This week in science history: Sociobiology’s ant man is born
A childhood mishap led E.O.Wilson to both ants and the halls of Harvard. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
Edward O. Wilson was born on June 10, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, in the US south. At age seven he went to live with a family in Florida.
An entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama recounts an incident during this period that had a lasting effect on him. An accident while fishing damaged his right eye, resulting in permanent partial blindness. His vision impairment, and the onset of partial deafness during his adolescence, led him to focus on creatures he could pick up, hold between his thumb and forefinger, and inspect closely. He would, thus, become one of the world's foremost authorities on ants.
According to a 2011 profile of Wilson in The Atlantic magazine, “If one had to give E. O. Wilson a single label, evolutionary biologist would be as good as any. Sociobiologist, lifelong naturalist, prolific author, committed educator, and high-profile public intellectual might all also serve.
“But amidst his astonishing range and volume of intellectual output, Wilson’s reputation, and most of his big ideas, have been founded primarily on his study of ants, most famously his discoveries involving ant communication and the social organisation of ant communities.”
Wilson studied biology at the University of Alabama and received a doctorate in the discipline at Harvard University in 1955, the same year in which he completed his taxonomic analysis of the ant genus Lasius.
In collaboration with entomologist William L. Brown, he developed the concept of “character displacement”, which according to the journal Systematic Biology, is “the situation in which, when two species of animals overlap geographically, the differences between them are accentuated in the zone of sympatry and weakened or lost entirely in the parts of their ranges outside this zone. The characters involved in this dual divergence-convergence pattern may be morphological, ecological, behavioural, or physiological.”
In 1956, Wilson joined Harvard’s biology and zoology faculties.
While recognising the importance of his ant studies, a 2001 Guardian article says Wilson is most famous for the 1975 publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, “a work of deep insight that advanced evolutionary thinking and proved a Darwinian manifesto, describing social behaviour from the ants to humans”.
It was also interpreted by some as a work of racism and misogyny, that it suggested some human beings are genetically superior to others, echoing Nazi doctrines on eugenics.
As his viewpoints became better understood, Smithsonian.com reported in 2005, “theories he hailed as cornerstones of sociobiology have become powerful tools in the thriving young field of evolutionary psychology, the attempt to explain human emotions and thought patterns as genetically inherited adaptations.
Still going strong, Wilson remains on the faculty at Harvard, and heads up his own research organisation, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.