Edward O. Wilson, biologist known as ‘ant man,’ dead at 92


Edward O. Wilson, the pioneering Harvard biologist who argued for a new vision of human nature in Sociobiology and warned against the decline of ecosystems, has died. He was 92.

Wilson died on Dec. 26 in Burlington, Mass., according to an announcement posted Monday on the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation‘s website.

“It would be hard to understate Ed’s scientific achievements, but his impact extends to every facet of society. He was a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanize,” David J. Prend, chairman of the board of E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, said in a statement.

“He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human.”

Won two Pulitzers

The professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author first gained widespread attention for his 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which he spelled out the evidence suggesting a link between human behaviour and genetics. The work created a storm of controversy among activists and fellow academics who equated sociobiology’s groundbreaking theories with sexism, racism and Nazism.

More recently, Wilson has championed the importance of preserving diverse species and ecosystems.

“The diversity of life on Earth is far greater than even most biologists recognize,” he said in 1993.

Less than 10 per cent of the Earth’s species have scientific names, he said, making it “a still mostly unexplored planet.”

In 1979, On Human Nature — the third volume in a series including The Insect Societies and Sociobiology — earned Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize. His second Pulitzer came in 1991 with The Ants, which Wilson co-wrote with Harvard colleague Bert Holldobler.

Among his other honours was the 1990 Crafoord Prize in biosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the highest scientific award in the field. Time magazine named him one of America’s 25 most influential people in 1996.

Transformed the field

Wilson’s sociobiology theories transformed the field of biology and reignited the nature vs. nurture debate among scientists. Based on data about many species, Wilson argued that social behaviours from warfare to altruism had a genetic basis, an idea that contradicted the prevailing view that cultural and environmental factors determined human behaviour.

Critics argued that such a theory bolstered social injustice, including discrimination against women, by saying that the inequality is written in human genes. Fifteen Boston-area scholars joined in a letter denouncing it, and in one case protesters dumped a pitcher of ice water on Wilson’s head while he was speaking at a scientific meeting in 1978.

He didn’t think genes determine all human behaviour, but “in rough terms … maybe 10 per cent” of it.

LISTEN: What Edward O. Wilson thinks aliens will look like in the future:

Day 610:43Edward O. Wilson on what aliens will look like and why

Brent talks to world-renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson about new book, “The Meaning of Human Existence”, and finds out what he thinks aliens will look like in the future. 10:43

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