Edward Osborne Wilson

views updated

Edward Osborne Wilson

The American biologist Edward O. Wilson (born 1929) was a leading authority on ants and social insects and an influential theorist of the biological basis of social behavior. He promoted the controversial discipline of sociobiology.

Born June 10, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Inez (Freeman) and Edward Osborne Wilson, Edward O. Wilson became a naturalist at an early age, after a fishing accident damaged his right eye and he learned to examine insects closely with his left eye. Growing up in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., he collected insects and decided to specialize in ants even before entering the University of Alabama. While still in college, in 1949 he published his first paper on fire ants. He continued research on these insects at the Alabama Department of Conservation and earned his master's degree in science in 1950 at the University of Alabama. After a year at the University of Tennessee, he entered graduate study at Harvard University.

Wilson's research on ants at Harvard involved him in theories of evolution and classification. He collaborated with William L. Brown on two influential papers on the field of new systematics, the attempt to classify species based on evolutionary theory. The first paper in 1953 critiqued the category of subspecies. In 1956 they proposed the concept of character displacement, by which closely related species diverge genetically when they come into competition. Wilson's Ph.D. from Harvard, granted in 1955, was based on work dealing with the taxonomy and ecology of ants.

In 1955 he married Irene Kelley. They had one daughter. After serving as a junior fellow, Wilson was appointed in 1956 to the Harvard faculty, where he remained through his career. Beginning in 1973 he was curator of entomology at the university's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

"Dr. Ant"

Wilson's graduate work included research in the American tropics, Australia, and the South Pacific. His studies of native ants soon made him the world's foremost authority on these insects and he gained the nickname "Dr. Ant." In the late 1950s he proposed a "taxon cycle," later found also among birds and other insects, to explain how Melanesian ants adapted to poor habitats by colonizing new places and splitting into new species. In 1959, influenced by the rise of molecular biology, Wilson discovered how ants communicate by chemical releasers known as pheromones, and he later collaborated with William Bossert on a wide-ranging theory of chemical communication in other species.

In the 1960s Wilson and ecologist Robert MacArthur developed a quantitative theory of species equilibrium, relating the size of islands to the number of species they contain and proving that the number of species on a small island would remain constant while the variety of species changed. Their Theory of Island Biogeography (1967) was highly influential in theoretical population ecology and its practical application to designing wildlife preserves. They argued that large areas and pathways between preserves are crucial for the survival of diversity. In 1971 Wilson summarized his own and other work on social insects in a comprehensive survey, The Insect Societies.

Father of Sociobiology

As an insect researcher, Wilson demonstrated the genetic underpinnings of the complex social behavior of ants and other species. In 1975 he extended his theories to all species, including humans, with the publication of the sweeping and controversial book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.

The term "sociobiology" had already been in use, but Wilson's work was the first in the field to challenge scientific and popular thinking about human behavior. Wilson's goal was to unify all the behavioral sciences on the basis of ecology and evolutionary biology into a "systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." Knowing the environmental pressures facing a species and its genetic constraints should allow scientists to predict the social organization and behavior of the species, he believed. Wilson argued that social behavior is a survival trait, and natural selection preserves patterns of useful behavior.

Since Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, scientists had tried to explain animal behavior as an outcome of evolution. But Wilson was the first to argue that the pathway to the survival of the species was the survival of individuals possessing favorable traits. Wilson explained the genetic basis of kinship, communication, specialization of labor, and even altruism. In ants, he observed, the welfare of the colony, not the individual, is paramount, and he believed the same was true for all species. "Genes hold culture on a leash," Wilson said.

The Sociobiology Debate

Wilson's boldness in reducing complex behavior to patterns with a genetic basis and further extending that analysis to humans set off a storm of controversy. Initially favorable reviews of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis noted the well-reasoned and extensively documented text on animals, but the focus of criticism was on the chapter about humans. Wilson wrote that humans always have been characterized by "aggressive dominance systems, with males generally dominant over females." He argued further, "Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science." Such statements prompted a firestorm of protests from feminists and humanists, and some critics saw an ethnocentric or racist basis to his judgments about the determination of behavior.

At a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, protesters yelled at Wilson and poured a pitcher of water over his head. A letter of protest was signed by two of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard and other scholars. Public protests followed Wilson on lecture tours. Insisting he had no political motivation for his theories, Wilson denied the charges of racism and sexism, calling the attacks "slander" and saying his theories were misunderstood. He was partly vindicated in 1982 when the Humanist magazine named him its Distinguished Humanist of the year.

Wilson's next book, On Human Nature (1978), was an elegantly written essay on the biological basis for human actions and culture. Reviewer Nicholas Wade in the New Republic called it "a work of high intellectual daring." It became a best-seller and helped make Wilson's theories even more widely known. It was awarded the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction, to which Wilson responded, "It's not necessarily a certification that I'm right, but an affirmation that this is an important thing we should be talking about."

Next, Wilson and physicist Charles Lumsden tried to create appropriate mathematical models for the genetic evolution of culture. Their two books were Genes, Mind, Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (1981), a scholarly work, and Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of the Mind (1983), a popular book on the same subject, which they labeled "the gene-culture coevolution." Again, Wilson's theories drew criticism. Writing about Promethean Fire in Commentary, sociologist Howard Kaye said, "questionable assumptions about mind and culture and an extreme reductionism mar their thought and inflate their claims." While controversy over Wilson's work continued, the field of sociobiology expanded into a thriving biological discipline, mostly devoted to animal behavior.

Besides his books and scientific papers, Wilson coauthored biology textbooks and edited the Scientific American Readings series. His ecological interests led to his partly autobiographical Biophilia: The Human Bond to Other Species (1984), an eloquent discussion of human love for nature and a plea for conservation. Wilson served on the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund from 1984 to 1990. In 1990 his lifelong fascination with ants culminated in the publication of The Ants, a comprehensive work co-authored with German entomologist Bert Holldobler. In 1992 he wrote The Diversity of Life, affirming his devotion to all the species on Earth, from ants to human beings.

Further Reading

Wilson was the subject of many reports and stories in both the scientific press (Nature, Science, New Scientist) and the popular press during the years of debate over sociobiology, from 1975 to 1980. Many of the dimensions of that debate are laid out in A. Caplan's The Sociobiology Debate (1980). See also Arthur Fisher, "Sociobiology: Science or Ideology?, Science (July/August 1992), and Scientific American (March 1993). □

Edward Osborne Wilson

views updated

Edward Osborne Wilson


American Biologist

Edward O. Wilson is a specialist in ant biology at Harvard University. He first gained renown among biologists for his discovery of ants' ability to communicate using chemicals called pheromones. He gained even greater fame as one of the key figures in the founding of sociobiology (also known today as evolutionary psychology). His book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) stirred up considerable controversy. Wilson's sociobiology is the attempt to explain animal societies—including humans—as the product of evolutionary development.

As a boy growing up in the southeastern United States, Wilson was enthralled with nature and began collecting insects and carefully observing animals in their habitat. By high school he had decided to pursue the vocation of biology and had even settled on a specialization—ants. He attended the University of Alabama in the late 1940s, where he enthusiastically embraced the neo-Darwinian synthesis by reading Ernst Mayr's (1904- ) Systematics and the Origin of Species. From that time on, evolutionary theory was a central theme not only for his biology, but for his whole world view. Though he had previously embraced Christianity as a teenager, thereafter he usually called himself a scientific materialist, explaining religion and ethics as the product of material processes, especially biological evolution.

After beginning doctoral studies at the University of Tennessee, he transferred to Harvard University in 1951, where he received his Ph.D. In 1956 he was appointed professor at Harvard, and soon thereafter he began studying ant communication. He was the first to discover that animals can communicate through their sense of smell by using chemical signals called pheromones. For example, an ant in distress can emit a certain chemical to alert other ants in its colony to come to its aid.

Wilson's interest in sociobiology was stimulated partly through his research on ants as social insects, but also through his encounters with Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) and Nikolaus Tinbergen (1907-1988), both of whom contributed to the founding of ethology, the study of animal behavior. Another important influence on the development of Wilson's sociobiology was W. D. Hamilton's idea of kin selection, advanced in a 1964 paper that Wilson read the following year. Hamilton's notion of kin selection tried to explain the puzzle of altruistic (selfless) behavior within a Darwinian framework. Hamilton argued that altruism could benefit the kin of the altruistic individual, and since the kin shared many of the same genes, altruism could thus promote survival of one's genes.

Wilson adopted Hamilton's idea and applied it first to ant societies and later to other social animals. By applying sociobiology to humans, he aroused a storm of controversy in the mid-1970s. Other prominent scientists and especially social scientists began protesting his view that many human behaviors and ethical systems are determined by or at least heavily influenced by genetic predispositions. Wilson did not claim that all specific behaviors or specific moral standards are genetically determined, but he did believe that many tendencies, such as division of labor between sexes, altruism toward kin, tribalism, male dominance, and territorial aggression, were biological instincts produced through evolution. Critics claimed that Wilson was politically motivated, justifying racism and sexism, but Wilson claimed this was a misunderstanding.

Despite the opposition, Wilson won many influential followers, some of whom preferred the term evolutionary psychology. In 1977 Time magazine carried a cover story on sociobiology, and that same year Wilson won the National Medal of Science for his work in sociobiology. The following year he published his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, providing greater detail on human sociobiology. Responding to widespread criticisms of sociobiology as genetic determinism, Wilson worked out his views on the interaction of heredity and culture, a view he called "gene-culture coevolution."

In the 1980s Wilson became an environmental activist because of his concern about the extinction of many species. He lamented the rapid decline in biodiversity, which he considered the product of eons of evolutionary development. He also began warning about human overpopulation.

Wilson's entire world view is laid out in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). He considers the empirical scientific method the only valid method for attaining knowledge about anything, and thus wants to infuse the humanities and social sciences with the scientific method. This is because he considers all of nature, including every aspect of humans, the product of mindless evolutionary development. According to Wilson, ethics and religion are merely genetic predispositions that helped our ancestors survive, but only science can impart real truth. Wilson's sociobiology and his philosophy of consilience are still highly controversial.


Wilson, Edward Osborne

views updated

Wilson, Edward Osborne

American Biologist 1929-

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Wilson originated the field of science called sociobiology, which argues that social animals, including humans, behave mainly according to rules written in their genes . Wilson is also considered the world's leading expert on ants.

Wilson's interest in biology began in childhood. He attended the University of Alabama, obtaining a bachelor of science degree in 1949 and a master of science degree in 1950. After obtaining his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1955, he joined the Harvard faculty. He became a professor in 1964 and curator of entomology (the study of ants) at the university's Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1971.

Wilson has written many important books. In 1971 he published The Insect Societies, his definitive work on ants and other social insects. His second major work, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), presented his theories about the biological basis of social behavior. These ideas proved controversial among some scientists and made Wilson famous. His theories caused scientists to discuss and further research the long-standing argument about "nature versus nurture." This is the debate over how much of human behavior is determined by genetics and how much by the environment in which a person is raised. Two of Wilson's books won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction: On Human Nature in 1979, and The Ants (cowritten with Bert Holldobler) in 1991. Wilson's other books include The Diversity of Life (1992) and his autobiography, Naturalist (1994).

Wilson has made many important scientific discoveries and contributions to biology. He was the first to determine that ants communicate mainly through the exchange of chemical substances called pheromones . Wilson worked with the American scientist Robert MacArthur to develop a theory on populations of species living on islands. Working with another scientist, W. L. Brown, Wilson developed the concept of character displacement . This is the theory that when two closely related species first come into contact, they undergo relatively rapid evolutionary changes. This ensures that they will not have to compete fiercely with one another and that they will not interbreed.

Alarmed by the loss of species throughout the world, Wilson has taken an active role in alerting policymakers and the public about this crisis. Wilson argues that humans are causing the greatest mass extinction of plant and animal species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. He is an outspoken and active advocate of conserving Earth's resources.

Wilson has received many scientific awards throughout his distinguished career. He was named by Time magazine as one of America's twenty-five most influential people of the twentieth century. He was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. In 1990 he shared Sweden's Crafoord Prize with the American biologist Paul Ehrlich. In 1996, Wilson was named by Time magazine as one of America's twenty-five most influential people of the twentieth century.

Denise Prendergast


Daintith, John, Sarah Mitchell, Elizabeth Tootil, and Derek Jertson. Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists, vol. 2, 2nd ed. Bristol, U.K.: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1994.

Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992.

Internet Resources

"Edward Osborne Wilson." Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. <http://www.2think.org/sociobiology.shtml>.

Wilson, Edward O.

views updated

Wilson, Edward O. ( Osborne) (1929– ) US entomologist, ecologist and sociobiologist. In 1956, a year after obtaining his Ph.D. from Harvard University, Wilson and William L. Brown introduced the concept of ‘character displacement’ to describe how closely related species undergo rapid evolutionary differentiation after first coming into contact with each other. In Theory of Island Biogeography (1967), Wilson and Robert MacArthur developed the notion that “a dynamic equilibrium number of species exists for any island.” Wilson's Insect Societies (1971) is a definitive study of ants and other social insects. In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), Wilson presented his controversial theories about the biological basis of human social behaviour. Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for On Human Nature (1978), in which he explored the contribution of sociobiology to the understanding of human aggression and sexuality. He received a second Pulitzer Prize for The Ants (1988, written with Bert Hölldobler). In The Diversity of Life (1992) and The Future of Life (2001), Wilson examined the threat to biodiversity posed by human activity. Other works include the autobiography Naturalist (1994). See also evolution

About this article

Edward Osborne Wilson

All Sources -
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic