The End of the Anthropocene

What do you do when you’re over 80 and still at the top of your game? If you’re the famed naturalist E. O. Wilson, you discover something you’ve never had before: a circle of friends.

By S. I. Rosenbaum | Boston Magazine | January 2015

Edward Osborne Wilson—ant scholar, environmental crusader, refiner of evolutionary theory, two-time Pulitzer winner, scientific icon—is searching for a title for his next book. It’s a follow-up to his unambitiously titled The Meaning of Human Existence, which he released in October, at 85. He is thinking about calling it The End of the Anthropocene, a reference to man’s dominion over the environment, which he argues should be overturned. But his publisher wants something different. So this morning Wilson’s handing the question over to his brain trust, gathered around a large table in the cafeteria of Brookhaven at Lexington, an upscale retirement community nestled in the woods off Trapelo Road.

Brookhaven has a pool and on-site healthcare, but its main attraction is its clientele, whose IQs are significantly higher than their ages. “It’s the perfect place for an author,” Wilson tells me. “I don’t think I’m insulting this place when I refer to Brookhaven as a place where old genius comes to die.”

Wilson writes a list of potential titles on a sheet of paper. “I want your opinion on the choice among those titles,” he tells his audience. “And I’m being deadly serious. Which one appeals to you the most? Or should I continue searching?”

His fellow octogenarians don’t pull punches. “Ain’t you heard the notion ‘You can’t tell a book by its cover’?” asks Merton Kahne, 85, a retired psychiatrist who used to run faculty psychiatric services at MIT. “These titles are going to put off an awful lot of people who you’re trying to hit. You gotta find a different one.”

“Incidentally, you haven’t allowed me to tell you about the book yet,” Wilson says dryly.

“I like the title Hope for a Dying Planet. I’d buy that,” offers Eugenia Kaledin, 85, who taught American history and literature at Northeastern. “Hope is nice. Don’t you like hope?” she asks Kahne.

“Where did he put that in?” asks Kahne, peering at the list. “Hope for a Dismal Planet?”

“All right, would you like to hear what is in this book?” Wilson asks. “I realize now that there is one person to whom this is irrelevant,” he adds, glancing darkly at Kahne. “And if that is true I would like to try out something like The Third Revolution in Sex. That’s not related to the content, but—”

“Now you’re waking me up. You’re on your way,” Kahne says.

“And you put a naked woman on the cover,” Kaledin, the history teacher, puts in.

“Well that goes without saying.”

“She has to be chained to a bed,” she adds.

“You’re right. I agree,” Kahne says.

“I’m not joking about that!” Kaledin exclaims. “That happened to me in China. I ordered a lot of books from the New American Library, and they sent me soft-core porn. And some of them had pictures of women chained to the bed. The New American Library must have had an overflow of these soft-core porns. The Chinese thought I was some kind of terrible spy.”

“I’m never allowed to complete a full paragraph,” Wilson says mournfully. “I’m not going to tell you what’s in the book.”

***

Built in 1988, Brookhaven is a cluster of apartment complexes and freestanding cottages surrounded by a swath of conservation woodland. The buildings are named after top-tier universities and private prep schools, but the facility wasn’t originally designed to appeal to aging academics, says CEO James Freehling. Instead, the migration of intellectual olds was organic: Lexington is a bedroom community for Boston’s universities, and recommendations spread by word of mouth. Today, the population draws heavily on the faculties of Harvard, MIT, and Tufts. “Everyone has a significant background,” says Sylvia Feinburg, 85, who moved here six years ago. “It’s like a geriatric university.”

Many of the residents were leaders in their field. “If you know Brookhaven, we have some very notable people here,” says Sidney Hoffman, 89. “We have some people who developed medical devices and procedures, we have a Nobel Prize winner, we have people who write books, people who teach. A lot of academics, mainly from Harvard and MIT.”

At 85, Wilson is tall and thin, with a sly southern smile, a squint that eclipses his blind eye, a shock of silvery film-star hair cresting his forehead. He and his wife, Irene, moved to the Brookhaven at Lexington retirement community 13 years ago, for her health. But to his surprise, Wilson discovered that far from being a place to slow down, Brookhaven was the perfect place to foster his legendary creativity. What’s more, he has found here something that in his long, extraordinary life he has never had before: a circle of friends.

Not all of them come by every day, but there’s a core group of about 10 men and women, mostly in their mid-eighties. All of them are extremely smart: Along with Kahne and Kaledin, there’s Bill Harris, who was the head of hip replacement surgery at Mass General and pioneered the procedure; Feinburg, who researched early childhood development at Tufts; and Hoffman, the outlier, who worked in finance rather than academics or medicine.

But Wilson is unlike the rest of these luminaries, Hoffman adds: “Most of them do not come down and talk. Very few do. He is willing to do that, to talk with us.”

Every morning, Wilson wakes at 6, comes down to the cafeteria around 8. His group of regulars begins to drift in around the same time, sitting around a large table. (“I’ll tell you one thing that I think helps,” says Kaledin, “is the physical presence of that table. Having a big table and a coffee pot really does help.”)

They come for coffee, for conversation, for companionship. They come to be in close proximity to Wilson’s brain. He has a bit of a shtick—the pose of the conceited intellectual, which he uses to camouflage the fact that he is both an intellectual and a little bit conceited. Wilson doesn’t mind taking center stage; he can turn a conversation into a lecture with a single word. That word is “incidentally.”

“Incidentally,” he says, “I worked with a mathematician many years ago, a colleague who was working out the evolution of pheromones. We knew from the first experimental work that ants have pheromones, somewhere between 10 and 20; they can mix them, use different concentrations. Ants can do a lot of talking. I said, ‘I wonder if ants can really speak, or communicate as rapidly as a human being.’”

Everyone quiets down, bespelled. “The ants have to come within one or two millimeters of each other,” Wilson explains. “At that distance you can now modulate the pheromone release, and you can modulate it for frequency and you can modulate it for amplitude.”

Wilson can talk about his research almost indefinitely, and he’s as engaging a speaker as he is a writer. But the group will only let him hold center stage for so long. They listen, and then pull him back down to Earth.

“Birds are among the very few creatures on this planet which, like human beings, use sound and sight,” Wilson says.

There are nods and murmurs.

Then someone at the opposite end of the table remarks, “Did you know on YouTube there is a cat playing the piano?”

***

Among the breakfast club, roles emerge. Kaledin often challenges Wilson’s scientific chauvinism. Feinburg searches for the emotional impact of his subjects. Kahne, the shrink, is his primary antagonist; the two have a bit of a vaudeville act, needling each other. After one charged exchange, I asked other members of the breakfast club whether they thought Wilson was annoyed. No, they said. This is what Wilson loves; this is what he comes down to the cafeteria for.

All his life, Wilson has been a loner. He has often spoken in interviews of his childhood solitude: an only child of divorced parents, he took refuge in time alone in the wilderness, following ants. In his 1994 autobiography, Naturalist, he wrote that once, in childhood, he pretended to be deaf and mute, making up an “ersatz sign language” as an awkward way of interacting with kids he didn’t know. At other times, he related, he interacted with his peers by approaching those on the sidelines, “talking with other boys I saw standing alone at the edges of the schoolyard or lunchroom.”

“He had a very stressful background,” says Feinburg, the Tufts childhood-development professor. Soon after meeting Wilson she pored over the early chapters of his autobiography, fascinated. She’d heard of him before coming to Brookhaven but had never read him. “I’m always interested in the case of survival, people who didn’t have perfect backgrounds when they were young and who surmounted those backgrounds,” she explains. “His intellectual interests and genius, in terms of being able to persevere in what interests him, made him a survivor.”

Blinded in one eye in a fishing accident at seven and hard of hearing by his teenage years, Wilson often says that he was physically destined to become an entomologist: “I would thereafter celebrate the little things of the world,” he wrote, “the animals that can be picked up between thumb and forefinger and brought close for inspection.”

But at Harvard, he arrived on campus the same year as James Dewey Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA helix, whom he has referred to in print as “the most unpleasant human being I had ever met.” Watson was riding the cusp of the molecular revolution, the scientific trend that would transform biology into a discipline centered in the laboratory rather than in the field. Wilson remained an acolyte of classical biology, dedicated to observing living animals in their ecological habitats.

Wilson gained tenure before Watson, but he nonetheless found himself in a “gladiatorial” atmosphere. In the late ’60s, he put together a tongue-in-cheek glossary that would be passed around in biology departments, like an early, analog meme:

“Classical Biology. That part of biology not yet explained in terms of physics and chemistry…. In any case, it doesn’t matter, because eventually it will all be explained in terms of physics and chemistry; then it will be Molecular Biology and worth knowing about.

Brilliant Discovery. A publishable result in the Mainstream of Biology.

Mainstream of Biology. The set of all projects being worked on by me and my friends. Also known as Modern Biology and Twenty-first Century Biology.

Exceptional Young Man. A beginning Molecular Biologist who has made a Brilliant Discovery (q.v.)

First-rate. Pertaining to biologists working on projects in the Mainstream of Biology.

Molecular Biology. That part of biochemistry which has supplanted part of Classical Biology. A great deal of Molecular Biology is being conducted by First-rate Scientists who make Brilliant Discoveries.

Third-rate. Pertaining to Classical Biologists.”

***

Wilson’s academic pursuits included mapping the intricate empires of ants. Unlike biology departments, ant colonies, he discovered, support dozens of professions and specialties: There are ants whose job is to carry leaves back to the nest, while much smaller ants ride on their backs to ward off predatory flies. Yet a third type awaits to grind the leaf meal into fertilizer to grow edible fungus.

All of these ants are born physically destined for their careers. There is no uncertainty. Ant societies look very much like human societies, except that all of it happens without the awkwardness of conscious thought or emotions. In The Social Conquest of Earth, from 2012, Wilson traced the evolution of ants and people, the two great eusocial species of Earth. “The insect queen could produce robotic offspring guided by instinct,” he wrote.

But people are forced to reverse-engineer, by trial and error, something approaching the pristine and unconscious society of ants. Early hominids, Wilson wrote, “had to rely on bonding and cooperation among individuals.”

At Brookhaven, that bonding can be fragile. “It’s not the same type of intimacy you had with your friends when you were young,” Kaledin tells me. “You don’t go in and tell them what your problems are. Everyone has problems. The terrible thing is that people die all the time.” When she first moved to Brookhaven, she says, she met a woman who was part of the breakfast group. Six months later that woman was gone.

When residents die, the staff puts a red rose in a vase in the front hall.

“You don’t forget death,” Kaledin says. “We never talk about it, people don’t use the word, but it’s there, it’s with us all the time…. It’s tenuous. Everything is not based on the future. It’s very peculiar, but it’s nice to make the most of what we have. I’m very grateful for that table.”

“It’s wonderful, it really is,” Harris says. “Because it’s a time of diminution. Things are getting more remote and smaller; your life is diminishing. To have this kind of intellectual capacity still, and verve in the community, is wonderful.”

Today, the conversation has lapsed again into lecture. Wilson is expounding on his most recent obsession: artificial intelligence. He’s been reading up on the field, trying to learn, from yet another angle, the intricacies of the human mind. “Once we figure out how the brain works,” he explains, “we can produce robots that are quite humanlike.”

“You think that’s going to be soon?”

“You could have a robot maid when you’re out of town.”

“I’d just like to have a robot’s knee,” Kaledin says.

“Yeah, I just want a robot clone who would do all the work I need to do.”

“Right,” Kaledin retorts. “Who will clean my refrigerator? These robots never do what you want them to do. I had a friend who had one of those round things, the vacuum cleaners? But of course it was round, so it couldn’t get into any corners. They didn’t think of that.”

Wilson leans back, a beatific smile on his face. “This is the way heaven is going to be,” he proclaims, to no one in particular. Then he laughs. “We’re going to get so tired of each other.”

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PHOTO: Bob O'Connor