Honoring “The Greatest Naturalist of Our Time”

JESSICA HERRMANN

Throughout its eight-year history, this nonprofit organization has evolved to both conserve and teach others about biodiversity.

Jessica Herrmann, Article image In June of this year, the National Geographic Society recognized three of the world’s most extraordinary scientific explorers with the Hubbard Medal, the Society’s highest honor.  Named for Gardiner Green Hubbard, the Society’s first president, it has been awarded annually since 1906 for outstanding contributions to the fields of biodiversity and environmental investigation.  Among those presented with the medal this year was Dr. Edward O. Wilson, renowned author, entomologist, and sociobiologist, as well as Harvard Professor emeritus.  The other recipients were Mission Blue founder and oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, and film director and explorer James Cameron.  As John Fahey, CEO and Chairman of NGS, explained at the ceremony, “[i]n this new age of exploration, [our explorers] want to help navigate the increasingly complex relationship between humanity’s needs and the natural world that sustains us.”  Dr. Wilson’s receipt of the medal is the culmination of a lifelong career dedicated to this objective.

Considered the father of modern sociobiology and the world’s leading expert on ants, Wilson made his first scientific discovery at the young age of thirteen when he uncovered a non-native species of fire ants in Alabama.  His interest in insects led him to pursue B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Alabama, and later a Ph.D. from Harvard University.  As a member of Harvard’s faculty, Wilson was responsible for the theory of the taxon cycle—the cycle of expansion and contraction of the ecological ranges occupied by species—as well as for the collaborative identification of pheromones with fellow Harvard Professor William H. Bossert.  His Pulitzer-Prize winning book, On Human Nature (1978), has long been considered a fundamental text of sociobiology.

Although Wilson is now retired from his teaching position at Harvard, he continues to support biodiversity through his role as Chairman of the Board of Advisors of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.  Throughout its eight-year history, this nonprofit organization has focused on conserving and educating others about biodiversity.  One of its early projects was to collaborate with Apple to develop the digital biology textbook, E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth.

According to Paula Ehrlich, president and CEO of the foundation, the association’s primary goal is to “connect with people in whatever ways we can to help inform them and foster a new generation of enthusiastic explorers, environmental policy makers, and informed citizens.”  She says the foundation also strives to engage high-school and college students in learning about the environment and raising awareness among their peers.

To this end, the group hosted an E.O. Wilson Global Town Hall last December to engage students from 2,500 classrooms across the globe in a real-time conversation with Wilson about the exploration of biodiversity.  The foundation also initiated an interactive storytelling project at the National Park Service/National Geographic Society-sponsored BioBlitz, a 24-hour event in which students collaborate with scientists at national parks to identify and learn about as many of the parks’ species as possible.  Carrie Hutchison, director of Communications, Development, and Special Projects at National Geograph, described both organizations’ common objective as “getting people in all disciplines to think about science and exploration in various ways.”  Through events such as the BioBlitz, the two organizations strive to “inspire the curious people of the world.”

Most recently, the foundation has partnered with the Gorongosa Restoration Project to support research initiatives in the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, and is currently celebrating the biodiversity of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta of the United States through development of a new national park unit.  As Ehrlich explains, “[these sites are] repositories of extraordinary biodiversity and national heritage – both cultural and natural.”  In the future, the organization hopes to see these parks, and others, developed into sophisticated centers for research and education.  In a technological era that offers instantaneous access to public knowledge, it is easy to forget that a large degree of ecological information remains undiscovered.  Wilson and the foundation would like to continue to provide a forum for environmental discussion in order to advance their unique mission of coupling active preservation with an explorative perspective of biodiversity in science and daily life.  Their work has already shaped the approach that students and scientists will take to biodiversity for generations to come.

Jessica Herrmann is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at jessicaherrmann@college.harvard.edu.