RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We go now to an Open Mic segment. That's when we ask someone that we might interview ourselves on MORNING EDITION to get behind the mic, to quiz someone they find fascinating. In a moment, Will Wright takes the host chair. You could think of him as the Steven Spielberg of game design. He created "The Sims," the most successful computer game ever. More recently, the game "Spore," in which players create virtual single-celled organisms and - you might call it godlike -evolve those organisms into more complex forms of life.
And Will, you're joining us from your home in Oakland, California.
Mr. WILL WRIGHT (Computer Game Designer): Yes.
MONTAGNE: So let's begin with who you chose to interview.
Mr. WRIGHT. I chose Edward O. Wilson, basically a biologist that's inspired a huge amount of my work. I read every book he's written. And one of the early games I did was "Sim Ant," which is based upon a lot of his work on ants. So I've always been very fascinated with biology and evolution. And so I kind of came into the interview with all these questions about evolution that I wanted to ask him. But it was interesting, because his first response was, oh, I thought we were going to talk about games. And, you know, he clearly had a very strong interest in talking about, you know, the way games were going to impact education, which is really wonderful to hear from him.
MONTAGNE: He may have wanted to talk about games rather than the sort of subject of evolution, but he certainly is one of the most prominent names in evolution. Some people call him Darwin's heir.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it's actually interesting how he's taken kind of the genetic evolution and brought it out into higher and higher levels. I think one of his big goals has been to unify science, especially with, like, the humanities. And he's one of the few scientists that really, you know, kind of have the guts to even try to do that.
MONTAGNE: Let's get to the interview, then. And why don't you tell us what you asked him first?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I was really curious to find out if he saw a role for games in the educational process.
Professor EDWARD O. WILSON (Biologist, Harvard University): Well, I'll go to an even more radical position, and that is I think games are the future in education. We're going through a rapid transition now. We're about to leave print textbooks behind. For example, I envision visits to different ecosystems that the student could actually enter, taking this path, going to that hill, with an instructor. And that could be a rainforest. It could be a tundra. It could be a Jurassic forest. And with all of that experience, I think wonders could be accomplished.
Mr. WRIGHT: It feels like almost a very different mode of education, because traditionally, education is, you know, the teacher stands up and broadcasts information and the students are expected to absorb it. And, you know, in some sense, it's putting the kid at the center of the educational experience instead of on the other side of the wall.
Prof. WILSON: That's right. We are teaching kids, for the most part, the wrong way. The way to do it should be the ancient way, the way the human mind is programmed to learn. When children went out in Paleolithic times - and now we're talking back millions of years - they went with adults and they learned everything they needed to learn by participating in the process. You know, that's the next step beyond the game step, the virtual reality step, that then we can have a lot more real reality for students.
Mr. WRIGHT: So you see this as possibly a stepping stone, so a kid might get actually the motivation to go out and have these real experiences.
Prof. WILSON: Yeah.
Mr. WRIGHT: Ed, I'm curious. At what point in your life did you realize you were going to become a biologist?
Prof. WILSON: Maybe it was when I got stung by a velvet ant at the age of three. That's a viciously stinging insect. But I'm only exaggerating slightly. I developed this interest when I was nine years old and I wanted to be one of those National Geographic writers who could tell us with beautiful pictures about beetles, winged jewels of the tropics.
Mr. WRIGHT: It's interesting hearing you talk about this, because it's clear that, you know, that you not only have a passion for these subjects, but you, in some sense, have a reverence for them as well. And it sounds like you almost had that realization at a fairly early age. Do you think that's common?
Prof. WILSON: No. I don't think so. Actually, because I had very permissive parents and very permissive schools, I had - I was able to spend a huge amount of my time in the field. People didn't know what I was doing, really. I got such a feeling for it, of the swamps, the river banks. That's what came to be the focus of my life. So naturally, when I got to college and I learned about evolution, ah. That was the epiphany, that all this chaotic information I'd been storing up could be fitted together by evolution and what was then the new synthesis, when it was really new in the late 1940s. I just lapped it up.
Mr. WRIGHT: It sounds like when you finally were exposed to, you know, the theory of evolution and an epiphany as you describe it, it's interesting reading your books. As a writer, you sound remarkably reasonable in the way you approach life and the variety of subjects that you kind of address. You know, it's interesting that occasionally in your career, you come across ideas that are received with a lot of controversy.
Prof. WILSON: I never was afraid of controversy, but I have to admit that when I created the first synthesis of sociobiology and treated it as a discipline -that's what the subject is really all about. That's what sociobiology means, the discipline of the study of the biological basis of social behavior. I didn't realize that there was a minefield out there that I would find if I brought humans into it and the passion with which the notion that human beings have a human nature that has a biological base would excite; that was the huge controversy. It's all over now. People have a human nature based on biology. But in those days, it created a tremendous amount of anger, actually.
Mr. WRIGHT: I'm kind of curious, as a biologist, in biology or evolution, if there was one thing you don't know about that subject that you wish you could know, what would it be? What is, like, the biggest unanswered question in biology that you would love the answer to?
Prof. WILSON: Well, it's the one I'm working on right now, and it is the origin of altruistic social behavior. And forgive me if this sounds grandiose, but, you know, since philosophers don't seem to want to ever ask it anymore, I'll ask it. It's what's inscribed on Paul Gauguin's Tahitian masterpiece on the canvas. Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? And we're not going to have any answers for that until we've done a lot more science and also integration of science with the other great branches of learning, the social sciences and humanities. And one of the most important aspects of it is what is the nature of the evolution that finally created the human species?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I want to thank you for your time, Ed - Dr. Wilson.
Prof. WILSON: Thank you, Will. I hope I'll meet you sometime - maybe walking together through that Jurassic forest.
Mr. WRIGHT: I'll start working on it. Yeah.
Prof. WILSON: All right. Thanks a lot.
MONTAGNE: And that was biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard University being interviewed on MORNING EDITION's Open Mic by game designer Will Wright. Will Wright, thanks so much for taking MORNING EDITION's Open Mic.
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, thank you. It's been my pleasure.
MONTAGNE: And you could hear more of Will Wright's conversation with E. O. Wilson at npr.org.
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