Lord of the Ants

Man of Ideas

How do you take the measure of a man who has achieved as much as E.O. Wilson has in his 50-year-plus career? A man who has distinguished himself as scientist, conservationist, writer, artist, teacher, and speaker? A thinker who has launched not just careers but entire scientific disciplines? Like the biodiversity he champions, the depth and breadth of Wilson's accomplishments stagger the mind. One way to sum up his achievements is through his books (two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes). Here, briefly learn about some of the Harvard emeritus professor's most significant contributions, as documented in a dozen of his books.—Peter Tyson

               

The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967)
Wilson's years studying ants on islands in the South Pacific and American tropics in the 1950s led to this theory, formulated with the ecologist Robert MacArthur (who died in 1972). In their coauthored book, the pair demonstrate how immigration and extinction of island species are tied to an island's area and its species' basic ecology. The theory, with tenets such as that with every tenfold increase in an island's area the number of species doubles, has become a cornerstone of conservation biology and efforts to preserve "habitat islands." The book launched a field and remains the standard reference work.

The Insect Societies (1971)
One of Wilson's great gifts is synthesizing vast amounts of information, often from diverse fields. In this book, he brought together everything then known about the classification, anatomy, life cycles, behavior, and social organization of the social insects—ants, bees, wasps, and termites. Through his study of the pheromone "language" of ants, Wilson also helped develop, with Harvard colleague William Bossert, the new field of chemical ecology.

Sociobiology (1975)
In this volume, Wilson fleshed out the then new discipline of sociobiology—the study of the biological basis of social behavior. In the final chapter he brings humans into the equation. The book ignited a firestorm of protest, with some scientists—including several colleagues at Harvard—claiming that Wilson was supporting the notion of biological determinism, the idea that led, for instance, to Nazi eugenics. Wilson responded with On Human Nature, and over time most opponents fell silent. Today, Sociobiology remains the founding text of sociobiology and its offshoot, evolutionary psychology.

On Human Nature (1978)
Wilson wrote this book to more fully explain his notion of the biological evolution of culture and human behavior and to answer scientific criticism that arose in the wake of Sociobiology. On Human Nature not only helped to tamp down the controversy, but it won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

Genes, Mind and Culture (1981)
With the physicist-turned-biologist Charles Lumsden, Wilson began asking, How have genetic evolution and cultural evolution interacted to fashion the human mind? Their answer was this book, which introduced the first general theory of gene-culture coevolution. A furthering of human sociobiology, the theory holds that some choices made by humans, both through natural selection in the genes and culturally, confer greater survival and reproductive rates. Over many generations, the authors argue, the human population has converged on a general "human nature" as well as certain patterns of cultural diversity.

Biophilia (1984)
In a New York Times article in 1979, Wilson introduced this term and concept, which he expanded on in Biophilia. Humans, he contends, have an innate affinity for other living things, or biophilia, born out of our evolution among the creatures and habitats of nature over countless generations. The book inspired a host of new research that was summarized in The Biophilia Hypothesis (1992), which Wilson edited with Yale social ecologist Stephen Kellert. See A Conversation With E.O. Wilson for his latest thinking on this concept.

The Ants (1990)
In 1942, while scouring a vacant lot by his house in Mobile, Alabama, 13-year-old Ed Wilson discovered a colony of fire ants. Hardly could a brilliant career in myrmecology (the study of ants) have begun with a more telling flourish. Wilson's very first scientific observation, it was also the first record of this imported pest in the U.S. He went on to unearth more about ants than anyone alive. In 1990, he put everything then known about the "little creatures that run the world," as he deems them, in his tome The Ants, written with Bert Hölldobler. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, the second of Wilson's career.

The Diversity of Life (1992)
By the late 1970s, sensing the quickened loss of habitats and species, Wilson had become actively involved in conservation efforts. In 1988, he edited a volume on the first U.S. national conference on the subject of biodiversity. The book helped spark the new field of biodiversity studies. Four years later, Wilson came out with yet another synthesis, The Diversity of Life, which outlines the principles and practical aspects of biodiversity. The book remains a classic in the field.

Naturalist (1995)
In his autobiography Wilson talks about growing up in Alabama, where he was born in 1929, and how a freak accident at age seven led to his choice of discipline within the biological sciences. Fishing off a dock one day, he jerked a newly hooked fish out of the water. One of the dorsal spines of his catch, a pinfish, speared his right eye, rendering it blind. Possessed of superior close-in vision in his remaining eye, Wilson decided to study ants. The rest is history. (Read an excerpt from Naturalist.)

Consilience (1998)
Ever the synthesizer, Wilson argues in this book for consilience, literally the "jumping together" or unification of all branches of human inquiry. He bemoans the increasing specialization within the sciences in particular and encourages scholars to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities. "Most of the issues that vex humanity daily—ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environmental destruction, endemic poverty…," he writes, "can be solved only by integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that from the social sciences and humanities."

The Future of Life (2002)
Wilson has become one of the world's most impassioned environmentalists. In this book, he makes a strident plea to catalog and save the planet's biodiversity, to halt the human-caused mass extinction now under way. One of his latest conservation-minded projects is The Encyclopedia of Life. Accessible to all, this nascent online compendium will eventually contain a Web site for each of the roughly 1.8 million described species on Earth. The goal is to provide a central source for everything known about every living thing and thereby to enhance biodiversity research, conservation, and education.

The Creation (2006)
In this slim volume, subtitled "An Appeal to Save Life on Earth," Wilson urges religious leaders and secular humanists like himself to work together to save "the Creation." Despite their differences, both camps appreciate the glory of nature and understand its value, he maintains, and should therefore join forces to help stave off its widespread and ongoing destruction.

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E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson, in a portrait painted by artist Jennie Summerall

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