News / Science & Technology

At 82, Social Biologist Still Provokes Controversy

Edward Osborne Wilson has spent decades researching the natural world

At 82 years old, Edward O. Wilson continues to work and publish in the fields of ecology and evolution. (V. LaCapra, VOA)At 82 years old, Edward O. Wilson continues to work and publish in the fields of ecology and evolution. (V. LaCapra, VOA)
At 82 years old, Edward O. Wilson continues to work and publish in the fields of ecology and evolution. (V. LaCapra, VOA)
At 82 years old, Edward O. Wilson continues to work and publish in the fields of ecology and evolution. (V. LaCapra, VOA)
ST LOUIS, MISSOURI - Biologist and conservationist Edward Osborne Wilson has spent decades researching and writing about the natural world. He co-wrote the definitive book on ants - the world's dominant insect.

And in his latest work, he weaves together scientific disciplines and the humanities.

As E.O. Wilson tells it, he has always been interested in the little creatures around him. As a child, he says, he had a "snake period" and a "frog period," but he soon gravitated toward insects.

"I began when I was about nine years old, catching butterflies and gathering all sorts of insects in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. And [I] never looked back."

Wilson soon settled on one particular insect, ants. Most of us don't think much about ants, and Wilson clearly thinks that's a mistake.

"Because ants are the dominant insects of the world, they make up something like three-fourths of all of the biomass of all the insects. And they dominate the environments that they’re in, the land environments."

In 1990, many years after the young E.O. Wilson began collecting and studying them, he and co-author Bert Hölldobler published their landmark book, "The Ants." It's a comprehensive look at virtually all aspects of ants and their societies. It won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and Wilson says it’s still regarded as the most authoritative work on the insects:

"It is the reference work you want to use if you want to find out anything about ants, at least known to 1988. And most of that information is still solid."

Wilson's research on ants included studying the geographic distribution of their many different species, particularly on islands in the Western Pacific. Some islands had lots of different ant species; others had only a few. And that led him to the field of biogeography.

"Biogeography is the scientific study of the distribution of plants and animals around the world."

Wilson extended that to develop a theory of "island biogeography." He theorized that insect populations would depend on the size of the island and its distance from the mainland, and he conducted experiments to prove it. Audacious experiments: fumigating tiny islands off the Florida coast to kill off all the bugs, then monitoring how insects recolonized the islands.

He extended the concept to virtual islands, where one ecosystem is cut off, surrounded by a different environment. Think of a small patch of forest surrounded by farmland, or a few hectares of wetland remaining amid industrial development. His work still guides planners of national parks and nature reserves.

"Those are islands. So it's extremely important to know how stable they are, how rapidly species will go extinct. If you put the numbers into the equations with the right parameters, then you can do a lot in understanding or predicting how well that park will do."

Wilson has also been at the center of controversy for his work as the "father of sociobiology." That's the study of the biological and evolutionary roots of social behavior.

"Sociobiology" was also the title of one of his many books, and its publication in 1975 stirred up a lot of controversy in certain corners. The rules that govern animal behavior, Wilson wrote, apply just as much to people.

For example, more primitive species may develop instincts that help them survive. More advanced species - like us - carry over as phobias behaviors from early humans, when fear of heights, snakes or spiders might have been a key survival tactic.

"And all the things that people can develop aversive behavior toward - including phobias - are the dangers, the stimuli that our ancient ancestors, going back six million years up almost to the present, faced."

At age 82, Wilson remains active. He's still on the faculty of Harvard University, as professor emeritus. And he's just out with the latest of his more than 20 books. It's called "The Social Conquest of Earth," and it stitches together ideas from science and the humanities.

"So it's increasingly clear that not only will biology be connecting tightly with psychology. That's already begun. ... But also connecting with subjects like the origin of morality, the origin of aesthetics, the origin of the creative arts. All of those I explicitly address in my new book, "The Social Conquest of Earth." I show how to do it."

Wilson writes that religion and philosophy are not enough to answer the really big questions - Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Science, he says, must be a key part of the answer.

Only acclaimed biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson could manage to use his research on ants to explain the arts and so much more about the human condition.

You May Like

Video Obama: Action on Climate Change 'Economic, Security Imperative'

President spoke to reporters on sidelines of UN Climate Summit outside Paris, where leaders are working to agree on binding measures

IMF Bets on China’s Resolve to Reform

IMF announcement already raising questions about just how much Beijing is committed to such reforms

UNICEF: Hidden Epidemic of HIV Among Adolescents

Researchers warn that Asia Pacific nations facing sharp rise in incidence of HIV among adolescents

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs