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E. O. Wilson

On this date in 1929, Edward Osbourne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala. Wilson grew up in Alabama, north Florida and Washington D.C. As a child, he participated in the Boy Scouts and gained a great appreciation for the outdoors. He earned his B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Alabama, and in 1955 received his Ph.D. at Harvard. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1956. Left mostly blinded by a fishing accident as a child, Wilson's research focus has been in the field of myrmecology — the study of ants — which he says he chose because it's easy to look at an ant up close. Wilson has written several books about ants and other social insects, including The Insect Societies (1971) and The Ants (1990), co-written with Bert Holldobler, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. However, Wilson is perhaps best known for his intellectual syntheses, often connecting evolution and biology to ideas from 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, Wilson published Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, which connected ideas about the evolution of the behaviors of social insects with those of other animals, including humans. At the time, the idea that human behavior is genetically influenced was very controversial, and Wilson was publicly attacked as racist; however, the ideas that Wilson first propounded in Sociobiology and later in On Human Nature (1978) spawned the discipline of evolutionary psychology. While it was initially widely accepted with some enthusiasm, some aspects of EP research have become even more controversial and criticized than sociobiology, with the line between the two fields becoming more blurred. His first Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1979 for On Human Nature. Wilson has continued to be influential in the fields of conservation and ecology, as well as entomology, and writes and speaks about a wide range of scientific and intellectual topics.

Wilson's parents were Southern Baptists, though he was also raised by conservative Methodists. He was baptized at age 14. Wilson had abandoned his childhood Christianity before college, and now typically describes himself as a secular humanist. He is fascinated by the questions of the evolution of religion and religious emotions, such as the spiritual impulse in humans and the concept of the sacred. Wilson believes that these emotions and impulses should be used for humanist ends, for example that the environmental movement should work to view nature as in some sense sacred, and as a place with spiritual value within a wholly naturalistic framework. 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 (as no such Nobel Prize exists). He has received many awards for writing and achievement as well as honorary degrees over the course of his career. He was awarded the 2007 TED Prize. He lives with his wife, Renee, and has an adult daughter, Cathy. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Harvard.

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 to Esquire magazine, Jan. 5, 2009 

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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