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Renowned scientist E.O. Wilson to give LSI keynote


E.O. Wilson, one of the country's most prominent scientists, says biology is beginning a phase of organization that will involve new classifications of species and expansive levels of exploration.
Wilson (Photo by Jim Harrison)

Wilson, 74, will give the keynote speech at the Life Sciences Institute (LSI) Grand Opening Convocation at 9 a.m. May 14 in the Great Lakes Room of Palmer Commons, 100 Washtenaw Ave.

His speech, "Unified Biology and the Future of Life," will examine the history of the organization of biological disciplines. "I'll talk about the reason they were organized one way in the first half of the last century, another in second half and why we are returning now to something in between," says Wilson, university research professor emeritus at Harvard University and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In the first half of the century, biology typically was organized according to groups of organisms, he says—botany for people studying plants, ornithology for the study of birds and so on. Following the discovery of the structure of DNA and the birth of molecular biology, "that orientation rotated," he says. Biology then was oriented based on the level of organization, with scientists studying molecular biology, cell biology, organismic biology and other fields, he says.

Now, Wilson says, there is increasing attention to the higher levels of organization, such as society and populations. "Biology is now more unified," he says.

He also will discuss the reasons for the emergence of a new era of a re-synthesis of complex systems. Wilson will end his talk with thoughts about an initiative to include all the organisms on Earth with biological studies.

"Probably less than 10 percent of species on Earth are known to science," he says. "We're about to enter a whole new era of exploration that will be far more than just identifying and classifying new species. It'll do that but will involve all these other areas of biology."

The appearance by the sociobiologist is fitting because he is a proponent—in works such as the book "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge"—of bridging gaps among science, social science and the humanities. At LSI, one of the chief missions is breaking down those boundaries in favor of a new way of doing science.

"It's very 21st century," Wilson says of the LSI.

Wilson's study of science began when he was a boy in Alabama and Florida who became fascinated with ants. He started publishing at age 13 and built the early part of his career on the study of ants. He proved the existence of pheromones through experiments involving ants, and he wrote about the social interactions of other animals and humans.

No stranger to controversy, Wilson has inspired impassioned support and dissent related to works such as the 1975 book "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis," the 1992 book "The Diversity of Life" and the 1998 book "Consilience." He has won two Pulitzer Prizes.

He has noted in interviews that his writings on sociobiology—a field he established—were based on the idea that ordinary human behavior has a biological basis, "which in turn originated through a long period by natural selection," he said in an interview with Salon.com. At that time, he became a target for many social scientists in the academic left who believed that humans essentially are a blank slate, he said.

More recently, he has drawn criticism from some on the right for his strong promotion of conservation and prediction that 30 to 50 percent of species will be extinct by the middle of the century.

His position in the scientific world inspired Time magazine to name him one of the 25 most influential people of the 20th century. The magazine story said, "E.O. Wilson is a senior doyen of science and, by his own admission, moving irresistibly into what he calls 'the literary realm.' It's not a bad place for him to be. Wilson has produced a scientific masterpiece in nearly every decade of his life."

Wilson's speech, sponsored by LSI, is part of a series of events celebrating the institute's grand opening. For additional event listings, visit http://lsi.umich.edu.

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