Wilson, Edward Osborne

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Watch the PBS special E.O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men.


E.O. Wilson Date of birth: June 10, 1929

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, a government accountant, moved the family frequently, as he was reassigned from Washington, D.C. to Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Lacking steady friends, the young Edward found companionship in nature, exploring Rock Creek Park in Washington, and the wilds of the Deep South. At age seven, while fishing, the fin of a spiny fish scratched his right eye, permanently impairing his distance vision and depth perception. He enjoyed acute near-distance vision with his left eye, and used it to examine insect life at close range. By age 11, he was determined to become an entomologist. When a wartime shortage of pins interrupted his collecting of flies, he turned his attention to ants, which could be stored in jars, and set himself the task of cataloguing every species of ant to be found in Alabama.

At age 13, Wilson discovered a colony of non-native fire ants near the docks in Mobile, Alabama and reported his finding to the authorities. By the time he entered the University of Alabama, the fire ant, a potential threat to agriculture, was spreading beyond Mobile, and the State of Alabama requested that Wilson carry out a survey of the ant's progress. The resulting study, completed in 1949, was his first scientific publication. Wilson received his master's degree at the University of Alabama in 1950, and after studying briefly at the University of Tennessee, transferred to Harvard for doctoral studies.

Wilson was made a Junior Fellow of Harvard's Society of Fellows, an appointment that enabled him to pursue field research overseas. He embarked on a number of expeditions in the tropics, exhaustively collecting the ant species of Cuba and Mexico before moving on to the South Pacific. His scientific travels would take him from Australia and New Guinea to Fiji, New Caledonia and Sri Lanka. In 1955, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard and married Irene Kelley. The following year, he joined the Harvard faculty, a relationship that was to last his entire career. In the first of many contributions to our understanding of species evolution, Wilson tracked the evolution of the hierarchical caste system among ants. Comparing his observations of the ants of the South Pacific with the extensive collection in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, he then devised the theory of the "taxon cycle" to explain how ants adapt to adverse environmental conditions by colonizing new habitats and splitting into new species. The same pattern has since been observed among other insect and bird species.

By the end of the 1950s, Wilson had won recognition as the world's foremost authority on ants, but his studies in taxonomy and ecology ran contrary to prevailing fashion. The discovery of the DNA molecule by James Watson and Francis Crick had focused the biological community's attention on the molecular basis of life and away from natural history and the study of species evolution. Watson went so far as to compare natural history to stamp collecting. Wilson knew better, and deployed advances in microchemistry to inform the traditional practices of natural history. Collaborating with the mathematician William Bossert, he investigated the phenomenon of chemical communication among ants. Wilson and Bossert identified the chemical compounds, known as pheromones, that permit ants and other species to communicate by sense of smell. In the 1960s, Edward Wilson enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with mathematician and ecologist Robert MacArthur. Together, they attempted to apply the theory of species equilibrium to the contained environment of small islands. The resulting book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, is now a standard work of ecology, and informs conservation policy and the planning of nature reserves around the world. Wilson effectively demonstrated the theory through a remarkable experiment. After eliminating the existing insect population of a tiny island in the Florida Keys, Wilson observed the repopulation of the island by new species, confirming the principles of island biogeographic theory.

Wilson synthesized his enormous body of knowledge on the social insects -- ants, bees, wasps and termites -- in his masterful work, The Insect Societies, published in 1971. This work invoked the evolving concept of sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of social behavior among different organisms. In 1973, Wilson was appointed Curator of Insects at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Wilson's work on the sociobiology of insects was well-received, but his next major work ignited a firestorm of controversy.

In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), Wilson extended his analysis of animal behavior to vertebrates, including primates, and in the last chapter, humans. Wilson speculated that hierarchical social patterns among human beings may be perpetuated by inherited tendencies that originally evolved in response to specific environmental conditions. A number of Wilson's colleagues took strong exception, and others condemned Wilson's work on the grounds that it justified sexism, racism, polygamy and a host of other evils. Although Wilson adamantly denied any such intent, demonstrators picketed his lectures, and in one instance protesters doused him with water during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Through the commotion, Wilson stood his ground, and in 1978 published a highly acclaimed work, On Human Nature, in which he thoroughly examined the scientific arguments surrounding the role of biology in the evolution of human culture. Wilson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction for his graceful and lucid explanation of his ideas. By the end of the decade, the furor over sociobiology had subsided and researchers in many fields now accept Wilson's ideas as fundamental.

In the decades that followed, Edward Wilson continued to extend the domain of his interests. With collaborator Charles Lumsden, he published Genes, Mind and Culture (1981), introducing the first general theory of gene-culture coevolution. He followed this with the intriguing Promethean Fire: Reflections On the Origin of Mind (1980). Wilson explored the bond between man and nature in Biophilia, a title that introduced yet another new term to the language of science. Wilson revisited his first scholarly love in The Ants, co-written with Bert Hölldobler, a monumental work that brought Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

Over the years, Wilson has been an active participant in the international conservation movement, as a consultant to Columbia University's Earth Institute, and as a director of the American Museum of Natural History, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. In the 1990s, he continued to write and publish at a tremendous rate. His published works in this decade included The Diversity of Life (1992) and a memorable autobiography, Naturalist (1994). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) outlined his view of the essential unity of the natural and social sciences.

Edward Wilson officially retired from teaching at Harvard in 1996. He continues to hold the posts of Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology. Edward Wilson's most recent books include Creation: An Appeal to Save Life On Earth; and Nature Revealed: Selected Writings, 1949-2006. He and his wife Irene still make their home in Lexington, Massachusetts.


Wilson has described 418 new species in more than 58 documents.

Primary location of author's collection: Museum of Comparative Zoology.