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

N. Korea Sentences American to 6 Years Hard Labor

Matthew Miller's brief trial Sunday comes two weeks after 24-year old Miller and two other American detainees appealed to the US government to help free them More

Pakistan Rejects Afghan Criticism of 480-kilometer Border Trench

Military spokesman tells VOA the project is part of administrative and security measures taken to secure the mountainous border with Afghanistan More

Photogallery Typhoon Kalmaegi Makes Landfall in Philippines

Storm makes landfall late Sunday, cutting power and communications lines and forcing people to flee to higher ground More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interesti
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 12, 2014 8:35 PM
The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video Palestinians Turn to Rebuilding Gaza

After almost two months of conflict in Gaza, Palestinians are preparing to rebuild the isolated Mediterranean enclave with assistance from abroad. Meanwhile, an international human rights group has found that Israel likely violated international laws of war during some of its attacks on Gaza. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Middle Eastern Church Leaders Highlight Christians’ Plight

Patriarchs of Eastern Rite churches came to Washington this week to draw attention to the attacks against Christians in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. VOA’s religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid