The great biologist and author was in town yesterday to pick up his Rachel Carson Legacy Award, for six decades of scientific research and raising awareness on environmental issues.
The award, amusingly, was a Frabel-glass fire ant. (From the audience at the Carnegie Music Hall, the figurine looked about 10 inches long.)
On the one hand, the statuette is entirely appropriate, given that as a Mobile, Ala., teen-ager in 1942, Wilson basically discovered the species on American soil, and a few years later did the first major study of it; his research, shipped to Rachel Carson herself in the late 1950s, was among the bases for Silent Spring.
Of course, the gift, from the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, is also ironic, considering that invasive species like the fire ant (which emigrated on cargo coming through Mobile Bay) are among the main causes of the astounding rate of species extinction worldwide Wilson has dedicated his career to battling.
Wilson is probably the most famous biologist since Carson. If he's less of a household name, it might be because so many of the objects of his interest are either (a) six-legged or (b) too small for the naked eye. (If you want to get people interested in what you have to say about nature these days, it helps to wrestle crocodiles, or pretend to survive three nights in the desert with nothing but a buck knife and two sheets of Saran Wrap.)
Even the latest twist in Wilson's career, his novel Anthill, focuses upon such wee critters, if partly as an analogue of human civilization. (Here's my CP piece on Wilson and Anthill: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A79589.)
In his address capping the day's Celebration of Biodiversity program, Wilson made clear why he's so concerned about the organisms that dwell, often invisibly to us, in the soil and in the trees.
Things like bacteria, fungi, nematodes (roundworms), beetles and ants are incredibly numerous: It's estimated that our-fifths of all the animals in the world are nematodes, he said. And these creatures' role in keeping the air, water and soil healthy is incalculably valuable.
Wilson ended with a plea to preserve these organisms -- which are concentrated in rainforests and other tropical ecosystems -- the only way that will work long-term: by preserving their rapidly disappearing habitats.
Why is that necessary? Many organisms can't survive outside very specific habitats. And not only haven't we identified an estimated 90 percent of earth's species, but we're destroying countless numbers of them through heedless razing of forests, polluting of water, paving of land.
As Wilson put it: "We're wiping out the great encyclopedia o life on earth without knowing what most of the volumes had in them," he said.