E. O. Wilson

On this date in 1929, biologist and author Edward Osbourne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala. He earned his B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Alabama and a Ph.D. in 1955 from Harvard, the same year he married Irene Kelley. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1956. Left mostly blinded by a fishing accident as a child, his research focus was in the field of myrmecology, the study of ants. His books include The Insect Societies (1971) and The Ants (1990), co-written with Bert Holldobler, which won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Wilson's On Human Nature won a Pulitzer in 1979.

Wilson is perhaps best known for his intellectual syntheses, often connecting evolution and biology to other disciplines. His 1967 book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, which develops the mathematics of how species evolve in geographically small habitats, is influential in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. In 1975 he published Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, which connected the evolution of social insects with other animals, including humans. At the time, the idea that human behavior is genetically influenced was very controversial and Wilson was criticized as racist and sympathetic to eugenics. During a 1978 lecture he had a pitcher of water poured on his head while the attacker exclaimed, "Wilson, you're all wet."

Wilson expanded on the ideas propounded in Sociobiology in On Human Nature (1978), which spawned the discipline of evolutionary psychology. While initially widely accepted with some enthusiasm, some aspects of evolutionary psychology research became even more controversial than Sociobiology, with the line between the two fields becoming more blurred.

Wilson's parents were Southern Baptists though he was also raised by conservative Methodists. He abandoned Christianity before college, later describing himself as a "provisional deist" and agnostic. In On Human Nature, he argued that belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution. He has been honored by the American Humanist Association twice, in 1982 with the Distinguished Humanist prize and again in 1999 as the Humanist of the Year. In 1990, he was awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Science's Crafoord Prize in ecology, considered the field's highest honor.

Photo by Jim Harrison under CC 2.5

“If someone could actually prove scientifically that there is such a thing as a supernatural force, it would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. So the notion that somehow scientists are resisting it is ludicrous.”

—E.O. Wilson, Esquire magazine (Jan. 5, 2009)

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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