Edward Osborne Wilson (1929- )—naturalist, environmentalist, ecologist, entomologist, humanist—is acclaimed as the "father of biodiversity." Wilson is a world-renowned expert on ants, but his work in recent years has shifted toward conservation and reconciling the often-competing arenas of religion and science in that effort. His life and career are chronicled in his books, principally, The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967) with Robert H. MacArthur, Naturalist (1994), and The Creation (2006), in which his interests turned to ecology, the environment, and the place of humanity in the web of life on Earth.
Wilson was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on June 10, 1929, to Edward and Inez Wilson. In 1936, in the midst of his parents' impending divorce, Wilson was sent to board with a family in Paradise Beach, Florida. While there, he explored the coast and its wildlife. One incident during this period would have a lasting effect: while fishing in the surf, Wilson hauled in a pinfish that hit him in the right eye, partially blinding him permanently. His vision impairment led him to focus on creatures that he could pick up, hold between his thumb and forefinger, and inspect closely. He would become one of the world's foremost authorities on ants.
Although Wilson's mother was awarded legal custody of her son, she sent him to live with his father, believing that he could provide better care. Wilson's father was a federal government accountant, and the pair moved frequently, residing in Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. In 1937, Wilson was sent to Gulf Coast Military Academy in Biloxi, Mississippi. In 1941, Wilson's father remarried, and the family moved to Mobile. He attended Barton Academy in 1941-1942, when it was reserved for the seventh grade. For part of the 1942-1943 academic year, he attended Murphy High School. As a budding teenage naturalist, Wilson explored the nearby wilderness, including the Mobile-Tensaw Delta along the former U.S. 90 as far as Spanish Fort. A driven person even as a boy, at age 13 Wilson took a job as a newspaper delivery boy for the Mobile Register (now the Press-Register) with a route of more than 400 deliveries.
Wilson moved to Brewton, Escambia County, in 1944, and to Decatur, Morgan County, in 1945, where he worked a variety of jobs while to attending Decatur High School. In all, Wilson attended 14 different schools in 11 years. His avid interest in nature, however, never wavered; at age 16, he decided to study insects, specifically ants, a field known as myrmecology. Following high school graduation, Wilson attempted to enlist in the Army but was turned down because of his eyesight and a hearing problem that developed during adolescence. He enrolled in the University of Alabama and earned a BS in biology in 1949 and an M.S. in biology in 1950. In 1955, he earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University and that same year married his wife, Renee, with whom he has one daughter. The following year, he joined the Harvard faculty. Wilson's early research took him to Australia and the South Pacific, where his work on the classification and ecology of ants quickly made him the foremost authority on them and earned him the moniker "Dr. Ant." In the late 1950s and the 1960s, he studied the ways in which ants communicate through secreted chemicals known as pheromones. Expanding on this research, and with William H. Bossert, also of Harvard University, and other collaborators, Wilson initiated the field of chemical ecology, which focused on the study of biological chemicals that organisms use for communication and defense.
In 1967, Wilson and Robert H. MacArthur published The Theory of Island Biogeography, which presents the theory that the number of species found on an undisturbed island, one not necessarily surrounded by water, determines immigration, emigration, and extinction. Since that book, Wilson's primary interests have centered on ecological and environmental subjects. In 1975, with the publication of Sociobiology, Wilson branched out from his work on insects to research into the ways in which animals' instincts and genetic make-up interact with their environments to shape the way they live. He sparked controversy in the scholarly and political community because he extended his theories to human society in the final chapter of the book. His ideas that evolution and human sexuality are in part biologically determined and his assertion that human nature owes some of its outcomes to genetics resulted in protests from humanists and feminists. Accused of sexism, racism, and misogyny, Wilson was heckled and scorned, even having a pitcher of water poured over his head at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Two colleagues at Harvard wrote a letter of protest and attempted to get Wilson fired, but his ideas, which were shared by other biologists and life scientists at the time, gradually became more widely proven and accepted. In 1978, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for On Human Nature, which expanded on the ideas he presented in Sociobiology. His ideas remained controversial, but in a telling sign of the coming shift in views, Wilson won the Distinguished Humanist of the Year award that same year.
In 1990, Wilson returned to his earlier research area and published The Ants, an encyclopedic genetic study of the social behavior of ants. This work, with fellow researcher Bert Hölldobler, won a second General Non-Fiction Pulitzer Prize. Four years later, Wilson published perhaps his most engaging work—his memoir, Naturalist. In it, he chronicles his childhood along the Gulf Coast, his adolescence, education, and world travels and treats the sociobiology controversy as well.
In his 1998 book Consilience, Wilson coined the phrase "scientific humanism" and presented his effort to form a unified theory of scientific knowledge that combined the findings of biology, physics, ecology, and other fields with the worlds of literature, art, and culture. He offered it as a means of bringing together the scientifically derived laws of nature and human socially produced concerns to improve the human condition and preserve the Earth's biodiversity. The universal need to save the Earth's biological heritage for its own sake and for the sake of humanity was further developed in his 2002 book, The Future of Life. He envisioned it as a guide for understanding how conservation can protect and ensure the continuance of life for all species, including human beings.
As a biological researcher, Wilson is well aware that many species of organisms have yet to be discovered or understood. He has noted that the body of scientific information has generally tended to double at least every 15 years. In an effort to manage this expanding body of knowledge, Wilson suggested, in a 2003 paper called "The Encyclopedia of Life," that the scientific research involving all the species information be gathered in a single electronic online database that would be available free to all. With several million dollars from the MacArthur Foundation and the Sloan Foundation as well as a prize from TED (a nonprofit organization devoted to bringing together ideas from technology, entertainment, and design) that Wilson won, the Encyclopedia of Life became a reality. Wilson now serves at the honorary chair of its Advisory Board.
In his 2006 book, The Creation, Wilson constructs a scientific plea addressed to a fictional pastor, asking him why religion and science cannot work together to preserve the diversity of the Earth and to conserve its resources and use them wisely. Three years later, Wilson wrote a follow-up to The Ants entitled The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies in which he presents research compiled since the earlier publication. The work centers on Wilson's use of ant society as a metaphor expressing his hope that all organisms may be able to work in harmony and unity to live sustainably.
E. O. Wilson has been hailed by numerous organizations and professional societies as one of the world's 100 leading intellectuals, one of the 100 leading environmentalists, and one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine in 1995. He has received more than 100 international medals and awards, including the National Medal of Science, the International Prize for Biology from Japan, the Catalonia Prize of Spain, the Presidential Medal of Italy, the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, given in a field of science not covered by the Nobel Prize. For his work in conservation, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Audubon Medal of the National Audubon Society.
He is currently University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard, and Honorary Curator in Entomology of the Museum of Comparative
Zoology. Wilson and his wife live in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Selected Works by Edward O. Wilson
The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967)
The Insect Societies (1971)
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975)
On Human Nature (1979)
The Ants (1990)
The Diversity of Life (1992)
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)
The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006)
The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (2009)
"Lord of the Ants." Nova. Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, 2008. [See Related Links]
Sue Brannan Walker
University of South Alabama
Published February 26, 2010
Last updated June 13, 2013