Lifetime achievement: E.O. Wilson
From ants to sociobiology to biodiversity one of the great careers in 20th
(TIME) -- "Study nature, not books!" advised the great 19th century naturalist
Louis Agassiz. As a boy growing up in Alabama and northern Florida, Edward
Osborne Wilson did both. By day he scoured fields, forests and streams. At night
he pored over books and magazines. It was an article in National
Geographic ("Stalking Ants, Savage and Civilized") that launched, at the
ripe age of 9, one of the great scientific careers of the late 20th century, a
career that began in entomology with a particular passion for ants, but that has
since reinvented itself with remarkable frequency, expanding its scope to
encompass not just the earth's smallest creatures but the whole living planet.
E.O. Wilson's scientific contributions began early. He was 13 when he
discovered, in a vacant lot near the docks of Mobile, Alabama, the first known U.S.
colonies of fire ants, Solenopsis invicta, invaders from Brazil and
Argentina known in the South as "the ants from hell."
As an assistant professor at Harvard in the late 1950s, he proposed the radical
notion that ant societies are bound together by an elaborate system of chemical
signals. He went on to prove the existence of what are now called pheromones
with an elegant experiment. Pied Piperlike, he lured a stream of worker ants
along a chemical trail laid down with pheromones extracted from a gland in the
abdomen of a fire ant.
Meanwhile, Wilson was blazing other trails. Fascinated by ant societies, he
began seeing parallels in the social interactions of birds, lions, monkeys, apes
and even humans. In a 1975 book audaciously titled Sociobiology: The New
Synthesis, he charted in evolutionary terms the social architecture of a
wide range of species, their breeding behavior, gender dominance, caste systems.
"In a Darwinian sense," Wilson wrote, "the organism does not live for itself.
Its primary function is not even to reproduce other organisms; it reproduces
genes, and it serves as their temporary carrier."
Wilson's Sociobiology was at once enormously influential and hugely
controversial. Its first 26 chapters, which dealt with the social systems of
nonhuman species, were widely praised as one of the century's signal scientific
achievements. Its 27th chapter, which applied the same analysis to human
behavior and culture, was harshly, and sometimes violently, attacked. At a 1978
meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an
impassioned dissenter emptied a pitcher of ice water on him.
Despite the mixed reaction, Wilson in this and subsequent books
culminating with Promethean Fire (1983) accomplished something few
scientists can claim. He established a new field of science. It is known to this
day as sociobiology.
By that time, however, Wilson had moved on. Drawing from his deep knowledge of
the earth's "little creatures" and his sense that their contribution to the
planet's ecology is underappreciated, he produced what may be his most important
book, The Diversity of Life (1992). In 424 pages he describes how an
intricately interconnected natural system is threatened by a man-made
biodiversity crisis he calls the "sixth extinction" -- the most devastating trauma
since the extinction event that laid waste the dinosaurs and other creatures 65
million years ago.
He notes in Diversity that the 1.5 million species named so far by
scientists represent only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions that may be
out there. Wilson's prediction that 30 percent to 50 percent of all species would be extinct
by the middle of the 21st century was meant to provokeand it did. Critics
rejected the estimate as another one of his flamboyant speculations. But
subsequent research has supported it. From the perspective of the biodiversity
scientist, virtually all the signs are bad.
How can human society transform itself? How can we become stewards of the living
world? To Wilson, what is required is a new convergence of thought and ethics
comparable to the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. "The
Enlightenment thinkers ... got it mostly right the first time," he wrote in
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). "They assumed a lawful,
perfectible material world in which knowledge is unified across the sciences and
the humanities." Consilience received its customary share of praise and
criticism, especially from detractors who found Wilson's conclusions naively
optimistic. But he makes a persuasive argument that stranger convergences have
already occurred and will occur again.
Now, at 72, E.O. Wilson is a senior doyen of science and, by his own admission,
moving irresistibly into what he calls "the literary realm." It's not a bad
place for him to be. Wilson has produced a scientific masterpiece in nearly
every decade of his life. And in this time of crisis, our planet has never had
more need for the observations and intuition of one of the world's great
Novacek is provost and curator of paleontology at the American Museum
of Natural History in New York City