E.O. Wilson

5 minute read
Michael J. Novacek

Study nature, not books!” advised the great 19th century naturalist Louis Agassiz. As a boy growing up in Alabama and northern Florida, Edward Osborne Wilson did both. By day he scoured fields, forests and streams. At night he pored over books and magazines. It was an article in National Geographic (“Stalking Ants, Savage and Civilized”) that launched, at the ripe age of 9, one of the great scientific careers of the late 20th century, a career that began in entomology–with a particular passion for ants–but that has since reinvented itself with remarkable frequency, expanding its scope to encompass not just the earth’s smallest creatures but the whole living planet.

E.O. Wilson’s scientific contributions began early. He was 13 when he discovered, in a vacant lot near the docks of Mobile, Ala., the first known U.S. colonies of fire ants, Solenopsis invicta, invaders from Brazil and Argentina known in the South as “the ants from hell.”

As an assistant professor at Harvard in the late 1950s, he proposed the radical notion that ant societies are bound together by an elaborate system of chemical signals. He went on to prove the existence of what are now called pheromones with an elegant experiment. Pied Piper-like, he lured a stream of worker ants along a chemical trail laid down with pheromones extracted from a gland in the abdomen of a fire ant.

Meanwhile, Wilson was blazing other trails. Fascinated by ant societies, he began seeing parallels in the social interactions of birds, lions, monkeys, apes and even humans. In a 1975 book audaciously titled Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, he charted in evolutionary terms the social architecture of a wide range of species–their breeding behavior, gender dominance, caste systems. “In a Darwinian sense,” Wilson wrote, “the organism does not live for itself. Its primary function is not even to reproduce other organisms; it reproduces genes, and it serves as their temporary carrier.”

Wilson’s Sociobiology was at once enormously influential and hugely controversial. Its first 26 chapters, which dealt with the social systems of nonhuman species, were widely praised as one of the century’s signal scientific achievements. Its 27th chapter, which applied the same analysis to human behavior and culture, was harshly–and sometimes violently–attacked. At a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an impassioned dissenter emptied a pitcher of ice water on him.

Despite the mixed reaction, Wilson in this and subsequent books–culminating with Promethean Fire (1983)–accomplished something few scientists can claim. He established a new field of science. It is known to this day as sociobiology.

By that time, however, Wilson had moved on. Drawing from his deep knowledge of the earth’s “little creatures” and his sense that their contribution to the planet’s ecology is underappreciated, he produced what may be his most important book, The Diversity of Life (1992). In 424 pages he describes how an intricately interconnected natural system is threatened by a man-made biodiversity crisis he calls the “sixth extinction”–the most devastating trauma since the extinction event that laid waste the dinosaurs and other creatures 65 million years ago.

He notes in Diversity that the 1.5 million species named so far by scientists represent only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions that may be out there. Wilson’s prediction that 30% to 50% of all species would be extinct by the middle of the 21st century was meant to provoke–and it did. Critics rejected the estimate as another one of his flamboyant speculations. But subsequent research has supported it. From the perspective of the biodiversity scientist, virtually all the signs are bad.

How can human society transform itself? How can we become stewards of the living world? To Wilson, what is required is a new convergence of thought and ethics comparable to the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. “The Enlightenment thinkers…got it mostly right the first time,” he wrote in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). “They assumed a lawful, perfectible material world in which knowledge is unified across the sciences and the humanities.” Consilience received its customary share of praise and criticism, especially from detractors who found Wilson’s conclusions naively optimistic. But he makes a persuasive argument that stranger convergences have already occurred and will occur again.

Now, at 72, E.O. Wilson is a senior doyen of science and, by his own admission, moving irresistibly into what he calls “the literary realm.” It’s not a bad place for him to be. Wilson has produced a scientific masterpiece in nearly every decade of his life. And in this time of crisis, our planet has never had more need for the observations and intuition of one of the world’s great naturalists.

Novacek is provost and curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City

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