Science: Edward O. Wilson, Rest in Peace

The Story:

Edward O. Wilson, one of the most important biologists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, died last week at age 92. Early in his career he specialized in the study of ants. Later, he threw new light on the nature/nurture issue as to human nature, and he advanced both science’s and the public’s understanding of the value of biodiversity.


Wilson joined the faculty at Harvard in the mid 1950s and stayed there for four decades. In studying ants, Wilson mapped out how new species evolve in response to environmental disadvantages, in a pattern he named the “taxon cycle.”

In the 1970s, Wilson wrote Sociobiology. This book begins with insect behaviors, then moves on to vertebrates and, in the last chapter, to humans.

Wilson contended that ant species are inherently collectivist for a simple reason: individuals lack reproductive independence: a colony has but a single Queen, so reproductive fitness operates only by enhancing the fitness of the colony as a whole. Humans, on the other hand, have a good deal of reproductive independence, so that genes can be passed along by humans who look after their own welfare and that of their mates and/or children with far less subordination to any broader collective.

Strange New Worlds: 

Late in life, though, Wilson turned much of his attention to a collectivity far larger than an ant colony, or a whole species: the collectivity of the ecosystem as a planetary whole. Within this whole, he said, “every scrap of biological diversity is priceless, to be learned and cherished, and never to be surrendered without a struggle.”


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