The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Edward O. Wilson, Harvard naturalist often cited as heir to Darwin, dies at 92

Edward O. Wilson in 1991. (AP)

Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard naturalist whose mapping of social behavior in ants led him to study social behavior in all organisms and who became one of the greatest naturalists of his generation, died Dec. 26 in Burlington, Mass. He was 92.

The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation announced his death but did not provide a cause.

Often cited as Charles Darwin’s greatest 20th-century heir, Dr. Wilson was an eloquent and immensely influential environmentalist and was the first to determine that ants communicate mainly through the exchange of chemical substances now known as pheromones.

He discovered hundreds of new species by putting his hands in the dirt as a field biologist, synthesized evolving thinking in science and helped popularize terms such as biodiversity and biophilia to explain it. Of his many accomplishments in evolutionary biology, his biggest contribution was probably in the new scientific field of sociobiology, in which he addressed the biological basis of social behavior in animals, including humans.

He wrote technical scientific studies and popular science, receiving two Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction as well as the National Medal of Science. The avuncular naturalist was not universally lauded; protesters who objected to his main theory once dumped ice water on his head at a scientific conference.

Dr. Wilson went on to become a leading advocate and popular interpreter of ecological diversity. He prompted the creation of the Encyclopedia of Life project, an online collaborative encyclopedia of all living species known to science. At 80 years old, he published his first novel, about a boy and a colony of ants.

“Ed Wilson is a magic name to many of us working in the natural world for two reasons,” David Attenborough, naturalist and BBC broadcaster, said in a 2008 PBS “Nova” episode, “Lord of the Ants,” about Dr. Wilson.

“First, he is a towering example of a specialist, a world authority; nobody in the world has ever known as much as Ed Wilson about ants,” Attenborough said. “But in addition to that intense knowledge and understanding, he has the widest of pictures. He sees the planet and the natural world that it contains in amazing detail but extraordinary coherence. And he has the ability as a writer to convey to all of us, specialists and nonspecialists alike, why this is not only beautiful and moving and irreplaceable, but essential for our sanity.”

During a professional career spent primarily at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Dr. Wilson experimented on a grand scale, once staging a mass extinction on several Florida Bay islands to document species recovery. He also remained willing to plunge a bare hand into a fire ant colony to demonstrate how the organisms respond to danger.

His most significant and controversial idea appeared in his 1975 book, “Sociobiology,” which described the role that genetics plays in the social behavior of organisms. The first 25 chapters built his unifying theory of behavior in the animal world, a monumental achievement in itself.

The controversy came from the last chapter, on humankind. Dr. Wilson proposed that human behavior is genetically based, that humans inherit a propensity to acquire behavior and social structures, including a division of labor between the sexes, parent-child bonding, heightened altruism toward closest kin, incest avoidance, suspicion of strangers, tribalism, male dominance and territorial aggression over limited resources.

He later noted in “Naturalist,” his 1994 autobiography, that his was “an exceptionally strong hereditarian position for the 1970s.”

The response was furious, starting at his own school, where colleagues accused him of genetic determinism and tied the theory to Nazi eugenics, racism, sexism, sterilization and restrictions on immigration. Demonstrators disrupted the campus, calling his theory an apologia for the status quo.

The fact that sociobiology made the cover of Time magazine or that Dr. Wilson debated the proposition on the “Today” show and Dick Cavett’s talk show did not impress them. The protests culminated with a takeover of the stage at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, where one demonstrator was said to have drenched him with a pitcher of ice water, declaring, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

Decades later, scientists now acknowledge that genes play some still-undefined role in human nature. But at the time, the outrage that greeted the idea prompted Dr. Wilson to write “On Human Nature,” which won the 1979 Pulitzer for general nonfiction.

He also won the Pulitzer in 1991 for “The Ants,” which he co-wrote with Bert Hölldobler. The tome — 732 pages, 7.5 pounds — met Dr. Wilson’s definition for magnum opus: “A book which when dropped from a three-story building is big enough to kill a man.” He also drew each of the 5,000 meticulous illustrations of ants in the 2003 volume “Pheidole in the New World.”

A boyhood in the woods

Edward Osborne Wilson Jr. was born in Birmingham, Ala., on June 10, 1929. His family moved frequently, and he found solace in nature. While he was fishing one day at age 7, the fin of a spiny pinfish scratched his right eye, permanently impairing his distance vision and depth perception. He later realized he also lacked hearing in the upper registers, masking for him the calls of many birds and frogs.

Between the ages of 9 and 11, he lived in Washington, exploring the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park and standing in awe in the rotunda of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. After he read an article on entomology in National Geographic magazine when he was 10, the budding naturalist turned his gaze to the ground, studying snakes, butterflies, flies and finally ants.

At 13, after he and his family returned to the vacant lots and dark swamps of the Deep South, he discovered the first known colony of imported fire ants in the United States, Solenopsis invicta, near his home in Mobile, Ala.

In high school, with the encouragement of a myrmecologist from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, he set about realizing the goal of surveying all the ant species in Alabama. When the time came for college, his father was unemployed, so the young Wilson struck upon the idea of enlisting in the Army and using the GI Bill for his education. But his damaged eye caused him to fail his Army physical. Finally, he discovered that the University of Alabama admitted all White graduates of its high schools, and he raced through college in three years.

As the imported fire ants began to spread locally, the Mobile Press-Register ran articles on the menace and quoted its hometown expert. Dr. Wilson was in his last semester of college when the state conservation department asked him to conduct a study of the ant and its effect on the environment, launching a professional science career.

He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1949 and received a master’s degree from the school the following year. He enrolled in the University of Tennessee for graduate study but soon was admitted to Harvard University, where he received his doctorate in biology in 1955.

As a graduate student, he was elected as a junior fellow to Harvard’s Society of Fellows and traveled to Cuba and Mexico, and later to New Caledonia and New Guinea for his first tropical research. In addition to his prolific collecting and identification of new species, his critiques of how subspecies were classified prompted a revision in taxonomy.

He developed an explanation of how ants adapt to adverse environmental conditions by colonizing new habitats and splitting into new species to avoid competition. In 1959, he proved his hypotheses that ants communicate through the release of chemicals, a discovery that still delights students of crawling insects. Ants, he learned by close observation and experimentation, lay down trails of chemical markers to food, use chemical signals to call for help and even identify the dead not by lack of motion but by decomposition.

Pheromones, he later wrote, were “not just a guidepost, but the entire message.”

About that time, a new colleague joined the Harvard faculty. James D. Watson, who, with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA, was “the Caligula of biology,” Dr. Wilson said. Watson, never known for manners or tact, attacked traditional biologists, whom he considered the equivalent of stamp collectors, lacking the wit to transform their work into modern science.

“I found him the most unpleasant human being I had ever met,” Dr. Wilson wrote in his autobiography. “Watson radiated contempt in all directions. He shunned ordinary courtesy and polite conversation, evidently in the belief they would only encourage the traditionalists to stay around.”

But the competition, which Dr. Wilson said later turned to friendship, accelerated his ambition to discover the common biotic thread in complex societies.

Partnering with chemists and mathematicians, he co-developed the first quantitative theory that the number of species on a small island would remain constant, although the variety would constantly reshuffle. He proved that idea in 1968, four years after he was made a full professor at Harvard. He and biologist Daniel Simberloff counted, then exterminated by fumigation, all the insect species on six islands in Florida Bay. Eight months later, the islands had repopulated, with the same number although a different mix of insect species.

The findings had huge implications for saving endangered species. The smaller the area of land, the fewer the number of species it could support, and the higher the risk of extinction. Although it was easy to repopulate the small islands of Florida Bay, which were just a few miles from larger islands and the mainland, the same would not be true of isolated tracts that are the sole holdout for vanishing species.

The implications of this theory of island biogeography and other studies rippled outward to other fields of inquiry, and Dr. Wilson began making connections among a wide range of species.

By describing the altruistic behavior of sterile ants who work without the payoff of procreation, for example, he theorized their colonies as superorganisms, in which the welfare of the colony is paramount.

“The idea struck a chord outside the biological sphere,” a 2008 article in Wired magazine said. “It became a powerful meme among computer geeks, as any Google search reveals. Programmers got to work building ‘ant-based’ search and scheduling-optimization algorithms modeled on the foraging patterns of real-world ants. Cybervisionaries saw in the superorganism an ideal way of describing the networked global brain that they were just beginning to imagine.”

Dr. Wilson also tried to bridge the gap between science and religion, telling The Washington Post in 2006 that evangelical Christians and scientific secularists should team up to save Earth, a proposal he spelled out in “The Creation.”

He wrote hundreds of scientific articles and almost two dozen books. “Among literary scientists, no one since Rachel Carson has more effectively joined humble detail to a grand vision of life processes and structures,” wrote William Howarth in The Post’s 1994 review of “Naturalist.” Dr. Wilson received the National Medal of Science in 1976 for “his pioneering work on the organization of insect societies and the evolution of social behavior among insects and other animals.”

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and in 1990 received the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the highest award given in the field of ecology. In 1995, Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential people in the United States, and in 1999, the American Humanist Association voted him Humanist of the Year.

Dr. Wilson’s wife of 65 years, Irene Kelly Wilson, died in August. Survivors include their daughter, Catherine, according to his foundation.

Rather than downshifting in his 70s and 80s, Dr. Wilson continued to broaden his work. Although he officially retired from Harvard in 1996, he continued to lecture, and in 2005, he solved a 487-year-old ecological mystery about the ants that devastated Hispaniola in 1518. He joined the boards of several environmental organizations after noting that the 1.5 million named species in the world represent only a small fraction of what exists — and predicted that 30 to 50 percent of all species would be extinct by the middle of this century.

From the grand to the tiny, Dr. Wilson retained his enthusiasm for natural science.

“There’s the question of why did I pick ants, you know? Why not butterflies or whatever? And the answer is that they’re so abundant, they’re easy to find, and they’re easy to study, and they’re so interesting,” Dr. Wilson told “Nova.” “They have social habits that differ from one kind of ant to the next. You know, each kind of ant has almost the equivalent of a different human culture. So each species is a wonderful object to study in itself. In fact, I honestly can’t, cannot understand why most people don’t study ants.”

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