The Legacy of E.O. Wilson
by Jerry Alper
“Do you know who just died?” My wife stood nervously by the open bedroom door, a morning newspaper tucked under her arm.
She had to search her memory.
I sat up in bed. “Edward E.O. Wilson?”
On my nightstand were two of the latest Wilson books: Tales from the Ant World by E.O. Wilson and Scientist E.O. Wilson: A Life in Nature by Richard Rhodes.
Since 1975 I have been following E.O. Wilson. His landmark publication in 1975 of Sociobiology was nothing less than a revolutionary synthesis of natural history- including what had traditionally called humanities to be now subsumed under biology. Nothing like it had ever been attempted. The buzz that preceded the publication of the book seemed to grow by the day. Along with lab and field research, E.O. Wilson taught popular classes in biology at Harvard. The University awarded him tenure in 1958 at the young age of 29.
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis is a daunting book to read, at 697 pages of wide double columns, weighty with technical terms- literally weighty at more than 5 pounds. It is not a book easily summarized. As with the Insect Societies, only more compendiously, Wilson ranges across the entire literature of animal life up to the early 1970’s, looking for evidence of underlying patterns, and when he finds them, making connections himself, and noting lines of potential further research.
When his findings connect back to the invertebrates, as they often do, he brings in these linkages and parallels as well. This immense work of synthesis, according to Richard Rhodes, is comparable to Mendeleev’s work in the second half of the 19th century. Assembling the periodic table of the elements not only revealed the underlying relationships among the chemical elements, but also opened space for missing elements, which in time, led to their identification.
“There are an estimated 8.7 million known species of plants and animals on earth. Plus or minus 1.3 million of which 2.2 million are marine. Another estimated 86% of land species and 91% of ocean species remain to be described.
The time would come Wilson would organize a worldwide effort to remedy this neglect, for now, he was concerned to find the social commonalities among identified vertebrate species.
Early on in Sociobiology, Wilson tackles the seemingly intractable problem of classifications. “All previous attempts to classify animal societies have failed,” He flatly declares.
“Defining societies according to their traits has evidently led to a biological version of the universal conflict between lumpers and splitters: lumpers keep it simple, splitters compile long lists.”
Wilson’s predecessor, William Morten Wheeler, started with only 3 categories of social traits- active versus passive; primarily reproductive, nutritive or defensive; colonial or free ranging, and from these generated five basic kinds of animal societies. Now at the other extreme, the early 20th century German zoologist Paul Degino identified no fewer than 35 categories of traits.
Wilson’s impatient conclusion: “Classification based upon all relevant traits is a bottomless pit.”
The only way to avoid it, he writes, is to turn to the source qualities themselves — specific features rather than general characteristics and catalog them.
Wilson identifies 10 qualities of sociability as a starting point, all of them measurable. They range from group size, to how populations are distributed, to how close members are to one another, to how open or closed the society is to immigration, to how specialized the roles are that its members assume, to how much time members devote to social behavior (lemurs, he writes, are an only marginally social species, about 10%, to makaques, 82%-90%).
These ten qualities serve as Wilson’s tool kit for his extended exploration of vertebrate sociobiology.
Less than 30 pages along in Sociobiology, he emphasizes the importance of developing testable theories, which suggests how much he judged needed to be done to advance evolutionary biology. From natural history, to real science, “The Goal of investigation should be not to advocate the simplest explanation but rather to enumerate all of the possible explanations, and then to devise tests to eliminate some of them.” “Not quick and elegant laboratory experiments,” he adds, implicitly side-swiping the molecular biologists, “but long hard field work.”
For one example of what he means, he cites an analysis of the courtship displays of the golden eyed-duck in which researchers recorded 22,000 feet of film of field observations compiling from it a list of recorded displays and measuring duration of these displays.
The German field biologist George Schaller continues this example in a 3½ year study of the Serengeti Lions “I spent 2900 hours and traveled 149,000km locating and monitoring several prides of lions on a daily basis.”
In 1976, Wilson was awarded a National Medal for Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. One of fifteen recipients, he received the reward from President Jimmy Carter: Wilson’s award citations credited him for “his pioneering work on the organization of insect societies and the evolution of social behavior among insects and other animals”
In Wilson’s view, the award was “one important factor in the fading away of public controversy of sociobiology as the 70s wound down.” Another was the success of his book On Human Nature published in 1978- Wilson’s first Pulitzer, but not his last.
Then something nobody saw coming happened, Wilson reluctantly agreed to appear as a final speaker in a full two day-program: Beyond Nature Nurture: The purpose of the meeting assembled by Chagnon (a famous and controversial anthropologist) had been to quell the mounting resentment against the emerging sociobiology. But Chagnon had noticed that the first two rows nearest to the podium were filled with mostly sullen looking young men who showed no signs of interest in the papers. All the presenters for and against (Steven J. Gould among them) were seated in a line in chairs on stage divided by a central podium. As the meeting progressed, detractors in the audience challenged the speakers, including both Bill Hamilton and the British ethologist Richard Dawkins, whose popular book, The Selfish Gene had been published less than two years earlier. Hamilton responded solemnly, and somewhat shyly. Dawkins climbed up on his chair, Chagnon writes, and delivered from that commanding position, well considered and highly informed responses to the criticism of his work.”
Then it was Wilson’s turn. He had come to the meeting at a physical disadvantage on crutches, with a cast on his right ankle, from a fall he had taken on black ice while jogging in Cambridge only two weeks before. He stayed seated as he began to talk (he could not easily have stood up)
This was the (prearranged moment) when “the sullen looking young men and women in the front rows of the audience immediately rushed the stage shouting slogans and insults, including one of their favorites “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with Genocide.””
Wilson had been cautioned before the sessions began that the same International Committee Against Racism that had harassed Wilson in Harvard Square was planning a demonstration. Two IN.C.A.R. members passed out protest leaflets, refusing to give one to Wilson. The group was known for violent actions, and here they were.
About 8 IN.C.A.R. men and women, Wilson estimates, lined up behind the row of presenters. “Several held up anti-sociobiology placards, on at least one of them there was painted a swastika.” Their leader strode to the lectern to take the microphone, Chagnon remembers the moderator, Alexander Alland, a Columbia University Anthropologist, “Shouting “Please, stop! Please, stop! I’m one of you people! I’m also a Marxist! This is unacceptable!””
Chagnon, who was also trying to push forward through the crowd of fleeing audience members to go to Wilson’s aid, adds “Maybe Marxists had some kind of secret code I didn’t know about, but it didn’t work. The Marxists continued to attack Wilson. It was the most hateful, frightening, disgusting behavior I had ever witnessed at an academic assembly.”
At a prearranged moment, a young woman sitting directly behind Wilson, stood up and poured a pitcher of ice cold water on Wilson’s head.
History, it is said, is written by the winners. In hindsight, few people today remember or talk about the nature/nurture firestorm that greeted the publication of Sociobiology: a New Synthesis, by E.O. Wilson in 1972. The book, almost single-handedly, created a new evolutionary science.
In 2000, just before the new Millennium got started, a panel of world renowned scholars voted the book, the single most important book on animal behavior ever written.” (Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Humans and Animals came in second.) Looking back with manifest pride, Wilson commented “I think I won that battle hands down.”
But Wilson didn’t just look back. He wrote hundreds of scientific papers. He won the prestigious Crawford Prize. Between 1975 and today, he published four books including the Pulitzer prize winning On Human Nature. He published, in 1978, with co-author Burt Holdobbler, what is perhaps the greatest book ever written on ants — at 740 pages, it’s called, simply, Ants.
Astonishingly, the book won a second Pulitzer Prize: this time, not for science, but for literature. (Disclosure: to my knowledge, no other scientific book ever written has won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature), but as Richard Rhodes, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner, (for the Making of the Atomic Bomb) and one of the three judges charged with adjudicating who of the three finalists would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize later commented, “People thought it odd that a man considered the greatest ant specialist on the planet should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.”
But I didn’t. From the first page that I read by Wilson, I was deeply impressed by the sweep and power of his style. It was a book, it seemed to me, like I had never read before. I didn’t mind spending over $100.00 for a book that had no practical value whatsoever for me. I took pride in the fact that (as I estimated) less than 1 person in perhaps 1 million would read even one page of it: That I would most likely never meet a single person in the world with whom I could discuss a single page of the book (a premonition which has held firm for the past fifty years).
In spite of which, the book would be an instant classic, destined to take its place with iconic synthesis of evolutionary biology such as the great Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought.)
What I liked best about this book was the heroic, fearless, grandeur of his ambition. He was starting at the bottom, staking his claim on a creature whose brain was thousands of times smaller than our own, searching for something that might lead to the holy grail of human eusocial life. It was a gamble almost no young scientist would take, that Wilson not only undertook, he embraced. To my (then) romantic, untutored mind, it was like the scientific equivalent of someone setting out to paint the Sistine ceiling or to compose Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Bear in mind, Wilson came from extraordinarily humble beginnings. Here’s how Rhodes, early on, introduces his protagonist to the reader: “Finally Ed Wilson was on his way, 25 years old, tall and lanky, the upper range of his hearing gone since his teens, his right eye ruined in a childhood accident: half deaf and half blind. Outwardly, he was a polite, soft-spoken product of gulf-coast Alabama, the first in his family to graduate from College. But behind the well -mannered finish, he was as tough as nails, as bright as the evening star, and no man’s fool. He would become one of a half dozen greatest biologists of the 20th century.
In the new century now advancing, he would lead the charge to save what’s left of wilderness- half the earth, he said, not only for the experiences of wilderness, but also for the millions of species large and small, many of them not yet even named, in danger of going extinct forever.
Now, fast forward 50 years to the 21st century. Wilson is the author of 34 books and more than 433 scientific papers. With Sociobiology, however controversial, he founded a new field of scientific research. He has received more than 45 honorary degrees internationally and more than 150 awards and medals. He is a member, honorary member, or foreign member, of more than 35 scientific organizations and societies, ranging from the Royal Society to the Worldwide Dragon Associates to the Explorers Club. “I wrote the biography in part,“ says Richard Rhodes, “Because I saw in Wilson a quality rare among human beings: he has never stopped growing in knowledge or expanding in range.”
When I began investigating Wilson’s life, I discovered I wasn’t the first to think so. Nicholas Wade, the New York Times science writer, commented on Wilson’s unusual capacity for growth. In a profile published back in 1990, “In an alternative life, Dr. Wilson might have been an obscure expert on the ants of Alabama, his home state. But at each stage of his career, he has looked outward, trying to see how the scholarly patch he had cultivated, might fit into some larger scheme of things. And because so few scholars dare to explore beyond the boundaries of their own narrow fields, Wilson has produced an original work of synthesis time after time.”
The Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentaimihalyi examines the lifelong creative growth of a number of scientists, Wilson among them, in his 1996 book: Creativity: the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, for which he interviewed Wilson at length for this profile. That was around the time when Wilson was writing Consilience, still focused on the problem of how to unify science and the humanities, but now without the condescension that had marred his introduction of Sociobiology. “I see a picture forming” Wilson told Csikszentaimihalyi, “one in which I would pay a great deal more attention to use “the biologist’s approach” to “winnow and reanneal the elements of the social scientists that I think are required to create a consilience between those fields of biology.”
From the beginning, Csikszentaimihalyi moved on to ask about Wilson’s development as a scientist. Wilson responded, frankly acknowledging two fundamental motivations: his love of his field- and how “I could happily spend 360 out of 365 days in the rainforest and in my library,” and his lifetime of driving ambition. “The other thing,” he said, of that motivation, is “insecurity, ambition, a desire to control. A scientist- and this is a risky thing for me to confess, wishes to control, and the way to control is to create knowledge and have ownership of it.”
At that time of his life- on the verge of retiring from Harvard, a significant transition — Wilson attributed his lifelong growth to that desire to control. “I want to feel that I am in control, that I cannot be driven out of it, that I cannot be stopped, that I will be well-regarded for being in it, and that entails control, and control means ambition. It means constantly extending one’s reach, renewing, extending, innovating.”
Disclosure: I have never met or had any contact with either Richard Rhodes or Edward Wilson. Scientist: The Legacy of E.O.Wilson: A Life in Nature, is the first and only book I’ve read by Richard Rhodes. On the basis of that alone, I do not hesitate to say that I consider him one of the greatest science writers (on many levels) that ever lived.
I hope I have made it clear that in my private hall of fame of great thinkers and writers who have not only shaped the way we think about the universe, but have made an indelible impression on me, Wilson at the top.
Gerald Alper is the author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient: Psychodynamic Studies of the Creative Personality. His new book is God and Therapy: What We Believe When No One is Watching