At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on May 2, 2023, the following tribute to the life and service of the late Edward Osborne Wilson was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.
Edward Osborne Wilson was a passionate and supremely expert myrmecologist. His impact as one of the most influential biologists of his generation, however, extended far beyond ants, and his contributions transcended science. Through his prolific popular writing, he inspired legions of readers to follow careers in science and to become engaged in the struggle to understand and promote biodiversity.
Wilson’s early enthusiasm for the natural world was transformed at the age of seven by a fishing accident that blinded him in one eye. The lack of stereo vision steered him towards the microscope, where he specialized in what he memorably called “the little things that run the world,” ants. In his 1994 memoir, “Naturalist,” he chronicles his first-hand education in natural history as an Eagle Scout exploring the coast of Florida, the back roads and bayous of Alabama, the galleries of the Smithsonian, and the living exhibits of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Wilson’s undergraduate and master’s degrees were from the University of Alabama. He briefly enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee but, with the encouragement of William L. Brown, Jr., a fellow myrmecologist in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, he transferred to Harvard, completing his Ph.D. in 1955 and marrying Irene (“Renee”) Kelley the same year. Wilson immediately joined the Harvard faculty until his retirement in 1997, continuing as an unusually active emeritus member until his death in 2021, at age 92, from complications following a fall. Only weeks earlier, he had been busily planning collecting expeditions to Cuba and Brazil.
As a graduate student, Wilson was elected to the Harvard Society of Fellows. This cultivated his interdisciplinary thinking and allowed him to expand his biological horizons through a year-long expedition to study ants on islands throughout Melanesia. His interest in how new species form resulted in several significant publications, including one on “character displacement” with Bill Brown (1956) that described how similar species evolve differences to minimize competition in regions where they occur together. Wilson’s paper on the “taxon cycle” (1961) described how colonizing species undergo ecologically driven cycles of range expansion and contraction.
Despite his sustained focus on insects, Wilson never lost sight of the big picture, and grand synthesis was a hallmark of his career. “The Theory of Island Biogeography” with Robert MacArthur (1967) remains one of the most influential books in population biology; “The Insect Societies” (1971) is the standard work on the subject; “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” (1975) is perhaps the most influential book on animal behavior and behavioral ecology ever written. The little things/big picture feature of Wilson’s career is well illustrated by the contrast between “Biophilia” (1984) on the vital importance of the natural world to human wellbeing and “Pheidole in the New World” (2003), an 818-page monograph that includes descriptions and his illustrations of 341 new ant species. Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes for General Nonfiction for “On Human Nature” (1979) and for “The Ants” (1990) with his longtime collaborator and friend Bert Hölldobler.
Wilson’s research was not without controversy. “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” features 27 chapters devoted to an exploration of the biological basis of social behavior in different animal groups. The final chapter on the implications for human behavior provoked a firestorm of criticism complete with evocations of eugenics and culminating in a group of protestors affiliated with the International Committee Against Racism pouring a pitcher of cold water on Wilson’s head at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association. This controversy continues to smolder, flaring up recently when, after his death, some of his correspondence with discredited academics came to light.
Despite a lifetime spent in the Northeast, Wilson always remained a Southern gentleman, and, in person, he was gracious and often deferential. In print and at the lectern, however, he was fearless, plunging into areas he knew to be controversial. Wilson’s response to the pushback generated by “Sociobiology” was to double down, producing “On Human Nature” in 1978, which expanded the scope of his biological analysis of our species. With “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge” (1998), he unveiled a biology-based framework for approaching the humanities. In 2010, in a paper with mathematicians, Wilson disavowed a central tenet of his earlier work, namely that patterns of genetic relatedness drive the evolution of the complex societies seen in insects like ants. This pivot in his thinking provoked another high-profile debate played out on the pages of “Nature.”
Perhaps what history will deem Wilson’s most significant contributions came later in his life through his multifaceted promotion of conservation. The seeds of his passion were planted in the classroom at Harvard, where students flocked to his fabled lectures on the wonders (and value) of the natural world. In 2007, he established the Encyclopedia of Life, which aims to have a webpage for every species. Drawing on his Alabama boyhood, he preached the value of appreciating the biodiversity in our own backyards. He reached out to politicians, movie stars, and religious leaders to advocate for the conservation of the Creation, arguing that we have a duty to protect biodiversity and proposing the Half-Earth Project as an ideal in which 50 percent of the planet should be set aside for conservation.
Wilson was an extraordinarily wide-ranging thinker and synthesizer. His writings have had a lasting impact on generations of readers, and his efforts on behalf of biodiversity will remain critical to attempts to save the planet. Among the more than 100 awards he received are national distinctions such as the U.S. National Medal of Science and international ones including the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Japan’s International Prize for Biology, the Prix de l’Institut de la Vie (Paris), Italy’s Presidential Medal, the Gold Medal for the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Catalonia International Prize, and Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal International Prize for Science.
Wilson’s beloved wife of 66 years Irene K. Wilson died on Aug. 7, 2021. They leave a daughter, Catherine I. Gargill, of Orlando, Florida.
Brian D. Farrell
Naomi E. Pierce, Chair