When Edward O. Wilson was about 9, his family moved to Washington. He can't remember what school he went to, but he remembers that it was near the National Zoo, where he and his friends would hang out.
A few years later he moved back to rural Alabama and a life of being an only child in a peripatetic family (his father worked for the Rural Electrification Administration), a child who read the National Geographic and who wanted to be-thanks to the influence of the zoo and the Smithsonian-an entomologist. That is, a scientist specializing in bugs-specifically, in Wilson's case, some of the 20,000 or so varieties of social insects like ants, bees and termites.
His study of bugs led him to write three books in which he develops a theory that applies some of what he learned about bug behavior to human behavior. For the last of those three books, "On Human Behaviour," he won this year's Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, which for him is at once an honor and a vindication.
It's a vindication in his view because an earlier book, "Sociobiology," in which he proposed a new discipline by that name, kicked off furor within the scientific community that has not yet abated. While one side calls his theory utter hogwash, he notes that three sociobiology journals have been started, and three other books on the subject have been published.
Briefly, sociobiology, in his slightly academic words, is "simply the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization." It poses the theory that man's genetic makeup has a lot to do with his behavior, that we exhibit character traits that may not only be inherited but are the product of an evolutionary trial-and-error system.
"The Pulitzer is an affirmation that this is an important new area of thought," Wilson, now almost 50, said, peering throught pale-trimmed glasses and speaking with the note-taking cadence of the teacher that he is. "It's not necessarily a certification that I'm right, but an affirmation that this is an important thing we should be talking about."
The prize-winning book, which according to a Harvard University Press spokesman has sold about 40,000 copies, is "a speculative essay," Wilson wrote.
At any rate, Wilson was in Washington the other day to talk at the Carnegie Institution about his first love, ants.Wilson has studied ants for a long time, and said that recently he's been in touch with economists who want to study the economy of an ant colony, as it relates to human economics.
"For example." he said, clearly warming to the topic, "how would the economics of a society be organized if the society consists entirely of individuals totally devoted to group welfare, who in most cases do not even reporduce, who perform entirely by instinct, do not engage in contracts and have no commerce with neighboring colonies?"
Well, there are no conclusions to be announced yet, he cautioned, but he has decided that "in spite of 100 million years of evolution" ants do less work and do it less efficiently than they could. (Perhaps it's they who have been observing humans, rather than the other way round).
Wilson has found that ants have a vocabulary, in the form of between 10 and 20 chemical signals, and the limits of this communication system may have something to do with their inefficiency.
And what does Wilson do if he sees an ant in his house? He looked puzzled.
"I suppose I'd be more inclined to watch it than squash it," he said.
Earlier he asked a photographer who wanted to take him outside if he had ever noticed that "a typical primate family" when crossing the street assembles itself into a pattern whereby the father walks slightly ahead, looking to either side for signs of danger, while the mother hangs back a bit protecting the offspring, otherwise known as children. The photographer said he had in fact noticed this, and had once published a picture of just a group in a similar position on the street - only he found out later the man was prominent lawyer and the woman was his mistress, not his unsuspecting wife.
Wilson also said he has been a "prefad runner," and that even on his vacations he tends to study bugs.
He recalled that about 20 years ago he came to Washington to buy the library of the then retiring director of the National Zoo, William Mann, whose articles in National Geographic had inspired him as a child.
"He gave me a tour of the zoo in his own private car," Wilson said, "I guess you could call that a boyhood dream come true." CAPTION: Picture, Edward O. Wilson, by John McDonnell-The Washington Post