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Written by: Tom Rieland
Date: September 23, 2015

Wilson in the field. Note the massive ant hill behind him.

Wilson in the field. Note the massive ant hill behind him.

I hope you will tune in Wednesday night, September 30th at 9 pm to see the documentary about the remarkable life and ideas of E.O. Wilson.

I spent two days on the Harvard campus with Dr. Wilson in the year 2000 as preparation for a smaller documentary about his life and work.  At the time, I was Director of the Center for Public Television & Radio at the University of Alabama, where E.O. Wilson received his undergraduate and Master’s degree.  He later received his Ph.D from Harvard and taught there for decades.

How does one decide to become a worldwide expert in studying ants?  It’s a fascinating story about a very compelling man.

Wilson grew up in part along the gulf coast near Mobile, Alabama.  A fishing accident blinded him in one eye and through surgery his other eye was left with a vision of 20/10.  The accident led him to focus on the smallest of animal life — “I have only one functional eye, my left eye, but it’s very sharp.  And I somehow focused on little things.  I noticed butterflies and ants more than other kids did, and took an interest in them automatically.”

In fact, his one eye could see the finest print and the hairs on the bodies of small insects.  At 13, Wilson discovered the first U.S. colony of fire ants near the State Docks in Mobile.  (I lived near Mobile for two years and can vouch for the number of fire ant hills in the area!)

Wilson has written many books, including two Pulitzer Prize winners. His books have been important to better understanding human civilization.  I got to know the man a bit and found someone humble and patient with non-scientists and proud of his rural Alabama roots.

I recall thinking during those few days our production team walked the Harvard Yard with E.O. Wilson that I was with one of the most brilliant persons of the world. I hope you find the documentary as interesting and provocative like the man.

From a Bill Moyers interview of Wilson in 2007:  “This is the only planet we’re ever going to have. This planet has taken hundreds of millions of years to create this beautiful natural environment we have that’s taken care of us so well.  That is, in fact, our greatest natural heritage. And we’re throwing it away in a matter of a few decades.”