with reference to environment, and the necessity to stabilize population and consumption and distribute and preserve our resources in a way that will make the human population and the rest of life sustainable.

So my advice to young people who are still searching is to find something in your career plans that has to do with environment, whether it's in law, whether it's in public health or coming close to the core of the issues, whether it's in the environmental science. I would like to suggest that almost any subject you take up in science - I'll excuse astrophysics and quantum mechanics - is going to have relevance in the deepening of the understanding that we must have in order to settle down on this planet for the centuries to come.

CONAN: Sylvia?

EARLE: I tell kids who ask me the question about the reasons for hope and all that that they are the luckiest to ever come along because for the first time, we know what we know, that a kid who's 10 years old with a cell phone has access to, you know, the Library of Congress, the history of life on Earth, so much that Charles Darwin would just be so thrilled to come and see what kids know today.

You who are coming along have the future very much in your hands, and you're armed with knowledge that none of our predecessors had. Use it. Just recognize that this is the moment, as never before and maybe as never again, to really make a difference for all that is ahead. You know, this is a turning point, and you're right there in the middle of it.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is David, David with us from Charlotte.

DAVID: Yeah, I just had a question, and it's for either one of you or both of you, that it occurred to me that the number of species present at any given time on the planet might be a balance between the rates of extinction and the rates of new species evolving.

And while the former certainly is going to occur more rapidly than the latter, has anyone attempted to get a handle on the rate at which new species are evolving?

WILSON: Ed Wilson?

DAVID: And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Oh, thanks very much, David.

WILSON: Yeah, we've given extensive examination to that, made intensive examination, and here it in the rough figures: Before the coming of humanity, averaged out over long periods of time and then excluding the previous great extinction spasms that occurred on four occasions in the last 450 million years, the average extinction rate of species has been approximately one in a million per year, and the rate of origin of new species has been roughly the same, one per million species per year. We have now jacked the extinction rate up by some three orders of magnitude - a thousand and probably approaching 10,000 - at the same time that we are eliminating the birthplaces in which species occur.

WILSON: So we're driving up the death rate of species, we are driving down the birth rate, and the result will be a depopulization(ph) of Earth's surface in living species during the next several decades that has not been matched for some 65 million years.

CONAN: And, Sylvia Earle, so many of those cradles are wet.

EARLE: Oh, maybe most of them. When you think about where life on Earth occurs, it's where the water is. Well - but the one interesting dimension of living things are the microbes that don't obey the same or - they have a different lifestyle. They adapt more quickly. They reproduce much more quickly, for the most part. I mean, there are exceptions.

But, you know, the thing is we don't know what the microbes are doing in terms of how, in the great expanse of life, how they're faring. We're just beginning to discover that they're all around us in the air, like plankton, and in the sea, billions in a bucket of water, that we just - it's only on our watch that we've begun to appreciate their role. Change the chemistry of Earth even a little bit, you change that mix of microbes that both keep us alive, but they also could spell our doom.

CONAN: Sylvia Earle's most recent book is "The World is Blue." She's explorer-in-residence at National Graphic. Also with us, E.O. Wilson, author most recently of "The Social Conquest of the Earth," the Pulitzer Prize winner for "On Human Nature," university research professor emeritus at Harvard. From the Aspen Environment Forum, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get to another question here at the Paepcke Auditorium.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. So my question is so many of the native people in this country and the global indigenous people have solutions and knowledge and wisdom about our ecosystems and the, you know, habitats and managing them and, you know, wildlife and all of that. Why aren't we inviting these people more to the table? Why aren't we - why aren't scientists asking them questions and investigating the accuracy of their knowledge? Why aren't we doing this?

WILSON: We are doing it. I - having been on the board of directors and advisory boards of most of the major global conservation organizations in America, I have watched just what you ask about grow to very significantly higher levels. Nowadays, conservation projects in situ, you know, where these conservation professionals go to help set up reserves has, as one of the first orders of business, meeting the people, getting to know the people, finding out what they need, what they think and then, to the maximum extent possible, taking measures that increases their quality of life without changing it and engaging them, for example, in jobs that can be supportive of preserving the environment in which they have lived, as you're suggesting, for centuries.

CONAN: Let's go to a caller. This is Leslie(ph), Leslie calling us from Anchorage.

LESLIE: Hi. Thanks, Neal, for taking my call. This is so exciting to have both of you together because I teach marine biology and evolution. Sylvia, I've had the pleasure of meeting you, and, Professor Wilson, I hope I get to meet you one of these days. So, Professor Wilson, your new book just got a pretty interesting review from another one of my idols, Richard Dawkins.

And I was wondering, you know, as someone who teaches evolution and teaches biology in general from an evolutionary perspective, what are some of the conversations about, you know, whether selection acts on genes or individuals and how we can come to understand these mechanisms? You know, what are some of the new things that I should be telling my students?

WILSON: Professor Dawkins will get used to it.


WILSON: And actually, we now have inaugurated real new directions in the study of genetics and theory of advanced social evolution. Some of this, as I suggested earlier, has come from our knowledge of other species of animals that have achieved advanced social evolution.

The most advanced stage which humans have is called eusocial evolution, and it entails cooperation based upon altruistic behavior. And it is now, I think, inevitable that we turn in both the two dozen cases that have occurred in the history of life that we know of - only about two dozen cases - of species reaching that very high level. Many of them were social insects.

And we will - there is no way now that I can see putting all of that information together about how it happened, you know, and how the great destroyer, Homo sapiens, actually arose without putting heavy emphasis on group selection, group-to-group selection, and altering a lot about our previous beliefs concerning kinship in generating altruism during evolution.

This is the way it's going. There's been a game change, a paradigm shift, and it's already beginning to take off in terms of drawing in more scientists eager to perform - do more theory and design more experiments in it.

CONAN: Sylvia?

EARLE: Well, the question for me?

CONAN: Well, no. Let me just follow up with another question. We're almost out of time. You've been to so many places. You've followed the whales, starting from the Gulf of Mexico. Is there any place left you want to go?

EARLE: Oh, just most of the world. That's all.


EARLE: And, of course, I'd like to go to the deepest part of the ocean and all the places in between that are yet to be explored. And there's so much, like 95 percent is yet to be seen by anybody, let alone really understood and put on the balance sheet. But we still have, you know, half coral reefs in pretty good shape, maybe 10 percent of the sharks. We need to look at the ocean as the wild system that really governs the way the world works and creatures who live there as wildlife.

CONAN: Sylvia Earle and E.O. Wilson, thank you so much for being with us here in Aspen today. Thank you very much for your time.

When we come back, we're going to be talking about a new project to bring back the wooly mammoth and a lot of other extinct animals. What do you wish we could bring back from extinction? 800-989-8255. Stay with us. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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