In 1978, his ideas on the role biology plays in human culture culminated in the book “On Human Nature,” which launched evolutionary psychology and won him a Pulitzer.
In the 1980s, Wilson became focused on being a steward of nature through his writing and advocacy — an effort that would last the rest of his life. He played a central role in establishing the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and its online Encyclopedia of Life, a website that eventually will have a webpage for each of Earth’s species. He also took on projects such as restoring Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, which was ravaged by civil war and deforestation, and created a new park in the Alabama delta near where he grew up.
Wilson published more than 400 scientific papers and 20 books, including “Biophilia,” whose title he coined to describe humanity’s relationship with nature, and also “Letters to a Young Scientist,” which he wrote with the next generation of scientists in mind. His 2016 book “Half-Earth” launched a global project with the goal of setting aside half the planet’s land for species conservation. He accrued more than 150 awards and honors from around the world, including the National Medal of Science and being named by Time magazine one of America’s 25 most influential people in 1995.
Wilson’s legion of accomplishments garnered him a type of academic superstar status, but friends and colleagues say the basically shy but courtly Southerner remained down to earth.
Giribet remembers he asked Wilson to visit his classroom to talk to students of his theory on biogeography.
“I thought he would come and say hi for a few minutes and then go, but instead he arrived to class, sat on a chair and proceeded to talk to the students (and other MCZ members who heard Ed was coming to my lecture) for over 90 minutes, Giribet said. “It was a wonderful experience that we repeated the semesters I taught biogeography.”
“One of the qualities I really admired about Professor Wilson was his ability to really listen and engage with whomever he was interacting with,” said Corrie S. Moreau, Ph.D. ’07, who was one of Wilson’s final advisees and is now a professor at Cornell University. “He never seemed to be thinking ahead or absentmindedly listening when he spoke with you.”
In fact Moreau recalls that Wilson was well known for getting into conversations that were so deep and engaging, people often lost track of time.
One conversation she found herself in with Wilson had to be ended by his assistant of 46 years, Kathy Horton. His next guest was already waiting. “He apologized to me that we would have to end our conversation, but since it was Harrison Ford — yes, the Harrison Ford — we would have to continue our conversation later.”
But then again, Moreau noted, Wilson was not without his own fan base.
“For many musicians, there are rock stars they look up to,” she said, “but for most biologists, E.O. Wilson was our rock star.”
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