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Famed Poet, Scientist Muse on Science & Poetry

Edward O. Wilson
Edward O. Wilson (Image credit: Justin Ide/Harvard University)

NEW YORK CITY — Science and poetry may not appear to have much in common, but a renowned scientist and a noted poet got together Thursday night (Dec. 6) to talk about the intersection between the two fields.

The celebrated biologist Edward O. Wilson and U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass raised some profound questions and got more than a few laughs in their wide-ranging discussion here at the American Museum of Natural History.

They even had to talk down a few overzealous members of the audience.

Poetry in nature, nature in poetry

Billed as a talk about "poetry in nature and nature in poetry," the conversation, which was more of a meandering discussion about poetry, science and environmental issues, included more than a few gems.

Wilson, whose studies of ants have made him the world's foremost myrmecologist, got off to a somewhat bookish start, backing his way into a discussion about anthropologist Franz Boas. He hit his stride when prompted by Hass to talk about his book, "The Social Conquest of Earth." The book, published earlier this year, discusses how humans evolved, namely through group selection, and the biological roots of morality, religion and the creative arts. Wilson has written many books, two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes. Hass was also awarded a Pulitzer for one of his poetry collections. 

The ideas in Wilson's book may upset some. "I've always enjoyed being in trouble," he said. But Wilson discussed a time when he drew even more ire than now, even eliciting protests outside his lectures, when he put forth a biological basis for human nature.

Overzealous question

After the talk, the floor was opened up to questions. The first questioner, a self-described feminist, asked a lengthy, three-part question and demanded to know whether human nature is made up of two distinct parts: that of the conquering male, and the more nurturing, female nature.

Wilson, who couldn't hear the whole question, had to have it repeated to him by Hass. The audience member balked, saying it was an oversimplification of her query.

But Wilson had heard enough to respond. Are women and men's nature fundamentally different? Hass asked. "Only in degree," Wilson barked (if one can bark politely). "Anything else?"

Whence morality?

Before that, however, one of the most fascinating points of discussion revolved around the idea that morality is a result of the tug-of-war between the motivations of the individual and the group. "There is no equilibrium between altruism and selfish behavior," Wilson said.  

Hass displayed an impressive grasp of biological theory, even prompting Wilson to ask, "Are you becoming too biological?" The pair discussed the profound influence of nature on human art and religion throughout history.  [The Beauty of Science: A Gallery]

Wilson mentioned that he was greatly disturbed by suggestions amongst some conservationists that humans should give up on wilderness, or concede that certain species are truly doomed to extinction. "That gives me the opportunity to profess that I am an extremist," he said. "Save them all!" he said, referring to endangered species, to general applause.

The biologist said he wants large portions of the Earth to be designated as wilderness areas, and that he's trying to create a national park near his hometown of Mobile, Ala.

Bug period

Discussing his lifelong love of ants, Wilson said, "Every kid has a bug period, and I never grew out of mine." He also credited the Boy Scouts with fostering his love of nature, although he asked the crowd not to boo the organization. "We'll get this gay business straightened out," he said, referring to the group's anti-gay stance.  

Both Wilson and Hass agreed that it's important to raise kids in nature to help them appreciate it and to inform their scientific and artistic sensibilities. Hass related a story of how, as a child, he had to see a doctor because he stuck a daisy up his nose "to see what would happen."

They also agreed that both nature and language are magical. "The way we name [the world] is what it is," Hass said. "It is magic."

Reach Douglas Main at Follow him on Twitter @Douglas_Main. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.