It wasn’t long ago that Edward O.Wilson was caught crawling on his hands and knees in a park in downtown San José, inspecting cracks in the sidewalk at close distance.
It didn’t look good to the pair of San José policemen who approached, asking questions.
Wilson begged for forgiveness, then, in broken Spanish, explained: “hormigas,” and pointed at a parade of ants marching off at high speed into a crevice.
Crawling around in the brush, even in San José’s cement jungle, is hardly a surprising place to find Wilson, 84, a Harvard biology professor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1991 book “The Ants.”
Wednesday, Wilson spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of students wearing Tshirts and ankle bracelets, erudite biology professors and applauding fans who packed the University of Costa Rica’s auditorium as if attending a rock concert.
The topic was biodiversity, the occasion, the Department of Biology’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, a hallmark that Wilson said he was “honored” to be a part of, as Costa Rica has “set the standard” for biodiversity research in the world.
“Just as studying cellular and molecular biology is important to our health as human beings, the study of ecosystems is important to the health of the planet,” he said, warning that many of Earth’s species have evolved over billions of years, and are now disappearing at an alarming rate.
Over the course of time, he said, humanity has lost one species per million per year, but now that rate has increased by a thousand.
He summed up the causes for the loss of species with an acronym, H.I.P.P.O., which stands for habitat change, introduced species, pollution, population and over-harvesting via excessive hunting and fishing.
He said the world’s biodiversity, particularly in tropical regions, is tied to the economic well-being of the people who live there, and said it is important that both developed and developing nations work together to improve their lives.
According to Wilson, more than half the world’s biodiversity can be found in tropical forests such as Costa Rica’s – including many species that have yet to be discovered.
He called this both a privilege and a responsibility, and said it is important to continue “intense efforts of rainforest conservation” here and abroad.
“There is a tragedy unfolding in our continued ignorance of biodiversity. We are destroying species before we even know what they are,” he said.
Wilson, dressed in a light blue blazer and khakis, has a streak of silver hair, a spry step (he was once a marathon runner) and a sharp sense of humor that kept those who listened to him in English, which he spoke, or Spanish-translation via earphone, on edge, occasionally applauding, often laughing.
He told the crowd his first visit to Costa Rica was in 1959, just two years after the biology department was founded, and since then, he’s maintained strong ties with the country.
“Where you all live, you have a tremendous opportunity to continue to be world leaders in the study of biodiversity,” said Wilson, whom many consider to be the “father of biodiversity.”
Wilson is one of the founders of the Organization for Tropical Studies, a nonprofit consortium that includes 63 universities and research centers from the United States, Latin America and Australia.
The organization owns and operates three biological research stations in Costa Rica, including the well-known La Selva Research Station near BraulioCarrilloNational Park northeast of San José, which Wilson called “best biological station of its kind in the world.”
His résumé, printed in a tiny font and single spaced, runs almost nine pages and includes two-and-half pages of science and writing awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, the U.S. National Medal of Science, and 27 honorary degrees from universities around the world.
He is the author of the best-selling “On Human Nature,” (another Pulitzer Prize winner), “The Diversity of Life,” and countless other books and scientific papers.
Wilson called the 21st century the “century of the environment,” and said it is the responsibility of all nations, rich and poor, to work to protect the world’s biodiversity.
Despite the world’s burgeoning population, predicted by the United Nations to rise to 9 billion by the end of the century, he said, if action is taken the environment can be saved. Countries such as Costa Rica “have set the example even for industrialized nations,” he added.
Asked by former Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez about the role of developed countries such as the United States in helping developing countries such as Costa Rica protect their biodiversity, Wilson quipped that much of that burden fell on the United States, but that country has been “politically paralyzed by bad judgment for the past six years.”
Wilson paused for effect – allowing the Ticos in the crowd to soak in his comment on the Bush administration, then added, “That’s not a political statement, that’s a statement of fact.”
The crowd roared.