Edward O. Wilson was born in Alabama on June 10, 1929. He grew up with an early interest in and utter fascination with the natural world. As he recalls, this enchantment began in the seventh year of his life when he spent the summer at Paradise Beach, near Pensacola, Florida. Wilson wandered the shores and tidal pools of the beach for hours on end, day after day, always in search of creatures to study and possibly capture. He was always searching for something more gigantic than his imagination could conceive. Ironically, a childhood accident left him blind in his right eye, which was an important point in his decision to be a scientist and study tiny insects he could look at closely with his good eye: namely, ants.
Wilson is known by many titles, such as research scientist, environmental activist, ethical philosopher, and entomologist. He began his distinguished career by receiving his BS from the University of Alabama in 1949, and his MS in 1950 and his PhD in 1955 from Harvard University. He has spent much of his career as a professor at Harvard University and is presently a Pelligrino University research Professor and Honorary Curator of Entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Wilson’s early work focused on island biogeography. With R. H. MacArthur, Wilson published a theoretical explanation for the uneven distribution of species on islands. The basis of this theory depends on a balance between immigration of new species and the extinction of existing species. The main findings of this research that islands closer to the mainland will have increased biodiversity, as compared to islands at a greater distance, have become important to biodiversity conservation efforts. It has also been applied to management strategies for patchy ecosystems on mainlands that survive development but show a decrease in biodiversity.
Wilson is well known for his studies in entomology, especially myrmecology, the study of ants. He has made groundbreaking discoveries in regard to the biological basis of behavior in these social insects and applied them to the social behaviors of other animals. He was one of the first scientists to apply sociobiological theory to humans, positing that there are biological underpinnings to human behavior that have been selected for by evolution and are passed on through human genes. He even received the National Medal of Science in 1977 for his contributions.
Wilson’s theories were heavily criticized and he was accused of subscribing to reductionism and genetic determinism. There is a well-known incident that occurred at the 1978 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While Wilson was preparing to give a lecture, demonstrators charged him, poured a pitcher of ice water over his head, and said, “Wilson, you’re all wet.” Many people believe the idea that there is a genetic basis to human behavior to be morally reprehensible. It is often said that sociobiology is an excuse for the less desirable conditions, which humans impose on each other. However, it more obviously purports the understanding of such behaviors will more likely result in the ability to change them rather than perpetuate them.
Sociobiology’s theories are now widely accepted as part of the biological and environmental explanations for the complexity of human behaviors, such as altruism or helping those who are not related with no apparent benefit to oneself. Wilson’s 1975 publication Sociobiology has been widely accepted as one of the most important works dedicated to the study of animal behavior and has been instrumental to the evolution of the controversial theories of Sociobiology as applied to human behavior. Today, the discipline of sociobiology has developed into Evolutionary Psychology.
Wilson is known as “the father of biodiversity” and has spent much of the latter part of his career bringing the importance of every living species to the forefront of public attention with his presentations and publications. He is acutely aware of the detrimental effects of human habitation of the earth and as an active environmentalist. As a gifted writer, Wilson has published several books tolling the benefits of conservation and stewardship of the earth’s natural resources. He dedicates much of his efforts toward enlightening others on the benefits of biodiversity and the reality that many species of plants and animals are going extinct every day.
Wilson believes that one of the main issues humanity must conquer is to raise the standard of living for the poorer countries of the world while doing as little damage to the surrounding environments as possible. By 2100, Wilson believes human impact on the natural world will be less extreme because population growth will subside. However, there is also the “bottleneck” effect of population growth accompanied by dwindling resources, which must be overcome. Essentially, the human population must pass through a time of turmoil before being able to see the benefit of conserving what is left.
Wilson is optimistic that this is possible. He believes the world will understand the benefits of biodiversity before it is too late. He likes to state statistics based on the amount of “free” resource services used by humans. He also advocates the preservation of biodiversity based on the fact that new plants and animals are still being discovered, some of which are found to have naturally occurring chemical and genetic compounds that may be helpful to humans through medical and agricultural innovation. Wilson states that it is in the interest of our own species’ survival to preserve the life and habitat of all others.
Wilson serves on the Board of Directors of Conservation International, the American Museum of Natural History, and The Nature Conservancy. Wilson has received many awards and honors for his work including Pulitzer Prizes in 1978 and 1990, the International Prize of Biology from Japan in 1993 and The National Audubon Society’s Audubon Medal in 1995. In 1998, Wilson gave a presentation to the U.S. Senate to support the Act to Save America’s Forest, which is a bill that would conserve the biodiversity of the federal forest system and purports the inherent importance of all living things. His profound conservation ethic is delivered in a philosophical and scientific approach that engages his readers and lecture audiences. He has an infallible belief in the connection between humanity and nature, which has permeated his work for more than four decades and continues to influence young scientists and naturalists across the globe. His obviously emotional pleas for conservation have been heralded as a scientifically fueled and truly sincere approach to the preservation of the natural world.
- Wilson, E. O. (1992). The diversity of life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Wilson, E. O. (1994). Naturalist. New York: Warner Books.
- Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Wilson, E. O. (2000). Sociobiology: A new synthesis, 25th anniversary edition. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.