Evolutionary biology pioneer EO Wilson dies at 92
âFuture generations will forgive us for our horrific genocidal wars, because it will go too far down in history. They will forgive us for all the follies and misdeeds of previous generations. But they will not forgive us for having so carelessly thrown much of the rest of the life into our care. Edward Osborne Wilson was one of the great biologists of the 20th century, a classical naturalist drawn to wild places. “Here is a nest of the infamous fire ant.” He was the world’s foremost specialist in ant biology. But his wit and talent went far beyond insects. He was a deep thinker who developed major theories in ecology and evolution. He became an unlikely celebrity, taking center stage in two scientific controversies of the 20th century. During his career he won almost all of the major science prizes and two Pulitzer Prizes. “I would like to say a word about safeguarding biological diversity – the rest of life.” The New York Times met him in his Harvard office in March 2008 for this interview to discuss his life and how his love for science grew out of his love for the natural world. âI believe that a child is by nature a hunter. I started with a butterfly collection when I was 9 years old. And I thought I was an explorer, and I decided to lead an expedition and collect bugs. And I started it, and I never stopped. His first expeditions led to the description of hundreds of new species. His breakthroughs in the study of insect social behavior and communication have changed the way we think about ourselves. âSome people have called you modern-day Darwin. False modesty aside, how does this fit you? “Of course he, being the pioneer and a man of almost unbelievable acuity, I think he is second to none. But among the current living people, I think I am the best approach. The early part of Wilson’s career was marked by conflict and controversy. The 1950s and 1960s were turbulent years for science. The discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson forever changed biology. Tensions arose between those in the new discipline of molecular biology and classical biologists, whose focus on whole organisms and species seemed old-fashioned. Perhaps no place has been more marked than Harvard. And Edward Wilson and James Watson clashed. âHe insisted that all of that old biology needed to go away because now the future of biology lies in molecular biology. And the faster you get started, the better. And he was very rude about it. I took it very personally, because I admired this man. He was only a year older, but here was someone who had made a truly historic breakthrough. I called it the Caligula of biology. And he could do whatever he wanted, and everyone would cheer. Over time, the two eminent scientists mended the barriers, praising each other in public and sometimes appearing on television together. In the 1970s, Wilson became the center of a political storm when he launched a new discipline called sociobiology. He extended his ideas on social behavior from insects to animals and then to humans, placing himself at the center of the debate on nature versus education. âThis is the fundamental principle of sociobiology. Genes for particular social behaviors exist and have been propagated by natural selection. But scientists are deeply divided over the scientific and social implications. “” She floated the dovecotes of the social sciences and, in general, of the political extreme left. Everyone had decided that the human brain is a blank slate, and that everything is determined by history and by contingency. And anyone who said there was a biologically grounded human nature shouldn’t be doing anything right. What you were doing was opening the door to racism or gender discrimination. The opposition to sociobiology at Harvard is particularly fierce. It was headed by Richard Lewontin and Steve Gould. They set out to completely discredit the sociobiology of any merit. “” We don’t know anything about why some people are more aggressive than others, some people are more enterprising, indeed why some people have more musical ability than others. There is no evidence that such individuals differ in their genes. For Wilson, the criticism took on a more concrete form at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. âMy turn has come to give the conference. And this group, they rushed on stage. They took the microphone. One of the young women came up behind me, grabbed the pitcher of ice water and poured it over my head. I said to myself, this is very interesting. I think I’m going to be the only scientist to have been physically attacked in recent years for an idea. Seeing the controversy, he set out to approach it directly. âEven moderately centrist newspapers – Time magazine, for example – came to accept that this was some kind of extreme belief in the human genetic basis of behavior. So I sat down and wrote the book âOn Human Natureâ, which was to explain the human aspect as I saw it, including a lot of new evidence. It won a Pulitzer Prize. And it’s kind of still the crowd screaming, as they say in a football game after the opponent has made a touchdown. It was a lot less after that. Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. Her family life was difficult. Her father was an alcoholic who ultimately committed suicide. But these difficulties were associated with a natural love of the outdoors. âMy dad had jobs that took him to a lot of places, to different places in Alabama, then to Pensacola and so on. I went to something like 15 or 16 schools in 11 years of schooling. I was pretty much alone as an only child, so I had wood to myself, so to speak. And I felt like an explorer every day I went out. Wilson was blinded in one eye in a fishing accident as a child. The resulting lack of depth perception made some observations difficult. But he could hold the bugs up to his good eye. âI brought home black widows. My parents actually allowed me to breed black widow spiders in large jars on the back porch. âWere you religious when you were a boy? “Well, I was Southern Baptist, of course. And of course, I was devout, because everyone was devout, just like everyone in southern Alabama was racist. It was part of the culture that was unchallenged. When I got to college I discovered evolution and combined that with the natural rebellion of a 17 and 18 year old – I moved away from fundamentalist Protestantism. “So do you believe in God?” “” I am not an atheist, for I think it would be foolish to deny, dogmatically, the possibility of some form of higher intelligence. But religion is simply an expression of tribalism which includes the belief, the hope, the desire that this particular tribe be blessed by God. Satisfied with this explanation, I then find it much easier to speak with the tribal leaders, also known as priests, rabbis and pastors. His 2006 book, âThe Creation,â was aimed specifically at Christians. âI have become very friends with evangelical leaders as a result of my call for cooperation between scientists and environmentalists to engage in saving the Earth’s biodiversity. “We have to paint the …” At the time of this interview, Wilson, 79, was busy in his lab at Harvard, performing in an episode of “Nova” on PBS and writing books. He looked forward to the publication of his first novel, a political allegory set in an anthill. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his effort to preserve the planet’s declining biodiversity. âWhat we have to keep in mind when considering the rest of life on Earth is that we are losing it. And that’s the part that can’t be brought back. We are destroying species and ecosystems that are millions of years old and invaluable to humanity and future generations. And we don’t know how quickly they are disappearing. How to wake up things? So I wrote an article called âEncyclopedia of Lifeâ. And it took very quickly. A lot of people have said, yes, that’s the way to do it. Electronic encyclopedia with a website for every species of organism in the world, although it turned out that there were 100 million. The Encyclopedia of Life was launched in February 2008. It was only the latest in Wilson’s many efforts to raise awareness of the species’ extinction. “How would you like to be remembered?” âAs Darwin’s successor. [laughs] Like having carried the torch, at least for a short time.