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E. O. Wilson

Edward Osborne Wilson

BornJune 10 1929 (1929-06-10) (age 83)
Birmingham, Alabama U.S.

Edward Osborne Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism).

Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his scientific humanist ideas concerned with religious, moral, and ethical matters.[1] As of 2007, he was the Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.



Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.. According to his autobiography Naturalist, he grew up in Washington, D.C. and in the countryside around Mobile, Alabama. From an early age, he was interested in natural history. His parents, Edward and Inez Wilson, divorced when he was seven, and in the same year he damaged his eye in a fishing accident. The young naturalist grew up in several cities and towns, moving around with his father and his stepmother, Pearl. His reduced ability to observe mammals and birds led him to concentrate on insects. At nine, Wilson undertook his first expeditions at Rock Creek Park. At the age of 16, intent on becoming an entomologist, he began by collecting flies, but the shortage of insect pins caused by World War II caused him to switch to ants, which could be stored in vials. With the encouragement of Marion R. Smith, a myrmecologist from the National Museum of Natural History, the youthful Wilson began a survey of all the ants of Alabama.

Fearing that he would not be able to afford university, Wilson attempted to enlist in the United States Army. His plan was to secure government financial support for his education, but he failed his medical exam due to his impaired eyesight. Wilson was able to enroll in college because the University of Alabama was open to all graduates of Alabama's public high school system, and had affordable fees. Wilson graduated (B.S. and M.S.) from University of Alabama (Phi Beta Kappa) and received a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He received a D.Sc. from Bates College in 1996, and has received other honorary degrees from various colleges and universities.

Theories and beliefs


Wilson defined sociobiology as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." By applying evolutionary principles to understanding the social behavior of animals, including humans, Wilson established sociobiology as a new scientific field. He argued that all animal behavior, even that of humans, is influenced by genes and never entirely of free will. He called this concept the "genetic leash."[2] The sociobiological view is that all animal social behavior is governed by epigenetic rules worked out by the laws of evolution. This theory and research proved to be seminal, controversial, and influential.[3]

The controversy of sociobiological research is in how it applies to humans. The theory established a scientific argument for rejecting the common doctrine of tabula rasa, which holds that human beings were born without any innate mental content and that culture functioned to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success. In the final chapter of the book Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argued that the human mind was shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it was by culture (if not more). There were limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors could have in altering human behavior.


In his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Wilson discusses methods that have been used to unite the sciences, and might be able to unite the sciences with the humanities. Wilson prefers and uses the term consilience to describe the synthesis of knowledge from different specialized fields of human endeavor. He defines human nature as a collection of epigenetic rules; the genetic patterns of mental development. He argues that culture and rituals are products, not parts, of human nature. He says art is not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. He argues that concepts such as art appreciation, fear of snakes, or the incest taboo (Westermarck effect) can be studied using scientific methods. Previously, these phenomena were only part of psychological, sociological or anthropological studies. Wilson proposes that they can be part of interdisciplinary research.

Scientific humanism

Wilson coined the phrase scientific humanism as "the only worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature". [4] Wilson argues that it is best suited to improve the human condition.

God and religion

On the question of God, Wilson has described his position as provisional deism.[5] He has explained his faith as a trajectory away from traditional beliefs: "I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist no more."[2] Wilson argues that the belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution.[6] He argues that they should not be rejected or dismissed, but further investigated by science to better understand their significance to human nature. In his book The Creation, Wilson makes a case for putting aside epistemological differences between religion and science and concentrating on what they have in common; namely, living nature.

The Unit and Target of Selection

Wilson has argued that the "unit of selection is a gene, the basic element of heredity. The target of selection is normally the individual who carries an ensemble of genes of certain kinds." With regards to the use kin selection in explaining the behavior of eusocial insects, Wilson said to Discover magazine, the "new view that I'm proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin."[7]


Wilson has studied the mass extinctions of the 20th century and their relationship to modern society, arguing strongly for an ecological approach:

Now when you cut a forest, an ancient forest in particular, you are not just removing a lot of big trees and a few birds fluttering around in the canopy. You are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you. The number of these species may go to tens of thousands. ... Many of them are still unknown to science, and science has not yet discovered the key role undoubtedly played in the maintenance of that ecosystem, as in the case of fungi, microorganisms, and many of the insects. (E. O. Wilson, 2000)

His understanding of the scale of the extinction crisis has led him to advocate a number of strategies for forest protection, including the Forests Now Declaration, which calls for new markets-based mechanisms to protect tropical forests.


Several of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, were vehemently opposed to his ideas regarding sociobiology. Marshall Sahlins's work The Use and Abuse of Biology was a direct criticism of Wilson's theories.

Wilson's sociobiological ideas have offended some liberals and conservatives, who both favored the idea that human behavior was culturally based. Sociobiology re-ignited the nature versus nurture debate, and Wilson's scientific perspective on human nature led to public debate. He was accused of racism, misogyny, and eugenics.[8] In one incident, members of the International Committee Against Racism (a group connected to a left-wing organization Science for the People) poured a pitcher of water on Wilson's head and chanted "Wilson, you're all wet" at a conference in 1978.[9]

Awards and honors

Wilson's scientific and conservation honors include:

  • Eagle Scout, Boy Scouts of America[10]
  • Distinguished Eagle Scout Award[11]
  • Member, National Academy of Sciences, 1969
  • U.S. National Medal of Science, 1976
  • Pulitzer Prize for On Human Nature, 1979
  • Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, 1984
  • ECI Prize, International Ecology Institute, terrestrial ecology, 1987
  • Crafoord Prize, 1990, a prize awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in certain sciences not covered by the Nobel Prize, and therefore considered the highest award given in the field of ecology
  • Pulitzer Prize for The Ants (with Bert Hölldobler), 1991
  • Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science 1994
  • Time Magazine's 25 Most Influential People in America, 1995
  • Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, 2000
  • Nierenberg Prize, 2001
  • Dauphin Island Sea Lab christened its newest research vessel the R/V E.O. Wilson in 2005.
  • TED Prize 2007 given yearly to honor a maximum of three individuals who have shown that they can, in some way, positively impact life on this planet.
  • XIX Premi Internacional Catalunya 2007
  • Member of the World Knowledge DialogueHonorary Board, and Scientist in Residence for the 2008 symposium organized in Crans-Montana (Switzerland).

Main works

  • The Theory of Island Biogeography, 1967, Princeton University Press (2001 reprint), ISBN 0-691-08836-5, with Robert H. MacArthur
  • Insect Societies, 1971, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-45490-1
  • Sociobiology: The New Synthesis 1975, Belknap Press, ISBN 0-674-81621-8 (Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition, 2000 ISBN 0-674-00089-7)
  • On Human Nature, 1979, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-63441-1, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • Genes, Mind and Culture: The coevolutionary process, 1981, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-34475-8
  • Promethean fire: reflections on the origin of mind, 1983, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-71445-8
  • Biophilia, 1984, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-07441-6
  • Success and Dominance in Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects, 1990, Inter-Research, ISSN 0932-2205
  • The Ants, 1990, Belknap Press, ISBN 0-674-04075-9, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, with Bert Hölldobler
  • The Diversity of Life, 1992, Belknap Press, ISBN 0-674-21298-3
  • The Biophilia Hypothesis, 1993, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1-55963-148-1, with Stephen R. Kellert
  • Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, 1994, Belknap Press, ISBN 0-674-48525-4, with Bert Hölldobler
  • Naturalist, 1994, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1-55963-288-7
  • In Search of Nature, 1996, Shearwater Books, ISBN 1-55963-215-1, with Laura Simonds Southworth
  • Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998, Knopf, ISBN 0-679-45077-7
  • The Future of Life, 2002, Knopf, ISBN 0-679-45078-5
  • Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus, 2003, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-00293-8
  • From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. 2005, W. W. Norton.
  • The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, September 2006, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0393062175
  • Nature Revealed: Selected Writings 1949-2006, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-8329-6

See also


  • "E.O. Wilson Profile" - Comprehensive list of Degrees, Awards and Positions


  • "On the Relation of Science and Humanities" - lecture at Harvard@Home
  • "From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin" - lecture at BookTV
  • Appearance on Charlie Rose - interviewed with James D. Watson
  • Appearance on - interview by Robert Wright
  • Ubben Lecture at DePauw University
  • E. O. Wilson Charlie Rose complete interviews
  • E.O. Wilson: TED Prize wish: Help build the Encyclopedia of Life TED, March 2007, on the Encyclopedia of Life
  • Appearance on NOVA's Little Creatures Who Run the World, 1997


  • Living in Shimmering Disequilibrium - interview by Fred Branfman (Salon)
  • Karl Marx was right, it is just that he had the wrong species - interview by Frans Roes (Speak, Darwinists!)
  • E.O. Wilson - interview by Paul D. Thacker (BioMedNet)
  • City Arts & Lectures, 2006/10/10


  • Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died - essay by Tom Wolfe (Forbes, 1996)
  • Darwin's natural heir: Profile - essay by Ed Douglas (The Guardian, 2001)
  • The Ant King's Latest Mission: Profile - essay by Robin McKie (GuardianUnlimited, 2006)
  • Editorial on Sustainability e-Journal - essay by E.O. Wilson (Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy, 2005)


  • Science and Ideology (1995)
  • Kin Selection as the Key to Altruism: Its Rise and Fall (2005)
  • Letter to a Southern Baptist Minister (Excerpt from The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth). (2006)


  • Success and Dominance in Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects (1987), available as free download.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "E._O._Wilson". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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