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)
x
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 Anti-Muslim Sponsor of Texas Cartoon Contest Draws Ire

Pamela Geller's supporters say she speaks truth about sensitive topic, while critics say she preaches 'that Islam is inherently evil' More

East Meets West in Exhibition Showing Chinese Influence on Fashion

Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition juxtaposes influence of art, imagery and culture, from Imperial China to the present day, on Western fashion and design More

South Africa Begins New Love Affair With Vinyl Records

Enthusiasts say the 'rebirth' of vinyl is resulting in a rebirth of music in South Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Mass Grave Exposes Entrenched Trafficking in Thailandi
X
May 05, 2015 5:50 PM
Police in southern Thailand have found two more camps believed to have held human trafficking victims -- one containing a buried skeleton. This comes just days after officials announced arrests in connection with the grisly discovery of 26 bodies in a mass grave at another location. Officials suspect as many as 400 mostly ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar were being held for ransom at the remote camp near the Malaysian border. Steve Sandford reports on developments in the case.
Video

Video Mass Grave Exposes Entrenched Trafficking in Thailand

Police in southern Thailand have found two more camps believed to have held human trafficking victims -- one containing a buried skeleton. This comes just days after officials announced arrests in connection with the grisly discovery of 26 bodies in a mass grave at another location. Officials suspect as many as 400 mostly ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar were being held for ransom at the remote camp near the Malaysian border. Steve Sandford reports on developments in the case.
Video

Video Russia's 'Victory Day' Glory Over Nazis Overshadowed by Ukraine

ussia is preparing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, known since the Soviet era as “The Great Patriotic War,” with a massive parade on May 9th of military hardware and millions of medals handed out to veterans or their relatives. But critics say the Soviet-style display of power and nationalism overshadows tragic scars during and after the war that still influence politics and foreign policy, especially in the current Ukraine crisis.
Video

Video WWII Anniversary Brings Old Friends and New Worries

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II has special significance, with Russia becoming more assertive in Ukraine and sending its military planes to the edges of western countries’ airspace. Changes in the geostrategic balance and the transatlantic relationship are felt across the continent, not least in German towns that have hosted U.S. military bases since the defeat of Nazi Germany. VOA’s Al Pessin visited Schweinfurt, Germany, where a large base closed last year.
Video

Video Abraham Lincoln Funeral Re-created for 150th Civil War Anniversary

Over the last four years, commemorative events to mark the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War have brought thousands of visitors to battlefields and historic landmarks across the country. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, the final event in the Civil War's sesquicentennial honors the final journey home of the slain American President, Abraham Lincoln.
Video

Video Campaign Raises Money to 'Uncuff' Journalists

Beginning Sunday – World Press Freedom Day – the Committee to Protect Journalists, a private U.S. group, is launching a campaign to bring attention to their plight and encourage efforts to free them. Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Volunteers Pull Together to Aid Baltimore Riot Victims

Calm has returned to Baltimore, Maryland, after authorities lifted an overnight curfew imposed almost a week ago to stem the rioting that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray - the 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries suffered while in police custody. Six police officers, three of them African-American, have been charged in connection with his death. Baltimore is now trying to get back to normal, in part with the help of volunteers who responded to calls to help those in the city'
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Obama Praises Work of 3 Immigrant Journalists

President Barack Obama met with three immigrant journalists at the White House Friday to praise them for their work ahead of World Press Freedom Day, May 3. In attendance: Dieu Cay (his pen name) a blogger from Vietnam recently released from prison; Lily Mengesha from Ethiopia who was harassed and detained for exposing the marrying off of young girls as child brides, and Fatima Tlisova, an ethnic Circassian from the North Caucasus region of Russia, who works for VOA's Russian Service.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs