Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson will teach one week-long, for-credit course each year at the Nicholas School of the Environment.
Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson will teach one week-long, for-credit course each year at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

E.O. Wilson—renowned biologist, researcher and author—is coming to town.

Under the new agreement signed by the University and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, Wilson will teach one week-long, for-credit course each year at the Nicholas School of the Environment. In addition to the courses, the new agreement with the foundation will provide new research opportunities for graduate students.

“It’s a very exciting opportunity for us to deepen our research and education initiatives and to work with both faculty and students,” said Paula Ehrlich, president and CEO of Wilson’s foundation.

She noted that the foundation hopes that a strong collaboration with the Nicholas School will further the common goal of bettering the understanding of our biodiverse planet and the preservation of ecosystems.

“We’re hoping to set up a framework in which interaction and collaboration will grow over time and interweave between the Wilson Foundation and our University,” said Dean of the Nicholas School Bill Chameides.

Wilson will begin by teaching a course titled “Biodiversity and the Meaning of Human Existence” in Spring 2014. The course—which is to be capped at 16 students—is open to Nicholas School master’s of environmental management and Ph.D students.

Spots in the course are limited to ensure the best seminar and discussion experience possible, Ehrlich said.

Students interested in securing a seat were required to submit a one-page essay explaining what they will contribute to the class, said Jennifer Swenson, director of professional studies at the Nicholas School. Several dozen students submitted essays and are currently under consideration. Final decisions will be made later this week.

The title of the course closely resembles that of a book Wilson is working on—”The Meaning of Human Existence.” Much of the course will focus on some of the topics that will be addressed in his book, which will be released in 2014, Chameides noted.

“His teaching and thinking are not static,” Ehrlich said. “The course will take on its own life based on the interests of the students and various aspects of what Ed Wilson is thinking.”

Wilson is known within the scientific community for his work in environmental advocacy, secular-humanist ideas and for his role as the father of sociobiology—the study of how social behaviors result from evolution. Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus of entomology at Harvard University, he is best known for using sociobiology and evolutionary principles to explain the behavior of social insects.

Among the lay population, however, Wilson is admired as a “poet scientist” whose works seek to transcend the ordinary boundaries of scientific literature, Ehrlich said. His Pulitzer award-winning book, “On Human Nature,” introduces the concept of the “evolutionary epic”—an attempt to tell the 14-billion-year story of evolution in a sacred way. His 1998 book “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge” breaks down the barrier between the sciences and the humanities.

“One doesn’t often have the ability to learn first-hand from someone of the intellectual stature of E.O. Wilson, whether you’re a student or a professor,” said Charlotte Clark, lecturer and director of undergraduate programs at the Nicholas School.