The American biologist Edward O. Wilson (born 1929) was a leading authority on ants and social insects and an influential theorist of the biological basis of social behavior. He promoted the controversial discipline of sociobiology.
Born June 10, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Inez (Freeman) and Edward Osborne Wilson, Edward O. Wilson became a naturalist at an early age, after a fishing accident damaged his right eye and he learned to examine insects closely with his left eye. Growing up in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., he collected insects and decided to specialize in ants even before entering the University of Alabama. While still in college, in 1949 he published his first paper on fire ants. He continued research on these insects at the Alabama Department of Conservation and earned his master's degree in science in 1950 at the University of Alabama. After a year at the University of Tennessee, he entered graduate study at Harvard University.
Wilson's research on ants at Harvard involved him in theories of evolution and classification. He collaborated with William L. Brown on two influential papers on the field of new systematics, the attempt to classify species based on evolutionary theory. The first paper in 1953 critiqued the category of subspecies. In 1956 they proposed the concept of character displacement, by which closely related species diverge genetically when they come into competition. Wilson's Ph.D. from Harvard, granted in 1955, was based on work dealing with the taxonomy and ecology of ants.
In 1955 he married Irene Kelley. They had one daughter. After serving as a junior fellow, Wilson was appointed in 1956 to the Harvard faculty, where he remained through his career. Beginning in 1973 he was curator of entomology at the university's Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Wilson's graduate work included research in the American tropics, Australia, and the South Pacific. His studies of native ants soon made him the world's foremost authority on these insects and he gained the nickname "Dr. Ant." In the late 1950s he proposed a "taxon cycle," later found also among birds and other insects, to explain how Melanesian ants adapted to poor habitats by colonizing new places and splitting into new species. In 1959, influenced by the rise of molecular biology, Wilson discovered how ants communicate by chemical releasers known as pheromones, and he later collaborated with William Bossert on a wide-ranging theory of chemical communication in other species.
In the 1960s Wilson and ecologist Robert MacArthur developed a quantitative theory of species equilibrium, relating the size of islands to the number of species they contain and proving that the number of species on a small island would remain constant while the variety of species changed. Their Theory of Island Biogeography (1967) was highly influential in theoretical population ecology and its practical application to designing wildlife preserves. They argued that large areas and pathways between preserves are crucial for the survival of diversity. In 1971 Wilson summarized his own and other work on social insects in a comprehensive survey, The Insect Societies.
Father of Sociobiology
As an insect researcher, Wilson demonstrated the genetic underpinnings of the complex social behavior of ants and other species. In 1975 he extended his theories to all species, including humans, with the publication of the sweeping and controversial book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.
The term "sociobiology" had already been in use, but Wilson's work was the first in the field to challenge scientific and popular thinking about human behavior. Wilson's goal was to unify all the behavioral sciences on the basis of ecology and evolutionary biology into a "systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." Knowing the environmental pressures facing a species and its genetic constraints should allow scientists to predict the social organization and behavior of the species, he believed. Wilson argued that social behavior is a survival trait, and natural selection preserves patterns of useful behavior.
Since Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, scientists had tried to explain animal behavior as an outcome of evolution. But Wilson was the first to argue that the pathway to the survival of the species was the survival of individuals possessing favorable traits. Wilson explained the genetic basis of kinship, communication, specialization of labor, and even altruism. In ants, he observed, the welfare of the colony, not the individual, is paramount, and he believed the same was true for all species. "Genes hold culture on a leash," Wilson said.
The Sociobiology Debate
Wilson's boldness in reducing complex behavior to patterns with a genetic basis and further extending that analysis to humans set off a storm of controversy. Initially favorable reviews of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis noted the well-reasoned and extensively documented text on animals, but the focus of criticism was on the chapter about humans. Wilson wrote that humans always have been characterized by "aggressive dominance systems, with males generally dominant over females." He argued further, "Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science." Such statements prompted a firestorm of protests from feminists and humanists, and some critics saw an ethnocentric or racist basis to his judgments about the determination of behavior.
At a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, protesters yelled at Wilson and poured a pitcher of water over his head. A letter of protest was signed by two of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard and other scholars. Public protests followed Wilson on lecture tours. Insisting he had no political motivation for his theories, Wilson denied the charges of racism and sexism, calling the attacks "slander" and saying his theories were misunderstood. He was partly vindicated in 1982 when the Humanist magazine named him its Distinguished Humanist of the year.
Wilson's next book, On Human Nature (1978), was an elegantly written essay on the biological basis for human actions and culture. Reviewer Nicholas Wade in the New Republic called it "a work of high intellectual daring." It became a best-seller and helped make Wilson's theories even more widely known. It was awarded the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction, to which Wilson responded, "It's not necessarily a certification that I'm right, but an affirmation that this is an important thing we should be talking about."
Next, Wilson and physicist Charles Lumsden tried to create appropriate mathematical models for the genetic evolution of culture. Their two books were Genes, Mind, Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (1981), a scholarly work, and Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of the Mind (1983), a popular book on the same subject, which they labeled "the gene-culture coevolution." Again, Wilson's theories drew criticism. Writing about Promethean Fire in Commentary, sociologist Howard Kaye said, "questionable assumptions about mind and culture and an extreme reductionism mar their thought and inflate their claims." While controversy over Wilson's work continued, the field of sociobiology expanded into a thriving biological discipline, mostly devoted to animal behavior.
Besides his books and scientific papers, Wilson coauthored biology textbooks and edited the Scientific American Readings series. His ecological interests led to his partly autobiographical Biophilia: The Human Bond to Other Species (1984), an eloquent discussion of human love for nature and a plea for conservation. Wilson served on the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund from 1984 to 1990. In 1990 his lifelong fascination with ants culminated in the publication of The Ants, a comprehensive work co-authored with German entomologist Bert Holldobler. In 1992 he wrote The Diversity of Life, affirming his devotion to all the species on Earth, from ants to human beings.
Further Reading on Edward Osborne Wilson
Wilson was the subject of many reports and stories in both the scientific press (Nature, Science, New Scientist) and the popular press during the years of debate over sociobiology, from 1975 to 1980. Many of the dimensions of that debate are laid out in A. Caplan's The Sociobiology Debate (1980). See also Arthur Fisher, "Sociobiology: Science or Ideology?, Science (July/August 1992), and Scientific American (March 1993).