Sunday, February 28, 2021


Edward O. Wilson (1929–2021)
From Edward O. Wilson: Biophilia, The Diversity of Life, Naturalist

“View of Krakatoa during the Earlier State of the Eruption, from a photograph taken on Sunday, the 27th of May, 1883.” Parker and Coward, lithographers. Chromolithographic plate from The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena, 1888, edited by George James Symonds and published by the Royal Society, Great Britain. Click on image to see the full plate. Houghton Library via WikiCommons.
While he was writing his 1994 memoir Naturalist, Edward O. Wilson found in his “dusty files” a letter sent on February 2, 1940, from his fifth-grade teacher to his parents. “Ed has genuine writing ability, and when he combines this with his great knowledge of insects, he produces fine results.” David Quammen, in his introduction to the Library of America volume collecting three of Wilson’s books, remarks, “That’s probably far more prophetic than anything your fifth-grade teacher or mine ever said about us.”

It didn’t take long for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Within two years, only twelve years old yet already determined to become an entomologist, Wilson was watching and collecting ants in a vacant lot next to his home in Mobile, Alabama. Among the species he observed was one that (he would later learn) had been accidentally imported from South America through the port of Mobile only a few years earlier and that would subsequently cause billions of dollars in damages to both rural and urban areas, from livestock and soybean fields to driveway pavements and electrical wiring. His early observations of the red imported fire ant, as the notorious pest came to be known, would prove to be among the first in the United States. “I was later to publish it as a datum in a technical article, my first scientific observation,” he noted, referring to “A Report on the Imported Fire Ant Solenopsis saevissima var. richteri in Alabama,” which he cowrote for the Alabama Department of Conservation in 1949, when he was a still an undergraduate.

“Wilson has delivered staggering insights on the average of one a decade,” wrote Bill McKibben in 2008, when he included one of the naturalist’s essays in the anthology American Earth:
In the 1960s, he and Robert MacArthur coined the phrase “island biogeography” to explain the effects of habitat size and isolation on extinction rates, work that is now a key tool in conservation planning. In the 1970s, he coined the term “sociobiology” to argue for a strong genetic role in human behavior, an idea that offended left-wing orthodoxies of the time (his classes at Harvard were routinely interrupted by protesters), but that won him the Pulitzer Prize for On Human Nature (1979). In 1984 his book Biophilia proposed that humans had an innate affection for other living systems, deeply rooted in our biology. . . . As his academic fame grew, he used it tirelessly to advocate for conservation, especially a strategy for protecting “hotspots” around the tropics that were particularly rich in diverse species. And in recent years he has worked hard to bridge the divide between science and religion, arguing for a common interest in the protection of creation.
One of the locations that played an outsized role in the development of Wilson and MacArthur’s “theory of island biogeography” was the island of Krakatau (commonly known as Krakatoa). The two scientists had come up with a model to estimate the number of species and the extinction rate of an isolated habitat based on its size and distance from other habitats, and they realized that Krakatua could provide them with the first test. After the island famously self-destructed from volcanic eruption in 1883, Dutch scientific expeditions gathered data from the ash-covered remnant for half a century, and in the 1960s the two biologists used the data to confirm their findings. “We got Krakatoa’s area and fitted it on our own curve relating area to species,” Wilson recalls in his 1984 book Biophilia. “Krakatoa should have 30 bird species at equilibrium. The Dutch surveys indicated that it reached about 90 percent of that number in 30 years.” The old reports also confirmed a high extinction rate as new species arrived and took over—although not as high as Wilson and MacArthur’s calculations had forecast.

Wilson then decided to find—and ultimately to create—a “series of little Krakataus” where he could expand upon and refine the findings; later, other scientists began to develop more elaborate models for lakes, coral reefs, and even parks. “It was all very exciting,” he writes, “but the first models that MacArthur and I had fashioned were too crude to fit these additional cases.” Before long the field, “which continues to broaden and shift each year,” moved beyond the work of their original models and the “surviving fragments” have been absorbed into the work of subsequent generations of biologists. “That is the way of science,” write Wilson. “The scientist may think like a poet, but the products of his imagination are seldom preserved in their original state.”

In the fascinating chapter on Krakatau in The Diversity of Life (1992), which we present as our Story of the Week selection, Wilson sets aside the island’s role in his own groundbreaking research and instead presents a history of the 1883 eruption and of the reappearance of life on both the remnant island Rakata and the “new” island Anak Krakatau, which emerged from the sea in 1930.

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Krakatau, earlier misnamed Krakatoa, an island the size of Manhattan located midway in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, came to an end on Monday morning, August 27, 1883. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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