The Theory of Island Biogeography, 1967 (with Robert H. MacArthur)
A Primer of Population Biology, 1971 (with William H. Bossert)
The Insect Societies, 1971
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975
On Human Nature, 1978
The Ants, 1990 (with Bert Hölldobler)
The Diversity of Life, 1992
Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, 1994 (with Hölldobler)
In Search of Nature, 1996
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
The Future of Life, 2002
Ecology, Evolution, and Population Biology: Readings from “Scientific American,” 1974
The Biophilia Hypothesis, 1993 (with Stephen R. Kellert)
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001, 2001
Edward Osborne Wilson, Jr., began his career studying ants and other social insects. He went on to develop the theory of sociobiology, which established a genetic basis for behavior in all animals, including humans. His advocacy for the preservation of endangered species and ecosystems spurred conservationist efforts worldwide.
“Most children have a bug period, and I never grew out of mine,” Wilson wrote in his autobiography, Naturalist. As a small, shy boy, he developed a love of nature while roaming the woods and beaches of Alabama and Florida and frequenting the Museum of Natural History and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. His loss of vision in one eye following a fishing accident led him to focus his scientific inquiries on creatures small enough to be observed at close range.
Following his graduation from high school in Decatur, Alabama, he entered the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. There, he completed a B.S. in biology in 1949 and an M.S. in biology in 1950. He received his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University in 1955. He became assistant professor at Harvard in 1956 and full professor in 1964. He served as curator in entomology of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1973 to 1997, when he was named honorary curator. In 1994, he became Pellegrino University Professor and was awarded emeritus status in 1997. Throughout his career at Harvard, he lived in Lexington, Massachusetts, with his wife, Renee. The couple had one daughter, Catherine.
In the 1950’s, Wilson conducted field research in Cuba, Mexico, and several islands of the South Pacific. In collaboration with Robert MacArthur, Wilson developed and published The Theory of Island Biogeography, today regarded as a classic ecological work. In 1953, Wilson began investigating chemical communication in ants. He documented the trail-laying behavior of fire ants as they foraged between the nest and a food source. He found that a substance produced in the insect’s Dufour’s gland acts as a pheromone (a substance made by one organism that influences the behavior of another). He extended his study of chemical communication in ants with German entomologist Bert Hölldobler. Their book, The Ants, was widely read by nonscientists and praised by critics for its clarity and lyrical appeal. It earned for the pair a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
Wilson was influenced by British evolutionary biologist William Hamilton and his kin selection hypothesis. Behaviors that promote survival not of the individual, but of its genes, lead to a selective advantage in the evolution of a species, Hamilton argued: the closer the kinship, the larger the fraction of genes held in common. Wilson used this principle to explain altruistic behaviors (such as the apparently self-sacrificing labor of nonreproducing worker ants) and as evidence of a biological basis for behavior in all animals.
The resulting book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, provoked public and academic controversy. In the book’s final chapter, Wilson suggested a genetic basis for human behavior, an idea deemed politically incorrect at the time. Accused of racism and sexism, Wilson had water dumped on his head at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Despite the controversy, President Jimmy Carter awarded Wilson the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States, in 1977. Wilson’s next book, On Human Nature, advocated the scientific study of human behavior, with the ultimate goal of integrating the natural and social sciences and the humanities. Praised as a sophisticated and humane work, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979.
Wilson, alarmed by what he saw as humans’ destruction of habitats critical to the survival of native flora and fauna, became a tireless and influential advocate for environmental preservation. In Biophilia, he maintained that humans are genetically predisposed to derive spiritual (as well as material) sustenance from nature. In The Diversity of Life, he argued that people are obligated to conserve ecosystems. In The Future of Life, he advocated human population control and habitat protection to forestall the mass extinction of species. In Consilience, Wilson contended that the world is orderly and will ultimately be explained by a small number of natural laws. He suggested that humans, soon to escape the forces of natural selection, would ultimately be free to choose the destiny of their species.
Wilson received numerous honors, including the William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society; the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America; and the Distinguished Service Award of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. In 1994 he received the Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1990 he won the Crafoord Prize, the top honor bestowed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science for achievements in fields not covered by the Nobel Prize. The depth of Wilson’s research, the breadth of his thought, and the clarity and passion of his writing place him among the greatest scientists and science writers of all time.