Sunday, January 30, 2022


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

Edward O. Wilson in his office at Harvard University. Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images.
Edward O. Wilson died last month, the day after Christmas, at the age of 92. A biologist who pioneered two new disciplines—island biogeography and sociobiology—and who “delivered staggering insights on the average of one a decade” (to quote Bill McKibben), Wilson was also one of the best science writers of the century. In the afterword to a 2006 edition of Naturalist, he explained that he began publishing books for the general public “because I had a talent for it, because well-wrought English prose had always inspired me, more even than music, and because I remained haunted by the cadences of the King James Bible and evangelical sermons of my childhood. A Southern writer had lived inside the biologist, growing impatient for release.” He is one of only two authors who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. (The other is Barbara W. Tuchman.)

Yet, for all his successes in so many spheres, he once told fellow scientist Martin E. Rice, “If I’m fortunate enough to get to heaven, I’ll tell St. Peter that I want my gravestone to read, ‘Edward O. Wilson—entomologist.’” Asked whether that would truly capture all his contributions to science, he responded:
I’ll leave that for others, but that certainly captures the core of my life’s commitment. I am always an entomologist and when I do reach that certain level of disability where I can’t go on expeditions anymore or do serious writing, I hope I can still see and hear and be ready to go out into the field even if it is just a short distance, just to find and collect insects and enjoy entomology.
When pressed by Rice to identify what fueled his “passion” for entomology, he replied, “from the very beginning it was the thrill of discovery. Even when I was just a little kid hunting for butterflies or a beginning graduate student going into the tropics for the first time, I was searching for rare or new kinds of insects, and to discover new and exciting things about them.”

Wilson, was famous, of course, as “The Ant Man,” a label he embraced. He identified and described hundreds of species of ants that had previously been uncatalogued by scientists. With each discovery came the privilege of naming it and, after a while, he was running out of ideas for names. In his talk with Rice, he recalled the time that he decided to name various species after eight members of the board of directors of Conservation International, an organization in which he was particularly active. For several years one of “one of the most effective and dedicated members of the board” was a famous Hollywood actor, and that is how one ant species came to be called Pheidole harrisonfordi. At the organization’s annual dinner, Wilson awarded his own drawings of each species to the various board members, but Harrison Ford was on location for a new movie. “When he learned that he was going to be presented with an ant named after him,” Wilson recalled, “he actually closed the studio—the whole production—for a couple of days. He got his plane—he is an excellent pilot—and he flew, in a storm no less, to Seattle to be present and get the drawing of his ant.”
Wilson with Methuselah, his pet Cuban anole, at
the Atkins Gardens near Cienfuegos, in July 1953.
In a 1957 scientific paper on the species
(Chamaeleolis chamaeleontides), he observed
that it “could be left on a laboratory table
without much danger of wandering away; it
would often remain in the same spot for hours
or even days without changing its position.”

During a career spanning more than seven decades, Edward O. Wilson never stopped looking for insects—and amplifying their importance in our natural world. “My intellectual journey gathered momentum in 1953 during a field trip to Cuba’s Sierra Trinidad, as I toiled up muddy roads in search of rain forest, past logging trucks on their way to Cienfuegos with the final fragments of the trees,” he wrote in his book The Diversity of Life. He describes that trip—and other early adventures as a Harvard graduate student—in “Orizaba,” a selection from his memoir Naturalist.

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Almost all my life I have dreamed of the tropics. My boyhood fantasies drifted far beyond the benign temperate zone of Thoreau and Muir. . . . 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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