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E.O. Wilson, a Pioneer of Evolutionary Biology, Dies at 92

“Future generations are going to forgive us our horrible genocidal wars, because it’ll pass too far in history. They will forgive us all of the earlier generations’ follies and the harm. But they will not forgive us having so carelessly thrown away a large part of the rest of life on our watch.” 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 the biology of ants. But his mind and talent ranged far beyond insects. He was a profound thinker who developed major theories in ecology and evolution. He became an unlikely celebrity, taking center stage in two controversies of 20th-century science. Over the course of his career, he won nearly every major award in science — and two Pulitzer Prizes. “I’d like to say a word on saving biological diversity — the rest of life.” The New York Times sat down with him in his office at Harvard in March of 2008 for this interview to discuss his life and how his love of science grew out of his love of the natural world. “I believe that a child is, by nature, a hunter. I started with a butterfly collection when I was 9 years old. And I fancied myself an explorer, and decided that I would conduct an expedition and collect insects. And I started it, and I never stopped.” His early expeditions led to the description of hundreds of new species. His breakthroughs in studying social insect behavior and communication changed the way we view ourselves. “Some people have called you a modern-day Darwin. Setting aside false modesty, how does that sit with you?” “Of course, he, being the pioneer and a man of just almost unbelievable acuity, I think he’s matchless. But among current living people, I think I’m the best approach.” The early part of Wilson’s career was marked by conflict and controversy. The 1950s and ‘60s were turbulent years in 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 was the rift more pronounced than at Harvard. And Edward Wilson and James Watson clashed. “He was insistent that all that old biology needs to go away because now, the future of biology lay with molecular biology. And the sooner we get on that, the better. And he was very rude about that. I took it very personally, because I looked up to the man. He was only a year older, but here was someone who had achieved an advance truly historic. I called him the Caligula of biology. And he could do anything he wished, and everybody would applaud.” In time, the two eminent scientists mended fences, speaking highly of one another in public and occasionally appearing together on television. In the 1970s, Wilson became the center of a political storm when he pioneered a new discipline called sociobiology. He extended his ideas on social insect behavior to animals and then humans, thrusting himself center stage into the debate over nature versus nurture. “This is the fundamental principle of sociobiology. Genes for particular social behaviors exist, and that they have spread by natural selection. But scientists are deeply divided as to the scientific and social implications.” “What it did was to flutter the dovecotes of the social sciences and, generally, of the political far left. All of those had decided that the human brain is a blank slate, and that everything is determined by history and by contingency. And anybody that said that there was a biologically based human nature would have to be up to no good. What you were doing was opening the door to racism or sex discrimination. The opposition to sociobiology at Harvard was particularly virulent. It was led by Richard Lewontin and Steve Gould. They set out to discredit entirely of any merit to sociobiology.” “We know nothing about why some people are more aggressive than others, some people are more entrepreneurial, indeed why some people have more musical ability than others. There is no evidence at all that such individuals differ in their genes.” For Wilson, the criticism took a more concrete form at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “My turn came to give the talk. And this group, they rushed the stage. They grabbed the microphone. One of the young women came up behind me, seized the pitcher of ice water and poured it on my head. I was saying to myself, this is very interesting. I think I’m going to be the only scientist ever physically attacked in recent years for an idea.” Seeing the controversy, he set out to address it directly. “Even moderately centrist papers — Time magazine, for example — has come to accept that this was some sort of extreme belief about human genetic basis of behavior. So I sat down and wrote the book “On Human Nature,” which was to explain the human aspect as I saw it, including a lot of the new evidence. That won a Pulitzer Prize. And that’s sort of still the shouting crowd, as they say at a football game after the opponent makes a touchdown. It was a lot less after that.” Edward Osborne Wilson was born in 1929 in Birmingham, Ala. His home life was difficult. His father was an alcoholic who eventually committed suicide. But these hardships were paired with a natural love of the outdoors. “My father had jobs that took him to many places, to several localities in Alabama, and then Pensacola and so on. I went to something like 15 or 16 schools in 11 years of schooling. I was pretty much on my own as an only child, so I had woods to myself, so to speak. And I felt like an explorer every day I went out.” Wilson was blinded in one eye in a childhood fishing accident The resulting lack of depth perception made some observations difficult. But he could hold insects up to his good eye. “I brought home black widows. My parents actually allowed me to breed black widow spiders in big jars on the back porch.” “Were you religious as a boy?” “Well, I was Southern Baptist, of course. And of course I was devout, because everybody was devout, just like everybody in southern Alabama was racist. It was part of the culture that was unquestioned. When I arrived at college, I discovered evolution, and combined that with the natural rebelliousness of a 17 and 18-year-old — I drifted away from fundamentalist Protestantism.” “So do you believe in God?” “I’m not an atheist, because I think it would be foolish to deny, dogmatically, the possibility of some form of superior intelligence. But religion is simply an expression of tribalism that includes the belief, the hope, the desire that that particular tribe is blessed by God. Satisfied with that explanation, I then find it a lot easier to talk with tribal chiefs, also known as priests, rabbis and pastors.” His 2006 book, “The Creation,” was specifically directed to Christians. “I have become very friendly with evangelical leaders as a result of my call for cooperation between scientists and environmentalists to engage in the saving of Earth’s biodiversity.” “We have to paint the — ” At the time of this interview, Wilson, age 79, was keeping busy at his lab at Harvard, starring in a “Nova” episode on PBS and writing books. He was looking forward to publication of his first novel, a political allegory set in an anthill. His greatest legacy may be his effort to preserve the planet’s declining biodiversity. “What we have to keep in mind in considering the rest of life on Earth, is that we’re losing it. And it is the part that cannot be brought back. We are destroying species and ecosystems, which are millions of years old and invaluable to humanity and future generations. And we don’t know how fast they are disappearing. How to wake things up? So I wrote a paper called the “Encyclopedia of Life.” And this caught very quickly. A lot of people said, yes, that’s the way to do it. Electronic encyclopedia with a website for each species of organisms in the world, even if there turned out to be 100 million of them.” The Encyclopedia of Life launched in February of 2008. It was merely the latest of Wilson’s many efforts to heighten public awareness of species loss. “How would you like to be remembered?” “As a successor to Darwin. [laughs] As having carried the torch, at least for a short while.”

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