Edward O. Wilson was a giant in the fields of biology and conservation. He died on December 26 at the age of 92, but his work will be used to understand the natural world for years to come.
Wilson said his love of nature started in his boyhood, playing in the woods and streams of Alabama.
“A child has to be an explorer,” he said in a 2010 interview with The Allegheny Front.
Wilson was partially blinded in a fishing accident as a child, and as a result, he said he paid more attention to things he could examine up close–like insects, and especially ants.
“Every kid has a bug period and I just never grew out of mine, and I lucked out of being able to go on to university and then into an academic position that allowed me to continue that work,” he told The Allegheny Front in 1998.
Listen to the conversations with E.O. Wilson
March 18, 1998: The Allegheny Front’s Chuck Staresinic’s wide-ranging interview with Wilson, including his book, “Consilience,” which follows the evolution of his thinking about knowledge. (23:34)
October 3, 2007: The Allegheny Front’s host Matthew Craig spoke with Wilson, who was in Pittsburgh to attend the Rachel Carson Legacy Conference. They spoke about Carson’s legacy, the threat to biodiversity caused by global climate change, and what lessons we can learn from social insects. (26:21)
June 30, 2010: The Allegheny Front’s host Jennifer Szweda Jordan spoke with Wilson about his novel, a semi-autobiographical tale called “The Anthill.” The book’s hero is a Southern boy who grows up with a love for the natural world, which pushes him on to a career as an environmental lawyer. Wilson reads a passage from his book. (5:59)
Wilson ended up at Harvard in 1950, where he studied how ants evolved to live in certain environments. His work took him all over the world, from Cuba to New Guinea.
“I’m a person who would have preferred, I think, to be born in the 19th century and spend my life exploring as a Victorian biologist and naturalist around the world,” he said.
But it was his 1975 book “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” that propelled his work into greater prominence and the public consciousness. It explained his and others’ research into the behavior of social insects–like ants, bees and termites. But it went a step further.
“By comparing social insects with a vast differences and even a few similarities to human societies, you can learn far more about human society,” he explained to The Allegheny Front in 2007. “Of course, I study them just for their own interest. But if someone says, Well, what good does that do it? Well, I’ll tell you right now, it tells us an awful lot about how the environment is run, but it also tells us an awful lot about ourselves.”
Wilson’s proposition that we can learn about human behavior through evolutionary biology didn’t sit well with some in and outside his field. He was criticized for promoting ideas of biological determinism which had been used to discriminate against groups of people like immigrants.
But he rejected that assessment, pointing instead to the complexity of human culture and evolution and calling for more research on genetics. In future books, Wilson doubled down on his ideas of sociobiology.
“Social organization from ant colonies and coral reefs through wolf and chimp societies up to human societies were so enthralling and esthetically beautiful when put together in patterns that I couldn’t resist writing it in literary style or lyrical style, shall I say, at least parts of it,” he said.
He wrote over 30 books in his lifetime, and won two Pulitzer Prizes, writing for the scientific community as well as for a general audience.
Wilson added activism to his resume in the 1970s, as he witnessed development and agriculture shrink the wildlife habitats where he had done his field research.
“You would expect an astronomer who saw a 10 kilometer wide meteorite on a collision course with the with a planet to become an activist, to do something about it and not just publish a scientific paper somewhere and hope that a, you know, political leader or media person would pick it up,” he said. “And I see this as the cause of the decline of biodiversity destruction of natural habitats as a comparable event.”
To preserve life on the planet, he said we should aim for half of it to be left wild. In his retirement, he launched the Encyclopedia of Life, a website to catalog the world’s species.
In 2010, Wilson talked with The Allegheny Front about his first novel, “Anthill,” which was semi-autobiographical. He was asked if he felt positive about today’s children becoming defenders of nature.
“I’ve been calling myself a cautious optimist,” he said. Now I’m calling myself, particularly after incidents like the Great Oil Spill, a scared optimist. But I’m going to stay optimistic because there isn’t any other way to be.”