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 E.O.Wilson: Biography

Introduction

Dr. Edward O. Wilson is one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. His groundbreaking research, original thinking, and scientific and popular writing have changed the way humans think of nature, and our place in it. Currently he is a research professor and museum curator at Harvard University. He has received many of the world's leading prizes for his research in science, his environmental activism, and his writing. Wilson has been a leader in the fields of entomology (the study of insects), animal behavior and evolutionary psychology, island biogeography, biodiversity, environmental ethics, and the philosophy of knowledge. He has written groundbreaking books and articles on all of these subjects. Two of his non-fiction books, The Ants (1990, with Bert Hölldobler) and On Human Nature (1978), have won Pulitzer Prizes. The Diversity of Life (1992) and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), two of his more recent books, have been applauded for their graceful, creative and constructive approaches to challenging subjects. In The Diversity of Life and The Future of Life he conveys his deep concern for humanity's bewildering degradation of our planet's ecosystems. His commitment to protecting our natural heritage has brought him to the forefront of environmental activism.


Personal History

Wilson grew up in Alabama. Early on in childhood he became fascinated with the natural world, especially insects. In high school he decided to devote his career to the study of ants. He received a BS from the University of Alabama in 1949, an MS in 1950, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1955. For most of his career Wilson has been a professor at Harvard University. He is currently a Pellegrino University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology of the Museum of Comparative Dr. Edward O. WilsonZoology at Harvard University. Wilson has won numerous awards, honors, and fellowships for his research, writing, and activism, including two Pulitzer Prizes (1978 and 1990), the1977 National Medal of Science, the International Prize of Biology from Japan (1993), and the Audubon Medal of the National Audubon Society (1995).


Entomology and Myrmecology

Much of Wilson's intellectual development and explorations have originated from his in-depth study of insects (entomology), especially ants (myrmecology). Wilson has been a pioneer in researching the physiology, evolution, taxonomy, life cycles, chemical communication , and social organization of social insects. His book The Ants (1990, with Bert Holldobler) won a Pulitzer Prize, and The Insect Societies (1974) is still widely regarded as an important reference and synthesis of the biology of social insects, despite being outdated by thirty years.

Wilson developed the foundations for understanding the biological basis for social behavior in insects. He revealed to the scientific community and the general public the complexity of ant societies and their dominance in terrestrial ecosystems. From this newly developed understanding of insect behavior, Wilson began examining the social behavior of other animals.


Animal Behavior, Sociobiology, and Evolutionary Psychology

In direct contradiction with the anthropocentrism of many social scientists, Wilson strongly believed that all animals, including humans, should not be excluded from evolutionary analyses. He outlined a new field of study, known as sociobiology, that demanded the inclusion of the social sciences and the humanities in evolutionary theory (Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, 1975). He provided biological explanations for behaviors such as altruism, which although controversial, helped to pave the way for modern behavioral biology.

SociobiologyIn his book On Human Nature (1978) he examined human behaviors in detail, arguing that some human behaviors are naturally selected through processes of evolution. His work was criticized by many for its apparent message of "biological destiny." Thus, throughout the late Seventies and Eighties, Wilson was engaged in acrimonious debates with biologists and social scientists, in particular Steven Gould. Like Darwin's Origin of Species, Wilsonís Sociobiologyand On Human Nature have forced scholars to reassess their understanding of the natural world. Today, many scientists accept the basic premises of his arguments, and he has been instrumental in the founding of evolutionary psychology.


Island Biogeography and Conservation Ecology

Despite his heated debates in defense of sociobiology, Wilson was able to continue his exploration of the natural world. In 1967, Wilson and R.H. MacArthur collaborated to develop a theory explaining the uneven distribution of species on different islands (The Theory of Island Biogeography, 1967). They postulated that the number of species on an island depends on a balance or equilibrium between the rate of extinction on the island (based on genetics, population sizes and ecology) and the rate of species immigration or colonization to the island. All else being the same, islands closer to the mainland and with larger habitat areas tend to have greater species diversity than smaller islands further from the mainland. Their theory is remarkably accurate and has become an important foundation of modern conservation biology and ecology.

Wilson has shown how the theory of island biogeography is pertinent to conservation. Ecosystems found on continents can also be isolated and fragmented, like islands in an ocean. Habitat fragmentation has created many "islands" that have undergone dramatic decreases in biodiversity. Conservationists use the theory of island biogeography to estimate the impacts of habitat fragmentation and develop effective management plans.


Biodiversity, the Environmental Ethic, and Activism

Wilson has been increasingly concerned with the human-induced environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity on Earth. He has been a leader in bringing this concern to the scientific community, the public, and politicians through giving presentations at universities and conferences, working with environmental organizations, and writing and editing numerous articles and books (The Future of Life, 2002; The Diversity of Life, 1992; Biodiversity, 1988; and others).The Future of Life Today he devotes much of his efforts towards conservation iniatives; he is on the Board of Directors of Conservation International, the American Museum of Natural History, and The Nature Conservancy. Since editing the book Biodiversity (1984), which introduced the term "biodiversity" and brought worldwide attention to the topic, Wilson has been considered by many to be "the father of biodiversity." In 1998 he delivered a slide show in the US Senate in support of the Act to Save America's Forests, a bill that would protect and restore the native biodiversity throughout the federal forest system (which include the national forest).

Wilson profoundly respects and values our natural environment and wishes to instill this value in others through philosophical and scientific argumentation, as well as more emotionally accessible approaches. He has been important in spreading an environmental or "conservation ethic"; he has helped the world realize the inherent value of every species on Earth and humanity's inextricable link with nature (Biophilia, 1986). Wilson has also helped inspire several generations through his beautifully descriptive prose of natural history and his life adventures (Naturalist, 1995; Journey to the Ants, 1994, with Holldobler; and others). His dynamic teaching approach has taught thousands of Harvard students the importance of evolutionary principles and the need for environmental protection.


The Future of Science and Humanity

Consilience   Despite the discouraging state of many ecosystems, Wilson has continued to think deeply and constructively about a variety of intellectual problems. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), he delves into the philosophy of knowledge and science, arguing for the unification of the humanities and sciences into a coherent body of knowledge. He suggests a closer examination of possible evolutionary origins and functions of morality, the arts, and religion. He strongly believes that our attaining a unity of knowledge is an essential task in humanity's path towards intelluctual enlightenment and living in a non-destructive relationship with the natural world. The humanities and sciences are interrelated and humanity and the natural world are intertwined—damaging our environment, distancing ourselves from our human nature, can only cause future human suffering. Wilson envisions a hopeful alternative and has dedicated his life to showing others the value and possibility of this vision.

Dr. Wilson strongly supports the Act to Save America's Forests, which is based on the core and buffer principle of conservation biology. The Act would protect and restore the native biodiversity throughout the entire U.S. national forest system. Core forest areas, including the last few percent of remaining Ancient Forests and roadless areas, would be protected from any logging and roadbuilding. In the buffer areas, the native biodiversity would have to be restored, non-native species removed, and only ecologically sustainable use permitted.

As Dr. Wilson said,

"It is critically important the Act to Save America's Forests be passed into law as soon as possible. The Act is essential to protect the forests and biodiversity of America, and will prevent countless plant and animal species from going extinct.

The Act to Save America's Forests would do more to protect biodiversity than any other legislation."

In the slide slow and lecture which Dr. Wilson presented in the U.S. Senate, he explained why our national forests are in grave danger, and why it is important to pass The Act to Save America's Forests into law.

Join Dr. Wilson in his fight to protect wild biodiversity

Send a free, instant letter telling Congress to pass
the Act to Save America's Forests

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..
Dr. E.O. Wilson

Slide show, delivered by
E. O. Wilson, Ph.D.
April 28, 1998
U.S. Capitol
Washington, DC

"It is critically important the Act to Save America's Forests be passed into law as soon as possible. The Act is essential to protect the forests and biodiversity of America, and will prevent countless plants and animal species from going extinct."

Listen to Radio Interview
with Dr. E.O. Wilson

Biography Of
Dr. E.O. Wilson

Read E.O. Wilson Letter to President Clinton to Create Siskiyou Wild River National Monument

Read E.O. Wilson, Jane Goodall Letter to Protect Most Biodiverse Forest in the World, Yasuni National Park in Ecuador



Dr. Jane Goodall visited Congress to support the Act to Save America's Forests too!

Dr. Jane Goodall Lecture
Read transcript, pictures
See streaming video

 

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