King kingdom

EO Wilson, heir to Darwin’s legacy and ant king, dies at 92

He put nature conservation on a scientific basis, fought colleagues enraged by his biological explanations of human behavior, and won two Pulitzer Prizes, all inspired by ants.

Posted on December 27, 2021 at 9:25 a.m.ET


If a modern scientist can claim to have carried the torch lit by Charles Darwin, it is Edward Osborne Wilson – commonly known as “EO”

Wilson pioneered the study of biological diversity, adding a theoretical dimension to nature conservation, which previously looked more like a moral crusade than a scientific enterprise.

He popularized the term “sociobiology”, exploring evolutionary explanations for social behavior. And he turned everything into lucid prose, becoming one of the most effective science communicators of his time.

Wilson died in Burlington, Massachusetts on Sunday, according to a declaration of the EO Wilson Foundation for Biodiversity.

Like Darwin, Wilson stoked a hornet’s nest with his evolutionary theories. But in Wilson’s case, the most violent attacks against him came not from religious opponents, but from fellow scientists.

After the publication of his 1975 book SociobiologyWilson was pilloried by biologists Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, who accused him of justifying eugenics, sexism and rampant capitalism. But Wilson gave as much as he got and came out of battle with his reputation intact.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929, Wilson could have studied birds or mammals had he not been in an accident at the age of 7.

After piercing his right eye with a hook, he did not seek treatment and later had to have the lens removed. The accident left Wilson with poor distance vision, as he recounts in his 1994 autobiography, Naturalist. But his left eye remained sharp, causing him to focus on what he called “the little things.”

Ants became his life’s work – and led to his interest in biodiversity and changing social behavior. As a Harvard Fellow in the early 1950s, he traveled to Cuba, Mexico, and the South Pacific, marveling at the diversity of ants he observed and speculating on their evolution.

Back at Harvard, where he spent his entire career, those thoughts finally melted into The theory of island biogeography, a 1967 book written with mathematical ecologist Robert MacArthur. Wilson and MacArthur explored how species diverge into new forms on islands and showed how their risk of extinction is greatest if these islands – which may be patches of natural habitat in a human-modified landscape – are small.

This idea still dominates the thinking of conservationists, as they strive to expand and connect fragments of remaining habitat to give wildlife a chance for survival.

Ants are not only incredibly diverse, but they also own some of the most complex societies in the animal kingdom.

Ant colonies with thousands of individuals work together to raise the young of a single queen. This has long posed a problem for Darwinian theory: In a natural world dominated by the struggle to survive and reproduce, why would workers of social insect species have evolved to become sterile?

In 1964, the British biologist Bill Hamilton offered an answer. He argued that evolution is really about the reproduction and survival of genes, rather than individuals. Thus, a gene can be spread if it causes behavior that promotes copies of itself in the parents of an animal. This theory of “family selection” made sense in explaining insect societies, because ants and sister bees – thanks to a quirk in their genetics – share 75% of their genes by descent, rather than the 50 % usual.

Hamilton was a great theorist, but a poor communicator. Wilson packaged the idea for wider consumption and paired it with other work explaining behavioral evolution. The last chapter of Sociobiology briefly discussed these ideas in the context of human society – too briefly, Wilson later admitted.

“I should have been more careful politically, saying it doesn’t involve racism, it doesn’t imply sexism,” Wilson said. Recount the Harvard Journal in 2011.

The chapter enraged left-wing academics led by colleagues at Harvard Gould and Lewontin, who published a lightning assault in the New York Book Review invoking the horrors of Nazi Germany. Wilson was appalled, but fought fiercely, accusing his detractors of distorting his positions.

Wilson followed in 1979 with On human nature, which deals in more depth with the evolution of human behavior, and wins the first of its Pulitzer Prizes. (The second was for The ants, published in 1991 with fellow ant guru Bert Hölldobler.)

Matthew Cavanaugh / Associated Press / Via apimages.com

EO Wilson with Bob Durant, Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs, in 2002.

Wilson’s interest in human nature also led him to reflect on the centrality of religious belief in human societies.

He lost his Baptist faith in his teenage years, but in his later years he tried to find common ground with evangelical Christians to preserve what they consider to be divine creation, and he called the “evolutionary epic. “

Wilson was not afraid of conflict. He spent the last years of his life at odds with many evolutionary biologists after dismissing Hamilton’s kinship selection theory in a controversial 2010 paper. paper Posted in Nature. The article argued that kinship selection was of little value as a general explanation of sociality and described insect colonies as “superorganisms.”

This echoed an old idea called “group selection,” which held that social behavior can evolve because it benefits a group of animals, improving their survival over rival groups. In the gene-centric era, that had become a discredited theory. For the author of Sociobiology embracing it, while rejecting parent selection, was like finding a raised toilet seat in a convent.

In a future issue of Nature, 137 leading evolutionary biologists signed a letter denounce Wilson’s U-turn. And in a later item in Perspective magazine, Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford added: “For Wilson, failing to recognize that he speaks for himself against the vast majority of his professional colleagues is – it pains me to say that of a hero. long-standing – an act of gratuitous arrogance. “

Arrogance or supreme intellectual confidence? History and the fierce struggle between competing scientific ideas will be the judge.