Edward Osborne Wilson

When the century began, people could still think of themselves as transcendent beings, dark angels confined to Earth awaiting redemption by either soul or intellect. Now most or all of the relevant evidence from science points in the opposite direction: that having been born into the natural world and evolved there step by step across millions of years, we are bound to the rest of life in our ecology, physiology, and even our spirit. In this sense, the way in which we view the natural world, Nature has changed fundamentally.1

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929, the son of a travelling government accountant. His scientific career, which began with the study of ants and ultimately generated theories that were to influence profoundly concepts of biodiversity, sociobiology and, most recently, the unification of all knowledge, have earned him many of the highest academic honours. In 1996 he was described by Time magazine as one of America's twenty-five most influential people. By the time of his retirement in 1997 he had become recognized as one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century.

Wilson describes his early life as 'blessed', although he was often beset by difficult emotional and physical circumstances. These included the divorce of his parents and an itinerant schooling where he attended fourteen different schools in eleven years. The loss of an eye in a fishing accident denied him access to a military career but left him with eyesight characteristics that he turned to his advantage in science. Gradual, partial loss of hearing during his adolescence influenced his choice of studies in scientific research, deflecting him away from ornithology towards the study of ants. He considers that three formative experiences during his youth influenced his later career and personal philosophy: an intimate knowledge of natural history that first developed in his childhood; an induction into military discipline and the virtues of hard work at the Gulf Coast Military Academy; and a Southern Baptist upbringing that left him with the conviction that religion and science might be reconciled by the understanding of the former by means of the latter.

After gaining bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Alabama, Edward Wilson studied for his Ph.D. at Harvard University, where he taught from 1953 until his retirement in 1997. He was successively a Harvard Professor of Zoology, Curator of Entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Baird Professor of Science, Mellon Professor of the Sciences and Pellegrino University Professor. He is currently Pellegrino Professor Emeritus.

His scientific awards include the US National Medal for Science, the Swedish Academy of Sciences Crafoord Prize, Germany's Terrestrial Ecology Prize, Japan's International Prize for Biology and the French Prix du Institut de la Vie.

Edward Wilson's influence is in no small part attributable to his skill as a writer, whose elegant prose has confirmed his status as one of the finest communicators of science in the twentieth century. Several of his fluent, beautifully written books are at once important academic sources and accessible, engrossing works of popular scientific literature. They have also earned him many literary honours, including two Pulitzer Prizes, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Publishers' Marketing Association Benjamin Franklin Award, the Sir Peter Kent Conservation Book Prize and the John Hay Award from the Orion Society.

Even if his scientific career had been confined to mymecology, Wilson's reputation as an outstanding biologist would be indisputable. His taxonomic and behavioural studies on ants have made him a leading international expert on these insects. The Ants, published in 1990 with Bert Holldobler, was not only an authoritative study of their anatomy, taxonomy, ecology and social behaviour, but also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, acclaimed as much for its detailed information and taxonomic keys for specialists as for its engaging accounts of ant social behaviour for the interested layman.

Inevitably, close field-based study of such a complex, diverse and widely distributed group of insects brought Wilson in close contact with the biodiversity of numerous temperate, sub-tropical and tropical ecosystems. In 1967 he and Robert MacArthur published The Theory of Island Biogeography, describing how the number of species in an isolated patch of habitat—whether a true oceanic island or an island of surviving natural vegetation in a once continuous tropical forest—could be determined with reference to a simple mathematical expression and distance to the nearest source of immigrant species. The theory showed that a balance between new species immigration and extinction of established species was eventually reached, and that the extent of biodiversity in such islands was determined by their size. The theory was successfully validated by denuding a small island in the Florida Keys of all animals and then following in detail the pattern of re-colonization.

Subsequently MacArthur and Wilson's theory of island biogeography has been criticized and modified, but remains immensely influential in the design of nature reserves, emphasizing the importance of conserving the largest possible patches of natural, undisturbed habitat. More controversially, the theory has been used to calculate probable rates of extinction, since it also provides a means of calculating species loss as habitats become fragmented, isolated and reduced in size. The development of this theory coincided with novel methods for measuring biodiversity, such as those of Terry Erwin,2 who proposed vast increases in estimates of species diversity based on extrapolation from sub-samples of beetle biodiversity measured on a single tree species in the Panamanian rain forest. New estimates of total biodiversity were pitched at 10, 30 or even as many as 100 million species, when only about 1.5 million species have been scientifically classified. Wilson's work indicated that extinction rates due to habitat degradation and destruction were far higher than anyone had hitherto imagined. His writings have tirelessly warned of the disastrous consequences of the likely rapid loss of a large proportion of Earth's biodiversity which, he warns, is 'the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us'.

Edward Wilson's behavioural studies of ant societies were the foundation for a second great theme of his scientific career, the study of sociobiology. His proposal that there were genetically determined elements in human behaviour—that evolution has generated certain patterns of neural connections that predispose human behaviour towards certain courses of action—was instantly controversial. His book Sociobiology brought him into conflict with Richard Lewontin3 and Steven Jay Gould, whose ideological predispositions abhorred any suggestion that nature rather than nurture could be a guiding force of human behaviour. In retrospect, Wilson's admission that 'at my core I am a social conservative, a loyalist. I cherish traditional institutions, the more venerable and ritual-laden the better' made it probable that there might be no easy accord with those of a more Marxist disposition in American society. The possibility that characteristics such as altruism or aggression in humans might be even partially governed by instinctive, genetically determined algorhythms had profound consequences for sociology, civil rights and justice. The reception for Sociobiology was at times abusive and even violent, as when Wilson was doused with water by protestors at a sociobiology symposium in Washington in 1918. Subsequently, accumulated circumstantial evidence and data from molecular biological studies has reinforced the notion that there are genetic components in human behaviour. Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature was to some degree a rebuttal of his detractors' politically motivated criticisms of sociobiology.

Wilson's rapid rise in academic status and public recognition coincided with developing tensions between Harvard's traditionalists in biology, whose work was based on the study of whole organisms, and the growing power of the reductionist molecular geneticists who sought to explain the complexity of nature through exploring its constituent molecules. Wilson, a whole-organism traditionalist through and through, with an upbringing that had instilled Old World courtesies, civility and good manners in academic debate, magnanimously describes himself as 'being blessed with brilliant enemies' but admits to despising 'the arrogance and self-regard so frequently found amongst the very bright'. He has made no secret of his personal dislike and professional admiration for Nobel Laureate James Dewey Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who he describes in his autobiography Naturalist as 'the Caligula of biology'.

Some, then, perceive a certain irony in Wilson's most recent work, described in Consilience, which seeks to unify all knowledge—including religion, economics and aesthetics—in terms of reductionist physical and biological principles. The term 'consilience' was originally coined by the nineteenth-century philosopher William Whewell, to describe the solving of problems by the combined use of inferences drawn from disparate sources, a process which is common practice in science. Harking back to the controversial concepts first outlined in Sociobiology, Consilience proposes that an understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying human behavioural characteristics, assembled during the evolution of the brain, will ultimately provide the framework for understanding the decisions that we make about our interactions with our environment and with each other. Predictably, this attempt to reduce the arts and social sciences to an understanding of genetic programming has not received a warm welcome amongst most practitioners in those disciplines, but perhaps it might prompt the re-examination of their intellectual legitimacy, in much the same way that whole-organism biologists were compelled to reconsider their future in the face of the molecular biological revolution. In the somewhat safer home territory of conservation of biodiversity, Wilson has proposed the concept of biophilia, which he defines as 'the innately emotional affiliation of human beings for other organisms' and believes may be resident in our genes. He has argued that biophilia governs our aesthetic response to the living world and acts as a powerful driving force in environmental ethics.4

Ernst Mayr, another of the twentieth century's outstanding evolutionary biologists, considers the most memorable lesson he learned from Darwin is that 'the most important thing in scientific research is not to add to the accumulation of facts, but to ask challenging questions and to try to answer them'.5 Edward Wilson is one of a small cadre of contemplative evolutionary biologists, imbued with a deep knowledge of field natural history from an early age, who, in a career that has combined meticulous observational and experimental study with scholarship, has asked challenging questions, providing answers that have consistently generated controversy, and which by doing so have stimulated whole fields of scientific endeavour.


1 From the author's Prelude, in E.O.Wilson, Naturalist, p. xii.

2 Terry Erwin, 'Tropical Forests: Their Richness in Coleoptera and Other Arthropod Species', Coleopterists' Bulletin, 36 (1), pp. 74-5, 1982.

3 R.C.Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA, pp. 87-104.

4 'Biophilia and the Environmental Ethic', in In Search of Nature.

5 Ernst Mayr, 'Understanding Evolution', Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 14 (9), pp. 372-3, 1999.

See also in this book Darwin, Ehrlich, Malthus

Wilson's major writings

MacArthur, Robert H. and Wilson, E.O., The Theory of Island Biogeography,

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967. The Insect Societies, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

On Human Nature, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1978. Lumsden, Charles J. and Wilson, E.O., Genes, Mind and Culture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

-Promethean Fire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Biophilia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Wilson, E.O. and Peter, Frances M., Biodiversity, Washington, DC: National

Academy Press, 1988. Holldobler, Bert and Wilson, E.O., The Ants, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1990.

The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992. Kellert, S.R. and Wilson, E.O. (eds), The Biophilia Hypothesis, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993.

Holldobler, Bert and Wilson, E.O., Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1994.

Naturalist, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1994.

In Search of Nature, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996.

Consilience, London: Little, Brown & Co., 1998.

Further reading

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Wilson, Edward O., 'Biodiversity Studies: Science and Policy', Science, 253, pp. 758-62, 1991.

Futuyma, Douglas J., Evolutionary Biology, 3rd edn, Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 1997.

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, New York : Oxford University Press, 1947.

Lewontin, R.C., The Doctrine of DNA, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

Mac Arthur, Robert H. and Wilson, Edward O., 'An Equilibrium Theory of Insular Zoogeography', Evolution, 17 (4), pp. 373-87, 1963.

Simberloff, Daniel S. and Wilson, Edward O., 'Experimental Zoogeography of Islands: Defaunation and Monitoring Techniques', Ecology, 50 (2), pp. 26778, 1969.

Williamson, Mark, Island Populations, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

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