Finding hope in the legacy of E.O. Wilson

Writer Caleb Johnson visited E.O. Wilson in February of 2020, where he spoke to the late scientist about his views on biodiversity, conservation — and the end of life. 

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E.O. Wilson, Irina Zhorov, and Caleb Johnson in February of 2020. (Image coutesy of Caleb Johnson)

E.O. Wilson, Irina Zhorov, and Caleb Johnson in February of 2020. (Image coutesy of Caleb Johnson)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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Writer and novelist Caleb Johnson long felt a special connection to the late biologist E.O. Wilson — a giant in his field. Johnson appreciated the way the famous scientist looked at the world with awe and wonder, his concern for our fragile planet, and, maybe most of all, the fact that they were both from Alabama.

As the year 2020 ushered in with the warmest January on record, and a new and concerning virus beginning to spread, Johnson felt a sense of hopelessness and despair. On a whim, he reached out to Wilson to ask for an interview. Much to his surprise, Wilson, who was 90 years old at the time, was game. He left a charming voicemail on Johnson’s phone, making a joke about the strong traces of Alabama in the writer’s speech.

“I hope you won’t change your accent. In any case, I’m sure we’ll get along just fine,” Wilson said in his message.

He invited Johnson and his wife, Irina Zhorov, to visit him in Boston. The three of them got to know each other over Japanese noodles and beer. They had conversations in Wilson’s home and in his office at Harvard University. Over the course of this magical long weekend, Johnson was able to create a deeply personal account of the scientist’s views on biodiversity, conservation, nature — and the end of life.

E.O. Wilson died on December 26, 2021 in Burlington, Massachusetts.

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