As originally published in Cagle
The world lost a giant among giants when E.O. Wilson passed on in December.
Wilson was not only an esteemed scientist and prolific author, but also a colossus in the conservation movement. The celebrated Harvard biologist, called “Darwin‘s natural heir,” started with a micro focus on ants and moved to a macro focus on our planet’s biodiversity. He observed nature, recorded nature, loved nature, and strove to save the nature around us.
Wilson was attacked — intellectually and physically — for his truth-telling. In his revolutionary “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” he asserted that genetic traits influence intelligence and both animal and human behavior — common knowledge today, but then a lightning rod for leftist professors and Marxist agitators. Since Wilson was raised in the South, it was easy for bigots to charge that he was a racist advocating eugenics. At a 1978 symposium on sociobiology, protestors rushed the stage shouting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” and one of them dumped a pitcher of ice water on him.
A couple of Pulitzer Prizes did much to quell the attacks, but not eliminate them. A recent article in Scientific American recycles the slurs, using the terms “racist” and “racism” seven times without offering a scintilla of supporting evidence.
As Wilson endeavored to preserve biodiversity, it became evident that the crush of humans and human activity was the primary threat. Habitat depletion — the displacement of natural areas by homes, agriculture, commerce, and industry—is the chief culprit in the decimation of wildlife. “The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical concept,” Wilson said.
In 1996, the Sierra Club board abandoned its long-standing population policy that immigration levels should be reduced to a level that would “permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.” Two years later, conservation-oriented Sierra Club members forced the organization to hold a referendum on that policy reversal. Full disclosure, I was actively involved in that referendum effort, which ultimately lost.
Leading conservationists endorsed the referendum. They understood that reducing population growth was essential to protecting the environment and that most population growth in America is from immigration. The Club establishment catered to its liberal donor base and viciously attacked the referendum and its backers. The Club’s then-president, Adam Werbach, engaged in a scurrilous campaign of racial ambulance-chasing, presaging the effort of the current Sierra Club to trash its founder John Muir for the sin of living in the 1800s.
Werbach implored Wilson and other endorsers to withdraw their support for the referendum, to which Wilson, gently, but firmly, replied, “I won’t change. Population is so salient a factor in the future of the environment, and especially of biodiversity, that it should be faced squarely and openly whenever possible. [After all,] the initiative calls for ‘reduction in net immigration,’ no slamming of doors there.”
Wilson will be remembered not only for his towering intellect and his eloquent prose that enriched our lives and enhanced our knowledge of life itself, but also for his resolute character in facing adversity. “I know what it is to suffer emotional controversy—I’ve been there most of my life,” he opined. He forthrightly addressed population growth even as mainstream environmental groups retreated from tackling this paramount conservation issue.
“Future generations are going to forgive us our horrible genocidal wars, because it’ll pass too far in history. They will forgive us all the earlier generations’ follies and the harm,” E.O. Wilson wrote. “But they will not forgive us having so carelessly thrown away a large part of the rest of life on our watch.”