Wilson, Edward O.

▪ 1996

      A worldwide erosion of biological diversity is occurring that bodes ill for the Earth's remaining inhabitants—so warned Harvard University biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, 1995 winner of the Audubon Medal for contributions to conservation and environmental protection. That solemn message, eloquently expounded three years earlier in his best-seller The Diversity of Life, thrust Wilson into the scientific spotlight in the 1990s.

      No stranger to notoriety, Wilson had earlier found himself enmeshed in controversy after the publication in 1975 of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which he attributed the development of social behaviours to genetic as well as cultural factors. That idea was denounced by some who perceived implications of genetic determinism in the book. Wilson's argument, however, was that genetic predispositions exist upon which cultural forces operate and that the outcome entails the interplay of biology and culture, not the supremacy of one over the other. Twenty years later evidence for that view was mounting.

      Wilson's career was decidedly tumultuous for a myrmecologist, otherwise known as an ant biologist. His life's work, detailed in the 1994 autobiography Naturalist, emerged from what he described as "biophilia," an inherited affinity for nature that he believed exists in all humans. Wilson developed his own love of nature early on, as it was the one constant in a world of change. Born June 10, 1929, in Birmingham, Ala., he was an only child whose parents divorced when he was seven. Because of the road assignments of his father, a government accountant, he moved from town to town throughout the southeastern U.S. Especially fascinated by insects, Wilson chose to study ants while a high-school senior, and he went on to obtain bachelor's and master's degrees (1949, 1950) from the University of Alabama. He received a doctorate in biology from Harvard in 1955 and joined the faculty a year later. As his career advanced, he was named Frank B. Baird Jr. professor of science in 1976 and Pellegrino university professor in 1994. Wilson also served as curator of entomology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

      Among highlights of Wilson's impressive early research was the discovery in the 1950s of chemicals, known as pheromones, by which ants communicate. In the 1960s, in collaboration with ecologist Robert H. MacArthur, he outlined the theory of island biogeography, which describes how environmental factors determine the number and distribution of species in a circumscribed area. He tested the theory in a series of experiments on mangrove islands off southern Florida, work that led to an interest in conservation.

      A prolific writer, Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 1979 for On Human Nature, a book expanding the ideas in Sociobiology, and the other in 1991 for The Ants, co-written with Bert Hölldobler. (MARY JANE FRIEDRICH)

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▪ American biologist
in full  Edward Osborne Wilson  
born June 10, 1929, Birmingham, Ala., U.S.

      American biologist recognized as the world's leading authority on ants (ant). He was also the foremost proponent of sociobiology, the study of the genetic basis of the social behaviour of all animals, including humans.

      Wilson received his early training at the University of Alabama (B.S., 1949; M.S., 1950). After receiving his doctorate in biology at Harvard University in 1955, he was a member of Harvard's biology and zoology faculties from 1956 to 1976. At Harvard he was later Frank B. Baird Professor of Science (1976–94), Mellon Professor of the Sciences (1990–93), and Pellegrino University Professor (1994–97). He was professor emeritus from 1997. In addition, Wilson served as curator in entomology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (1973–97).

      In 1955 Wilson completed an exhaustive taxonomic analysis of the ant genus Lasius. In collaboration with W.L. Brown, he developed the concept of “character displacement,” a process in which populations of two closely related species, after first coming into contact with each other, undergo rapid evolutionary (evolution) differentiation (biological development) in order to minimize the chances of both competition and hybridization between them.

      After his appointment to Harvard in 1956, Wilson made a series of important discoveries, including the determination that ants communicate primarily through the transmission of chemical substances known as pheromones (pheromone). In the course of revising the classification of ants native to the South Pacific, he formulated the concept of the “ taxon cycle,” in which speciation and species dispersal are linked to the varying habitats that organisms encounter as their populations expand. In 1971 he published The Insect Societies, his definitive work on ants and other social insects. The book provided a comprehensive picture of the ecology, population dynamics, and social behaviour of thousands of species.

      In Wilson's second major work, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), a treatment of the biological basis of social behaviour, he proposed that the essentially biological principles on which animal societies are based also apply to humans. This thesis provoked condemnation from prominent researchers and scholars in a broad range of disciplines, who regarded it as an attempt to justify harmful or destructive behaviour and unjust social relations in human societies. In fact, however, Wilson maintained that as little as 10 percent of human behaviour is genetically induced, the rest being attributable to environment.

      One of Wilson's most notable theories was that even a characteristic such as altruism may have evolved through natural selection. Traditionally, natural selection was thought to foster only those physical and behavioral traits that increase an individual's chances of reproducing. Thus, altruistic behaviour—as when an organism sacrifices itself in order to save other members of its immediate family—would seem incompatible with this process. In Sociobiology Wilson argued that the sacrifice involved in much altruistic behaviour results in saving closely related individuals—i.e., individuals who share many of the sacrificed organism's genes (gene). Therefore, the preservation of the gene, rather than the preservation of the individual, was viewed as the focus of evolutionary strategy. In later years, however, Wilson was inclined to think that highly social organisms are integrated to such an extent that they are better treated as one overall unit—a superorganism—rather than as individuals in their own right. This view was suggested by Charles Darwin (Darwin, Charles) himself in On the Origin of Species (1859). Wilson expounded on it in Success, Dominance, and the Superorganism: The Case of the Social Insects (1997).

      In On Human Nature (1978), for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, Wilson discussed the application of sociobiology to human aggression, sexuality (sex), and ethics. His book The Ants (1990) was a monumental summary of contemporary knowledge of those insects. In The Diversity of Life (1992), Wilson sought to explain how the world's living species became diverse and examined the massive species extinctions (extinction) caused by human activities in the 20th century.

      In his later career Wilson turned increasingly to religious and philosophical topics. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), he strove to demonstrate the interrelatedness and evolutionary origins of all human thought. In Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006), he developed further the evolutionarily informed humanism he had earlier explored in On Human Nature. In contrast to many other biologists, notably Stephen Jay Gould (Gould, Stephen Jay), Wilson believed that evolution is essentially progressive, leading from the simple to the complex and from the worse-adapted to the better. From this he inferred an ultimate moral imperative for humans: to cherish and promote the well-being of their species.

      In 1990 Wilson and American biologist Paul Ehrlich (Ehrlich, Paul R) shared the Crafoord Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to support areas of science not covered by the Nobel Prizes. His autobiography, Naturalist, appeared in 1994.

Michael Ruse
 

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • Wilson, Edward O(sborne) — born June 10, 1929, Birmingham, Ala., U.S. U.S. biologist. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he taught from 1956. Recognized as the world s leading authority on ants, he discovered their use of pheromone for communication. His… …   Universalium

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