Edward Osborne Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism). His biological specialty is myrmecology, a branch of entomology.
Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.
As of 2007, he is Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.
Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama
. According to his autobiography Naturalist
, he grew up mostly around Washington, D.C.
and in the countryside around Mobile, Alabama
. From an early age, he was interested in natural history. His parents, Edward and Inez Wilson, divorced when he was seven. In that same year, he damaged his eye in a fishing accident. The young naturalist grew up in several cities and towns, moving around with his father and his stepmother. His reduced ability to observe mammals and birds led him to concentrate on insects
. At nine, Wilson undertook his first expeditions at the Rock Creek Park
in Washington, DC. At the age of 16, intent on becoming an entomologist
, he began by collecting flies
, but the shortage of insect pins caused by World War II caused him to switch to ants
, which could be stored in vials. With the encouragement of Marion R. Smith
, a myrmecologist from the National Museum of Natural History
in Washington, Wilson began a survey of all the ants of Alabama
Concerned that he might not be able to afford to go to a university, Wilson attempted to enlist in the United States Army. His plan was to earn U.S. government financial support for his education, but he failed his Army medical examination due to his impaired eyesight. Wilson was able to afford to enroll in the University of Alabama after all. There, he earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees. He later earned his Ph.D. degree from Harvard University.
Theories and beliefs
Wilson defines sociobiology
as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." By applying the evolutionary principles that went a long way to explaining the behavior of the social insects to understanding the social behavior of other animals, including humans, Wilson established sociobiology as a new scientific field. He argued that all animal behavior, including that of humans, is the product of heredity
and environmental stimuli and past experiences, and that free will
is an illusion. He has referred to the biological basis of behaviour as the "genetic leash." The sociobiological view is that all animal social behavior is governed by epigenetic
rules worked out by the laws of evolution
. This theory and research proved to be seminal, controversial, and influential.
The controversy of sociobiological research is in how it applies to humans. The theory established a scientific argument for rejecting the common doctrine of tabula rasa, which holds that human beings are born without any innate mental content and that culture functions to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success. In the final chapter of the book Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argues that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture (if not more). There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior.
Ants and social insects
Wilson, along with Bert Hölldobler
, has done a systematic study of ants and ant behavior, culminating in their encyclopedic work, The Ants
(1990). Because much self-sacrificing behavior on the part of individual ants can be explained on the basis of their genetic interests in the survival of the sisters, with whom (it was thought at the time) they share 75% of their genes, Wilson was led to argue for a sociobiological explanation for all social behavior on the model of the behavior of the social insects. (It turns out that because queens mate more than once, the 75% number is too high, though suggestive for selfish-gene explanations.) In his more recent work, he has sought to defend his views against the criticism of younger scientists such as Deborah Gordon
, whose results challenge the idea that ant behavior is as rigidly-predictable as Wilson's explanations make it.
Edward O. Wilson, referring to ants, once said that "Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species", meaning that while ants and other social insects appear to live in communist-like societies, they only do so because they are forced to do so from their basic biology, as they lack reproductive independence: worker ants, being sterile, need their ant-queen to survive as a colony and a species and individual ants cannot reproduce without a queen, thus being forced to live in centralised societies. Humans, however, as a more advanced biological being, do possess reproductive independence so they can give birth to offspring without the need of a "queen", and in fact humans enjoy their maximum level of Darwinian fitness only when they look after themselves and their families, while finding innovative ways to use the societies they live in for their own benefit.
In his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
, Wilson discusses methods that have been used to unite the sciences, and might be able to unite the sciences with the humanities. Wilson prefers and uses the term "consilience
" to describe the synthesis of knowledge from different specialized fields of human endeavor. He defines human nature
as a collection of epigenetic
rules, the genetic patterns of mental development. He argues that culture and rituals are products, not parts, of human nature. He says art
is not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. He argues that concepts such as art appreciation, fear of snakes, or the incest taboo
) can be studied using scientific methods. Previously, these phenomena were only part of psychological
, or anthropological
studies. Wilson proposes that they can be part of interdisciplinary research.
The unit and target of selection
Wilson has argued that the "unit
of selection is a gene, the basic element of heredity. The target
of selection is normally the individual who carries an ensemble of genes of certain kinds." With regards to the use kin selection
in explaining the behavior of eusocial insects
, Wilson said to Discover
magazine, the "new view that I'm proposing is that it was group selection
all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin.
Spiritual and political beliefs
Wilson coined the phrase scientific humanism
as "the only worldview
compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature". Wilson argues that it is best suited to improve the human condition.
God and religion
On the question of God
, Wilson has described his position as provisional deism
. He has explained his faith as a trajectory away from traditional beliefs: "I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic
, just Baptist & Christian no more." Wilson argues that the belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution. He argues that they should not be rejected or dismissed, but further investigated by science to better understand their significance to human nature. In his book The Creation
, Wilson suggests that scientists "offer the hand of friendship" to religious leaders and build an alliance with them, stating that "Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth and they should come together to save the creation.
Wilson has studied the mass extinctions
of the 20th century and their relationship to modern society, arguing strongly for an ecological approach:
- Now when you cut a forest, an ancient forest in particular, you are not just removing a lot of big trees and a few birds fluttering around in the canopy. You are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you. The number of these species may go to tens of thousands. ... Many of them are still unknown to science, and science has not yet discovered the key role undoubtedly played in the maintenance of that ecosystem, as in the case of fungi, microorganisms, and many of the insects. (E. O. Wilson, 2000)
His understanding of the scale of the extinction crisis has led him to advocate a number of strategies for forest protection, including the Forests Now Declaration, which calls for new markets-based mechanisms to protect tropical forests.
Criticism of human sociobiology
Wilson experienced significant criticism for his sociobiological views. Several of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, such as Richard Lewontin
and Stephen Jay Gould
, were vehemently opposed to his ideas regarding sociobiology. Marshall Sahlins
's work The Use and Abuse of Biology
was a direct criticism of Wilson's theories.
Wilson's sociobiological ideas have offended some liberals and conservatives, who both favored the idea that human behavior was culturally based. Sociobiology re-ignited the nature-versus-nurture debate, and Wilson's scientific perspective on human nature led to public debate. He was accused of racism, misogyny, and eugenics. In one incident, members of the International Committee Against Racism (a group connected to a left-wing organization Science for the People) poured a pitcher of water on Wilson's head and chanted "Wilson, you're all wet" at a conference in November 1977.
Awards and honors
Wilson's scientific and conservation honors include:
- Eagle Scout, Boy Scouts of America
- Distinguished Eagle Scout Award
- Member, National Academy of Sciences, 1969
- U.S. National Medal of Science, 1976
- Pulitzer Prize for On Human Nature, 1979
- Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, 1984
- ECI Prize, International Ecology Institute, terrestrial ecology, 1987
- Crafoord Prize, 1990, a prize awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in certain sciences not covered by the Nobel Prize, and therefore considered the highest award given in the field of ecology
- Pulitzer Prize for The Ants (with Bert Hölldobler), 1991
- Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science 1994
- Time Magazine's 25 Most Influential People in America, 1995
- Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, 2000
- Nierenberg Prize, 2001
- Dauphin Island Sea Lab christened its newest research vessel the R/V E.O. Wilson in 2005.
- Addison Emery Verrill Medal from the Peabody Museum of Natural History, 2007
- TED Prize 2007 given yearly to honor a maximum of three individuals who have shown that they can, in some way, positively impact life on this planet.
- XIX Premi Internacional Catalunya 2007
- Member of the World Knowledge DialogueHonorary Board, and Scientist in Residence for the 2008 symposium organized in Crans-Montana (Switzerland).
- The Theory of Island Biogeography, 1967, Princeton University Press (2001 reprint), ISBN 0-691-08836-5, with Robert H. MacArthur
- The Insect Societies, 1971, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-45490-1
- Sociobiology: The New Synthesis 1975, Harvard University Press, (Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition, 2000 ISBN 0-674-00089-7)
- Genes, Mind and Culture: The coevolutionary process, 1981, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-34475-8
- Promethean fire: reflections on the origin of mind, 1983, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-71445-8
- style="font-style : italic;">Biophilia, 1984, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-07441-6
- Success and Dominance in Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects, 1990, Inter-Research, ISSN 0932-2205
- The Ants, 1990, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-04075-9, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, with Bert Hölldobler
- The Diversity of Life, 1992, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-21298-3, ''The Diversity of Life: Special Edition, ISBN 0-674-21299-1
- The Biophilia Hypothesis, 1993, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1-55963-148-1, with Stephen R. Kellert
- Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, 1994, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-48525-4, with Bert Hölldobler
- Naturalist, 1994, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1-55963-288-7
- In Search of Nature, 1996, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1-55963-215-1, with Laura Simonds Southworth
- Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998, Knopf, ISBN 0-679-45077-7
- The Future of Life, 2002, Knopf, ISBN 0-679-45078-5
- Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus, 2003, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-00293-8
- On Human Nature, 2004, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-01638-6
- From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. 2005, W. W. Norton.
- The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, September 2006, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0393062175
- Nature Revealed: Selected Writings 1949-2006, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-8329-6