Since 1998, Esquire magazine has conducted more than 300 interviews with artists, athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, musicians, politicians, scientists and writers. Here are two of the interviews from The series — called “What I’ve Learned.
Edward Osborne “E. O.” Wilson, whose latest book is The Superorganism, was born June 10, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama and grew up mostly around Washington, D.C. and in the countryside around Mobile, Alabama. From an early age, he was drawn to natural history, earned a master’s in biology from the University of Alabama and early on became a well known American biologist, researcher, naturalist, and science writer. His specialty was myrmecology, and he is now probably the world’s leading expert on the lives of ants.
Currently Wilson is the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Meaning of Human Existence, and many other books and occasional writings.
What have I learned?
Well, it’s definitely the egg that came first.
Now, if I were a good philosopher, I’d say that’s an unanswerable question. But I’m a biologist, and I say it’s answerable. It’s the egg. The egg that first obtained the mutation that’s manifested in the proto-chicken. That produces the next mutated egg that produces the next stage of the proto-chicken.
An ant colony is far more intelligent than an ant.
Ants are the dominant insects. There are fourteen thousand known kinds. Each one is unique in its anatomy, its social behavior, its history. No matter where I go — except possibly Antarctica or the high Arctic, and I don’t go there because there are no ants there — no matter how different the human culture, no matter how different the natural environment, there are the ants.
You have an ant problem? Then we start with a modest but nonetheless telling example of the importance of scientific information. If the ants are the small black species that appear in people’s kitchens in later winter and early spring, sometimes in great numbers, you have no problem. Because these are most likely European pavement ants that nest outdoors and are attracted to the interior of your house in searches for food. The best way to handle European pavement ants is to find out how they’re getting in the house. It’s usually one crack, or one inconspicuous hole. And then just put a little boric acid on top of it. It repels them.
One by one, the great questions of philosophy, including “Who are we?” and “Where did we come from?” are being answered to different degrees of solidity. So gradually, science is simply taking over the big questions created by philosophy. Philosophy consists largely of the history of failed models of the brain.
You are not a real scientist until you make a discovery. And if you make a great discovery, you’re a great scientist. You can be a complete jerk and go the rest of your life just saying dumb things and never finding anything again, but you’re still a great scientist.
If someone could actually prove scientifically that there is such a thing as a supernatural force, it would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. So the notion that somehow scientists are resisting it is ludicrous.
The intelligent-design folks say, “You haven’t explained everything.” What they don’t appreciate is that that’s what biologists do for a living. And, one by one, the things that can’t be explained are explained.
Between scientists, you can have high competitiveness and jealousy and petty nit-picking, because we are human. But once something is nailed, the person who did it usually gets the credit, and we move on.
Freud’s place in history was to simply point out that a lot goes on in the brain that is not conscious thought. But then he should have gone back to the laboratory. Because what he did then was to dream up a whole series of scenarios about the subconscious, most of which turned out to be wrong.
Anyone who wants to know the history of American philosophical thought for the last half century should go through the pages of The New York Review of Books. See what the fashions were.
What makes humanity is not reason. Our emotions are what make us human.
Religion is a manifestation of deep emotion that will out, one way or the other. Either in an atheistic political ideology or an excessive fierceness in being secular. Or the Red Sox. In other words, we constantly seek a tribe that we feel is innately superior and has the great truths, and we want to identify with them. We shouldn’t deny that.
I’m a very patriotic American. Pure reason would say, “Well, America is your tribe, and there are certain things you grew up with, were enculturated with, and that’s why you’re behaving the way you are.” And then I say that’s right. I repeat, I’m a very patriotic American. I want America to be the best. I want America to prevail — not conquer but prevail. I want this country to be foremost in its qualities and its virtues and its accomplishments. And also, to stay together as a closely united country. And I know why I think that way. It’s five million years of evolution. My brain is programmed to think that way. But that doesn’t lessen my patriotism.
Let’s be sensible, guys. We’re not gonna tear off on Mars, and we’re not gonna send off colonists to the nearest star system. We’re gonna live here. This is what our bodies and our minds are adapted to.
I’ll catch Wall-E when it goes on cable.
We have to get an entirely new mentality. Getting set for a long haul into the future. In which we grow. Not in numbers — we’ll probably shrink in numbers — but we grow. In our understanding, in our happiness, in our harmony. Because we realize that there’s no other way to survive as a species.
I think we’re in the early stages of it now. Don’t you?
I think we will make it. Because one quality people have — certainly Americans have it — is that they can adapt when they see necessity staring them in the face. What to avoid is what someone once called the definition of hell: truth realized too late.
If you have ants in your house, be kind to them.
(Interviewed by Tom Junod, August 5, 2008)
(From the final chapter of Wilson’s book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, 2012)
Scientific knowledge and technology double every one to two decades, depending on the discipline in which information is measured. This exponential growth makes the future impossible to predict beyond a decade, let alone centuries or millennia. Futurists are therefore prone to dwell upon those directions which, in their opinion, humanity should go. But given our miserable lack of self-understanding as a species, the better goal at this time may be to choose where not to go. What, then, should we be careful to avoid? In thinking about the subject, we are destined always to come back full circle to the existential questions—Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Eastwood, whose latest film is American Sniper, was born May 31, 1930 in San Francisco and raised throughout northern California. Eastwood attended Los Angeles City College under the G. I. Bill and served as mayor of Carmel, California from 1986 to 1988.
What have I learned?
In the first place, I was taller than most kids in my classes. In the second, we were always moving. Redding. Sacramento. Pacific Palisades….Over to Hayward. Niles. Oakland. So we were constantly on the road, and I was always the new guy in school. The bullies always thought, here’s this big gangly guy. We gotta take him on. You know how kids are. We gotta test him. I was a shy kid. But a lot of my childhood was spent punching the bullies out.
I kind of had a feeling “Make my day” would resonate, based upon “Do you feel lucky, punk?” in the first movie. I thought that Smith & Wesson line might hang in there, too. But “Make my day” was just so simple. …
As you get older, you’re not afraid of doubt. Doubt isn’t running the show. You take out all the self-agonizing….
Even in grammar school they taught you to go with your first impression. It’s like multiple-choice questions. If you go back and start dwelling, you’ll talk yourself out of it and make the wrong pick. That’s just a theory…. But I believe it.
As Jerry Fielding used to say, “We’ve come this far, let’s not ruin it by thinking.”
My father had a couple of kids at the beginning of the Depression. There was not much employment. Not much welfare. People barely got by. People were tougher then.
We live in more of a pussy generation now, where everybody’s become used to saying, “Well, how do we handle it psychologically?” In those days, you just punched the bully back and duked it out….
The band guys were looked down upon when I was a kid. I remember playing the flügelhorn and everybody said, “What the…?”
I don’t know if I can tell you exactly when the pussy generation started. Maybe when people started asking about the meaning of life.
If I’d had good discipline, I might have gone into music….
The Korean War was only a few years after World War II. We all went. But you couldn’t help but think, Shit. What the hell? What have we gained? One minute you’re unleashing the tremendous power of nuclear fission, and then a few years later you’re jockeying back and forth on the 38th parallel. It seemed so futile….
You can’t stop everything from happening. But we’ve gotten to a point where we’re certainly trying. If a car doesn’t have four hundred air bags in it, then it’s no good.
My father died very suddenly at sixty-three. Just dropped dead. For a long time afterward, I’d ask myself, Why didn’t I ask him to play golf more? Why didn’t I spend more time with him? ….
What happened is I was going to college in 1950. L. A. City College. A guy I knew was going to an acting class on Thursday nights. He started telling me about all the good-lookin’ chicks and said, “Why don’t you go with me?” So I probably had some motivation beyond thoughts of being an actor. And sure enough, he was right. There were a lot of girls and not many guys. I said, “Yeah, they need me here.” I wound up at Universal as a contract player.
People love westerns worldwide. There’s something fantasy like about an individual fighting the elements. Or even bad guys and the elements. It’s a simpler time. There’s no organized laws and stuff.
The last one I did was in ’92. Unforgiven. That was a wonderful script. But it seemed like it was the end of the road for me with the genre, because it sort of summarized everything I felt about the western at that particular time….
Winning the election is a good-news, bad-news kind of thing. Okay, now you’re the mayor. The bad news is, now you’re the mayor.
It’s making sure that the words “public servant” are not forgotten. That’s why I did it. ‘Cause I thought, I don’t need this. The fact that I didn’t need it made me think I could do more. It’s the people who need it that I’m suspect of.
Barack Obama was unimaginable back when I was a kid. Count Basie and a lot of big bands would come through Seattle when I was young. They could play at a club, but they couldn’t frequent the place.
You should really get to know somebody, really be a friend. I mean, my wife is my closest friend. Sure, I’m attracted to her in every way possible, but that’s not the answer. Because I’ve been attracted to other people, and I couldn’t stand ’em after a while.
I’m past doing one chin-up more than I did the day before. I just kind of do what I feel like.
I have children by other women. I gotta give Dina the credit for bringing everyone together. She never had the ego thing of the second wife. The natural instinct might have been to kill off everybody else. You know, the cavewoman mentality. But she brought everybody together. She’s friendly with my first wife, friendly to former girlfriends. She went out of her way to unite everybody. She’s been extremely influential in my life.
I’m not one of those guys who’s been terribly active in organized religion. But I don’t disrespect it. I’d never try to impose any doubts that I might have on anyone else.
Children teach you that you can still be humbled by life, that you learn something new all the time. That’s the secret to life, really — never stop learning. It’s the secret to career. I’m still working because I learn something new all the time. It’s the secret to relationships. Never think you’ve got it all.
As you get older, you like kids a lot more.
The innocence of childhood is like the innocence of a lot of animals….
It keeps coming back to “We’ve come this far, let’s not ruin it by thinking.”
You look at Velázquez in his dark years and you wonder, How the hell did he get that way? I’m sure he didn’t say to himself, “I’m in my dark period right now, so I’m going to paint this way.” ….
Letters from Iwo Jima was nominated for an Academy Award. We didn’t win it, but that picture was still as good as I could do it. Did it deserve it less than some other picture? No, not really. But there are other aspects that come into it. In the end, you’ve just got to be happy with what you’ve done. There you are.
(Interviewed by Cal Fussman, November 3, 2008.)
(the 82 year old actor speaking with fellow film director Darren Aronofsky)
Sometimes when you are not in production, you think, ‘ah, I’m about to take some time off or something’, but then the moment you pull the trigger on one shot, you are kind of going, ‘Ok, I’m ready, let’s go.’ You’re ready to charge the hill, and right through the picture. And I don’t think you ever lose it, probably.
Who is the Portuguese director who is 105 and still making films? That’s always everybody’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to be 105 and still making films?”