The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Edward O. Wilson (1929–2021):
Reminiscences and a Tribute

The recent death of Edward O. Wilson, a preeminent evolutionary biologist who taught for 40 years at Harvard University, represents an enormous loss for science as well as for the cause of biological conservation he championed so passionately. Ed’s original contributions to evolutionary biology were legion and included, most notably, his groundbreaking research and ideas about island biogeography and his seminal role in launching the discipline of sociobiology, which he did in 1975 with publication of his controversial book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Two of Ed’s books, On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990) — the latter written in collaboration with entomologist Bert Hölldobler — won Pulitzer Prizes. Many of his other publications, some of which were intended for the general reader and became bestsellers, set forth Ed’s ideas about biological diversity and the need for its conservation. His innovative career was a source of inspiration to all who knew him, as well as to the huge number of people, scientists and nonscientists alike, who read his many brilliant and wide-ranging books.

When I first learned of Ed’s death I felt a deep sense of personal loss given his extensive influence on my own life and academic career. As a Junior at Harvard I took Ed’s course in evolutionary biology. It was electrifying. In at least one of his lectures he talked about his repeated dreams of visiting oceanic islands and what exciting places for biological research they could be. His descriptions of his dreams, and the lectures he gave about such islands and their various exotic species, were beyond infectious. A crucial element in their magic was Ed’s captivating eloquence, a use of language that bordered on poetry.

One day after class I approached Ed about my idea of writing a Senior Honors Thesis on Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle. His immediate advice was “go to the Galápagos Islands.” He was so enthusiastic about such an expedition that he became my first donor, offering to contribute the equivalent of $3,000 in today’s currency to support the eight-person Harvard-Darwin Film Expedition that I then proceeded to organize. The expedition ultimately required my raising over $200,000 to cover our various travel and filming expenses, but the initial catalyst was Ed’s enthusiasm.

Over three months traversing South America, we followed key portions of Darwin’s route through Brazilian jungles, wind-blown channels of Tierra del Fuego, towering mounts in the Andes, and across rugged, starkly beautiful lava flows on the Galápagos Islands. Subsequently Ed incorporated some of our film footage of Darwin’s famous Galápagos finches in his course on evolutionary biology. Thereafter he continued to encourage me in various ways throughout my academic career, including nominating me without my prior knowledge for an award I received.

When I decided to return to the Galápagos Islands in 1970, it was Ed to whom I turned for help in recruiting several biologists who might be interested in studying various evolutionary aspects of these “enchanted islands” (as Herman Melville once called them). Although Ed had no formal obligation to assist me during my year as a Harvard Sheldon Travelling Fellow, he seized on my request as a great scientific opportunity, encouraging two undergraduates who were preparing to write Senior Honors Theses to take a semester off and join me. During this three-month expedition we also were accompanied by Bob Silberglied, then a graduate student at Harvard who specialized in entomology. Later on, Bob would earn appointment to Harvard’s faculty. As a result of his own research during our Galápagos expedition, Silberglied shed important light on the rapid dispersion of the introduced fire ant in the Galápagos (Wasmannia auropunctata). He documented the devastating effects this pest was having on the native insect fauna, and highlighted the need for quarantine procedures, which were eventually instituted. Bob also initiated a useful bibliography of the extensive scientific literature on these islands. Tragically, Bob died in an Air Florida crash into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., in January 1982, cutting short what was promising to be distinguished career in science.

The two Harvard undergraduates who joined me in this 1970 expedition, Robin Eckhardt and Rob Smith, both accomplished important scientific research during their explorations in the Galápagos, including work that helped to confirm some of Ed’s theories of island biogeography. Ed’s own 1967 book on this subject, The Theory of Island Biogeography (coauthored with ecologist Robert MacArthur), had made island biogeography a hot topic for research just prior to our own Galápagos visit, so we all felt we were on the cutting edge of exciting new scientific theory and research.

With Ed’s support and encouragement, my own first two trips to the Galápagos Islands initiated my career as a Darwin scholar, and later led to my growing interest in evolutionary psychology, of which Wilson was a pioneer. Later still, Ed’s influence helped me to transition to a series of collaborative studies dealing with the evolution and ecology of Darwin’s famous Galápagos finches, as well as to undertaking a long-term investigation of one of the more surprising ecological changes in the Galápagos that was precipitated by human colonization of these islands.

Ed was a remarkably open and kindly man who once began a letter to me with the words, “This will be my last communication unless you start addressing me as Ed.” (I had always previously addressed him as “Professor Wilson.”) He was also incredibly generous in offering to write blurbs for the books of other scholars, and he provided exceedingly positive endorsements for three of my own books. In writing such book endorsements, Ed had a knack for capturing the book’s essence with wonderfully poetic language that was both to the point and sometimes embarrassingly complimentary. (With characteristic enthusiasm, for example, he went so far as to describe my book Born to Rebel as “one of the most authoritative and important treatises in the history of the social science.”) The number of books that Ed endorsed was impressive, and I could never figure out how he had the time to write so many succinct gems of verbal eloquence.

I devoted a portion of my most recent book, Darwin and His Bears, to reviewing some of the highlights of Ed’s influential theories about island biogeography, and in particular how these theories can be applied to the Galápagos Islands. I was particularly glad to have the opportunity to dedicate this book to Ed before his death, and to pay tribute to him as someone whose deep love for the natural world and far-reaching understanding of its fundamental principles have enlightened us all. Among the 90 illustrations I drew for this book, my own favorite (and that of a number of other readers as well) is a drawing of Ed at the blackboard surrounded by some of his beloved ants, which I depicted as freely roaming about just as they used to do in his office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Included with this drawing (reproduced above) was a “To Do” list, which I tucked into the lower portion of the blackboard, and which hopefully gave Ed a few chuckles. The last item on this blackboard list included a playful reference to Ed’s 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which had argued for the importance of corroborating knowledge from multiple perspectives. This same “To Do” list also included a reminder to “Drop water balloons on Steve and Dick,” a reference to the misguided role that Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin played in leading the opposition to Ed’s pioneering 1975 book Sociobiology. Some of this vitriolic opposition went so far as to accuse Ed of being a genetic determinist in the tradition of racist eugenics policies of Nazi Germany — a preposterous misrepresentation of his ideas, but one that nevertheless stung deeply. At a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science where Ed was giving a talk, a demonstrator stormed the podium and dumped a pitcher of ice water on Ed’s head, chanting “Wilson, you’re all wet!” The hostility of his critics is now clearly apparent for what it was — partisan political outrage masquerading as legitimate scientific criticism.

Nearly half a century later, the study of animal behavior has been entirely reshaped by the pioneering ideas that Ed set forth in Sociobiology, despite the initial controversy over them. Sociobiology has not only invigorated the entire field of animal behavior, but it has become an important part of the core curriculum and research approach of almost every university biology department. Ed’s ideas have also played an instrumental role in the emergent field of evolutionary psychology, thus fulfilling Darwin’s famous statement in the final chapter of the Origin of Species that “psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” I consider myself incredibly lucky to have known such a towering figure in evolutionary biology, and to have been befriended and supported by him. END

About the Author

Frank J. Sulloway, PhD, is an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. His PhD is in the history of science from Harvard University (1978), and he is a MacArthur Fellow (1984). Dr. Sulloway has published extensively on the life and theories of Charles Darwin as well as on the evolution and ecology of Darwin’s iconic Galápagos finches. His book Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives (1996) was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is also the author of Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend (1979), which received the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society.

This article was published on January 7, 2022.

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