Edward Osborne Wilson (1929–2021), University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard, was the guiding force that shapes the mission of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.
In his long career, he transformed his field of research—the behavior of ants—and applied his scientific perspective and experience to illuminate the human circumstance, including human origins, human nature, and human interactions. Wilson was also a pioneer in spearheading efforts to preserve and protect the biodiversity of this planet.
Beginning with his unusual childhood in Alabama, “E.O. Wilson—Of Ants and Men” chronicles the famed biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s lifelong love for the natural world and the groundbreaking research that would establish him as the foremost authority on ants. It is an exciting journey of ideas but also an endearing portrait of a remarkable man; often dubbed “a Darwin for the modern day.”
Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929. Growing up in the countryside around Mobile, he was entranced by nature and all its creatures. A fishing accident left him blind in one eye, interfering with his ability to study birds and other animals in the field. He decided to focus on insects—creatures he could examine under a microscope.
“Most children have a bug period,” he wrote in his memoir Naturalist. “I never grew out of mine.”
While still in high school, Wilson discovered the first colony of fire ants in the United States. After earning a B.S. and M.S. in biology at the University of Alabama, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1955. From 1953 to 1956 he was a Junior Fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows. During this period he commenced a series of research field trips that took him, to many parts of the South Pacific and New World tropics. In 1956 he joined the Harvard faculty.
Early in his career, Wilson conducted work on the classification and ecology of ants in New Guinea and other Pacific islands, and in the American tropics. In 1963 his work and his conception of species equilibrium led him to the theory of island biogeography, which he developed with the late Robert H. MacArthur of Princeton University. In their theory, immigration and extinction, the determinants of biodiversity at the species level, were tied to area (distance of islands from source regions) and the basic properties of ecology and demography. The work culminated in their 1967 book The Theory of Island Biogeography, which has been a standard reference work ever since. The theory greatly influenced the discipline of ecology and became a cornerstone of conservation biology. Applied to “habitat islands,” such as forests in a sea of agricultural land, it has influenced the planning and assessment of parks and reserves around the world. With his student Daniel Simberloff, in the late 1960s, he set up experiments in the Florida Keys that tested predictions of the theory, and added knowledge of the processes of species immigration and extinction.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Wilson played a key role in the development of the new field of chemical ecology. With several collaborators he worked out much of the pheromone language of ants, and with William H. Bossert of Harvard University he created the first general theory of properties of chemical communication. Because all plants and microorganisms, as well as the vast majority of animals, communicate primarily or entirely by chemical signals, the importance of this work has been immense.
By the late 1970s, Wilson was actively involved in global conservation, adding to and promoting biodiversity research. In 1984 he published Biophilia, which explored the evolutionary and psychological basis of humanity’s attraction to the natural environment. This work introduced the word biophilia into the language, and has been influential in the shaping of the modern conservation ethic. In 1988 Wilson edited the volume BioDiversity, based on the proceedings of the first United States national conference on the subject, which also introduced the term biodiversity to the language. This work was very influential in creating the modern field of biodiversity studies. In 1992 Wilson published The Diversity of Life, which synthesized the principles and most important practical issues of biodiversity; this, too, became a standard work. His 2002 work The Future of Life has become equally influential.
In 1971 Wilson published his second major synthesis, The Insect Societies, which formulated the existing knowledge of the behavior of ants, social bees, social wasps, and termites, on a foundation of population biology. In it he introduced the concept of a new discipline, sociobiology, the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior in all kinds of organisms. In 1975 he published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which extended the subject to vertebrates and united it more closely to evolutionary biology.
The foundational discoveries of sociobiology are generally recognized to be the analysis of animal communication and division of labor, in which Wilson played a principal role, and the genetic theory of the origin of social behavior, which he helped to promote and apply in his 1971 and 1975 syntheses. Sociobiology was later ranked in a poll of the officers and fellows of the international Animal Behavior Society as the most important book on animal behavior of all time, and is regarded today as the founding text of sociobiology and its offshoot, evolutionary psychology. Sociobiology also included a brief analysis of the origins of human nature. This stirred a bitter controversy on the role of biology in human behavior, which has now been largely resolved in favor of the sociobiological view.
On the occasion of his 80th birthday, the World Science Festival in New York honored the life and legacy of E.O. Wilson. As part of that celebration, world renowned actress and impressionist Anna Deavere Smith played E.O. Wilson at the moment in 1978 when he was confronted on stage giving a speech about Sociobiology.
To more fully cover the subject of culture and answer scientific (as opposed to political) criticism, Wilson published the widely acclaimed On Human Nature in 1978. With Charles Lumsden, he developed the first general theory of gene-culture coevolution (and introduced the term) in the 1981 work Genes, Mind, and Culture.
In 1998 Wilson extended his program of evolutionary thought in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which argues for a reversal of the current fragmentation of knowledge and postmodernist ideologies and a return to the ideals of the original Enlightenment, including bridging of the sciences and humanities.
In an article in The Atlantic, Howard W. French writes, “Amidst his astonishing range and volume of intellectual and creative output, Wilson’s reputation, and most of his big ideas, have been founded primarily on his study of ants, most famously his discoveries involving ant communication and the social organization of ant communities.” The Ants, co-written with Bert Hölldobler and published in 1990, is the definitive work on the earth’s most abundant insect and the only professional science work to win a Pulitzer Prize. The two authors reunited in The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (2008), which examines eusocial species such as ants, termites, and bees more broadly.
In 1995 Wilson published a best-selling memoir, Naturalist, recalling his youthful fascination with nature and his growth as a scientist, and tracing the evolution of the scientific fields he has helped to define. Adding to his literary accomplishments, in 2010 he published a novel, Anthill, which became a New York Times best seller. A long excerpt was published in The New Yorker recounting in fictional form the life and battles of an ant colony.
Wilson’s recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth was selected for Newsweek’s “12 Not to Miss in 2012” list of books. Uniting the diverse strands of thought he has developed over the course of his 60-year career, The Social Conquest of Earth reconsiders the theory of altruism to better understand how man became the dominant species on the planet. Wilson drew on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. In his book, Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City (2012), Wilson and photographer Alex Harris explored the soul of that city and the meaning of place, weaving together Wilson’s text about his family’s Alabama history and his childhood there with sixty-eight color images by Georgia native Harris.
Throughout his life, Wilson spearheaded efforts to preserve the world’s biodiversity. He played a central role in establishing the Encyclopedia of Life, which has the goal of curating a web page for every one of Earth’s species, and he has mobilized the movement to protect the world’s “hot spots,” the realms of highest biodiversity on the planet. In 2011, Wilson led scientific expeditions to the wild preserve of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique and the archipelagoes of Vanuatu and New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific. Professor Wilson has developed a special attachment to Gorongosa, where U.S. philanthropist Gregory C. Carr has joined with the government of Mozambique to direct the park’s recovery after years of civil war that saw its wildlife dwindle dramatically. Wilson has written a book called, A Window on Eternity: A Biologist’s Walk through Gorongosa National Park, about the extraordinary biodiversity and model conservation efforts in Gorongosa.
In addition to authoring books and articles on entomology and conservation and lecturing in many countries, Wilson served on the boards of directors of the American Museum of Natural History, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund, and was a key consultant of the New York Botanical Garden, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and many other environmental and scientific organizations.
The more than 150 awards received by Wilson from around the world in science and letters include the National Medal of Science, two Pulitzer Prizes for Non-fiction (for On Human Nature and, with Bert Hölldobler, The Ants), the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (given by the Academy in fields of science it does not cover by the Nobel Prize), Japan’s International Prize for Biology, the Prix de Institut de Vie, Paris, Italy’s presidential Medal and the Nonino Prize in science and letters, the Cosmos Prize, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, the Gold Medal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Audubon Medal of the Audubon Society, the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society, Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal International Prize for Science, the Dominican Republic’s highest award, the Order of the Silver Cross of Christopher Columbus, and Sweden’s highest award given to a non-citizen, Commander, First Class, Royal Order of the Polar Star. He also received both of the teaching prizes voted by the students of Harvard College. In 1995 he was named one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine, and in 2000 one of the century’s 100 leading environmentalists by both Time and Audubon magazine. In 2005 Foreign Policy named him one of the world’s 100 leading intellectuals.