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

US Border Patrol Union Accused of Taking Sides on Immigration

Report alleges agents leaking info to immigration opponents, appearing at their private events; Center for Immigration Studies director defends agents' actions More

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Reporting from Somali capital for past decade, Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal has been working at one of Mogadishu's leading radio stations covering parliament More

Video Rights Monitor: Hate Groups' Use of Internet to Inflame, Recruit Growing

Wiesenthal Center's Abraham Cooper says extremists have become skilled at celebrating violence, ideology on Web More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs