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

    California Republicans Mull Choices in Presidential Race

    Ted Cruz tells state's Republican Convention delegates campaign will be 'battle on the ground, district by district by district,' ahead of June 7 primary

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, many Kurds are trying to escape turmoil by focusing on success of football team Amedspor

    South African Company Designs Unique Solar Cooker

    Two-man team of solar power technologists introduces Sol4, hot plate that heats up so fast it’s like cooking with gas or electricity

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora