Remembering  E.O. Wilson (1929-2021)


Wisdom, as defined by Bertrand Russell, is the ability to give objects of knowledge their proper due. As knowledge increases, wisdom can help us build perspectives and choose how to act. What defines importance? If objects have importance, which objects are more important than others? What separates the important from the unimportant? It is in this domain, of knowledge and wisdom, that  the life of E.O. Wilson shines bright. Over the last half century, Wilson refined and published his views on the meaning of life, nature, man, insects and ethics. He did this with a style that put into place the totality of human activities. His comprehensive view often focused upon the importance of the group, in both society and the environment, as well as the importance of biodiversity conservation.

Wilson’s path brought him to study nature, science and humanity from an often-unobstructed perspective. As an armchair reader of his writings, I believe that fate granted him a set of fortuitous blessings. Firstly, he seems to have been led by an honest desire for understanding. This may have helped to steer his views towards a path of objective inquiry. Secondly, he was granted a long and healthy life. Some of his later writings, including Letters to a Young Scientist, illustrate these dimensions of his personality, as did his excursions as a youth naturalist, hunting for snakes, snails and insects in Alabama. His entomologic excursions into his eighth decade showed the same. Letters to a Young Scientist itself, written in 2013 when E.O. Wilson was 84, is a forceful outpouring of these dimensions from an experienced scientist imparting wisdom to an uncertain, but optimistic future.

His fortune shone bright as a youth in Alabama, where he discovered the first fire ant colony in the United States. The ant’s rapid and invasive expansion from the Port of Mobile to the entirety of the Southern United States was a big occurrence, both ecologically and as an idea in the public’s understanding of the natural environment. This fate-bound event was contingent on young Ed Wilson being a keen naturalist, but was mainly dependent on him being in the right place, at the right time. It was only at that specific moment near the Port of Mobile where an enterprising naturalist could discover a new invasive species as important as the fire ant. Ed’s luck was off to a fine start and received another boost from Marion Smith at the National Museum of Natural History. With Marion, Wilson shared his amateur taxonomic work and received plentiful and positive professional encouragement. In Naturalist, Wilson’s autobiography, he writes, “I was exhilarated by the successes of my early fire ant research. I found that the vagrant learning of my boyhood could be focused in a way that was of interest and practical use to the public. The self-confidence I acquired helped to carry me through the critical years of intellectual growth and testing ahead.” In a similar vein of reflection, while in his 80s, Wilson wrote that original discoveries in science are not just what counts, but the only thing that counts. For a youth, discovery of the fire ant surely counted.

Following his early youth naturalism, Wilson, mostly blind in one eye and somewhat deaf in one ear, focused his studies on entomology. After graduating from the University of Alabama, he moved on to Harvard and began a period of research. He traveled the globe, studying the insects of New Caledonia, Trinidad, Guyana, New Guinea, the New Hebrides, Fiji and Cuba. He looked at his research with two lenses, one entomological and the other general, analyzing overall the composition of species and their interactions. At the time, Wilson’s copious field notes contained charts and tables that analyzed the number of species on the islands he visited and the size of the landmass. Wilson soon partnered with Robert MacArthur to write the Theory of Island Biogeography, which solidified Wilson’s academic reputation and is largely viewed as a classic work of ecology, biogeography and conservation biology. The theory views life on islands reaching an equilibrium due to the size of the landmass and distance to a mainland, ideas that Wilson was playing with in his in field notebook. Wilson viewed his role as the gatherer of information and harnesser of intuition, developed from years of scientific learnings. With this feedstock, Wilson and the gifted MacArthur fashioned these ideas into a coherent, calculated theory.

During and after his prestigious academic career, Wilson continued his research and science, but also wrote a series of influential popular books. These writings included Sociobiology, Consilience, Biophilia and Superorganism. These and other titles won many awards and were frequently best-sellers. Unlike the writings that earned him accolades, however, Sociobiology was a particular recipient of vitriol, due to Wilson’s attempts to analyze the biological origins of social behavior. This analysis was met by critiques of racism, culminating in protests that on one occasion included a disgruntled activist pouring water on Wilson’s head while he gave a talk in Washington D.C.  Wilson also raised controversy with his criticism of inclusive fitness and kin selection,  favored theories of some evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins.

One of Wilson’s later books, The Social Conquest of Earth, opens with a dramatic account of the final days of the artist Paul Gauguin, who contemplated suicide while  suffering  from acute syphillus and mourning the death of his daughter, but overcame these trials to produce his masterpiece painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Wilson believes that scientific advances over the past two decades have enabled us to finally address the majestic questions posed by Gauguin. Wilson’s life had led him from the swamps of Mobile, hunting for snakes and showing them to his friends, to attempting to answer the grand questions of human existence and the fate of the planet.

To start his final explorations, Wilson hones in on two factors: group selection and biodiversity. If we want to address the questions of Gauguin, we must understand the driving forces in social life for all animals, not only humans, and how the evolution of social life occurred in animals, as a whole. Luckily for Wilson his chosen species, technically in taxonomic terms the family Formicidae, has been the lowly ant, which has enabled him to analyze group selection from sound footing. Through his writings, one consistent pattern Wilson sees is the dominance of all terrestrial environments by the most highly social species, ants and humans. In an interesting coincidence, Wilson estimates the weight of all ants on Earth to be roughly equal to the weight of all living humans.

Also in The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson defines eusociality, the most complex of social systems, as occurring when a group protects a nest, multiple generations live at the nest and there is an altruistic division of labor. Specifically, altruistic division of labor could occur when members of a group protect the nest instead of hunting, but in general it means that individuals sacrifice for the betterment of the group. Eusociality is rare, occurring in only 15 out of 2600 insect and arthropod species. It only evolved once in ants and three times in wasps. In mammals, it occurs only in humans and naked mole rats, but is nearly approached by wild canines.

When species begin acting in a eusocial manner, a new form of evolution kicks into gear — group selection. It is group selection that Wilson believes can be used to help answer the fundamental questions of Gauguin. Group selection happens when groups of individuals are pitted against other groups of individuals. If one group is more successful than another group, the more successful group will spread its genes. Wilson describes his iron rule of group selection as such: groups of altruistic individuals outcompete groups of selfish individuals, while selfish individuals outcompete altruistic individuals. In order to understand human behavior, we must also understand the dynamics of groups and the dynamics of individuals, or we may simply fail to understand its schemes.

Wilson believes the most interesting questions of science, art and the humanities occur at the nexus of individual and group selection, when the individual is pitted against the group, and vice versa. This duality, inherent in human evolution, expresses itself in what we find beautiful ethically,  and physiologically. This view forms the core of Wilson’s perspectives of art, science and society.

In Half-Earth, Wilson’s love of nature and biodiversity are shown to have very current relevance.. Wilson’s keen eye picks up that knowledge of species, while often overlooked by other disciplines like climate science, is key for our understanding of the earth and environment. Not ecosystems, which is a more theoretical and generalized layer, nor climate science, which may be important but not as foundational, but rather species and species interactions. Species comprise the earth, its trillions of bacteria playing unknown games and millions of insects decomposing detritus and recycling energies.

Wilson is concerned that we will lose too many species before we understand what they were and how they functioned on Earth. To name the loss in one area, since the industrial revolution, Wilson’s childhood home of the Mobile River Basin has lost 19 species of mussel and over 30 species of aquatic snail. While this loss may sound trite, we have nearly no clue how these species functioned in their habitats. Following the folly of extinction, another great folly, as he sees it, has been the push towards a new conservationism that protects habitat in practical ways, managing land for both the planet and for humans. Biodiversity in the service of man, an anthropocentric worldview adapting the plant for our use, Wilson views as foolish and evil, stemming from an inadequate grasp of earth’s biodiversity and conservation history. The crucial factor in the life and death of species is the amount of habitat without human influence. Sharing space with humans won’t cut it. Currently, wildlife reserves protect 15% of the earth’s land surface and 3% of oceans. Wilson postulates we must bring that number to 50% in order to save 80% of the species on earth.

Wilson believes it is the unfinished mission of science to understand the earth and how species evolved. A key part of this is understanding what life currently exists on earth, which we only have incomplete understanding. When thinking about those who make decisions and what we know of the planet, Wilson quotes Alexander Von Humbolt, “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” Wilson himself identified more than 450 species of insect new to science, and he notes an early advisor who believed a professional naturalist must know the names of 10,000 species to be considered proficient.

At all times we are surrounded by an invisible and deep web of life. In 1988 scientists first discovered the bacteria responsible for 20% to 40% of open ocean net primary productivity. Picozoa, tiny photosynthetic bacteria that may be the most common species in the ocean, were only discovered in 2013. Moving from the oceans, we know little about the truly monumental amount of bacteria that inhabit the earth’s crust, estimated to be roughly half of all microbial life on the planet, or in weight terms, equivalent to the weight of all terrestrial plants. If our understanding of viruses are also important, we know even less, because improvements in the tools of microscopic research are still needed.

The earth has near bottomless complexity, and we have incomplete data on species and species interactions. Even in highly studied areas, naturalists continually find something new. For example, the All-Taxa Biodiversity Initiative, begun in 1998, a volunteer and professional initiative to discover new species, has identified roughly 1000 new non-bacteria species in the already highly studied Great Smoky Mountains. Within this context, Wilson writes, “to those who believe they can fathom the workings of ecosystems with mathematical models of a handful of species, I say you live in a dream world.”

Bertrand Russell, when defining the spirit of the Greek mind in antiquity, the Athens of Pericles or the metaphysical energies of Parmenides, writes of disinterested inquiry, that the Greeks began to analyze the world from a new perspective, one more abstract, analytic and distant than what came before. Russell implies, but does not fully suggest, this is the ideal perspective for scientific and philosophical investigations. Remove your full set of emotions and follow the path of truth with a clear mind. Whether Ed Wilson truly took this perspective in his scientific endeavors, I couldn’t say. But in his writings for the broader public and lay enthusiasts like myself, it seems rather that it was a passionate interest that drove him to scientific and humanistic heights. A profound and earnest curiosity, whether exploring the iridescent forests of New Caledonia or hunting critters to show his friends, was the perspective that was distinctly Ed.

~ Sam Schrager ~