Edward Osborne Wilson, more commonly known as E. O. Wilson, is an American biologist who is widely considered to be the world’s leading authority on ants. One of the leading figures in sociobiology, he is often dubbed as “the father of sociobiology”.
A notable author and researcher, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize twice; for his best seller book “On Human nature” and for his 1990 book “The Ants” which he co-authored with German entomologist Bert Hölldobler.
Early Life and Education:
Born in 1929 in Alabama, E. O. Wilson showed an interest in science from an early age. His mother was Inez Freeman and his father and namesake remarried when Edward was a young child. A fishing accident damaged his right eye when he was seven years old and so, enjoying the natural world, he took an interest in insects and butterflies as he still has good close up vision. On a trip to the Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC he became fascinated with citronella ants that were living in a rotting tree. From a young child, he always hoped to become a biologist.
After finishing high school, Wilson received his BS and MS degrees from the University of Alabama.
Contributions and Achievements:
Wilson earned his doctorate in biology from Harvard University in 1955, completing a thorough taxonomic analysis of the ant genus Lasius. The same year he married Irene Kelley. They had one daughter.
For the next forty years, from 1956 to 1996, Wilson worked for Harvard University, initially continuing his work as an ant taxonomist focusing on their evolution and how they develop into new species. Wilson discovered with mathematician William Bossert that ants communicate mainly through the transmission of chemical substances known as pheromones.
Wilson travelled around the world, principally to the American tropics, Australia, and the South Pacific, studying native ants and he gained the nickname “Dr. Ant.” He proposed the idea of a “taxon cycle” describing how ants adapt to poor habitats and colonize new areas. His 1971 book “The Insect Societies” was his definitive work on his ant and insect research.
In 1975 he extended his theories to cover all species and published the controversial book “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis”, a systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior. He proposed that human and animal behavior was conditioned by genes, the environment and past experiences and that free will was just an illusion. Wilson also suggested that it was possible for an altruistic trait to evolve through natural selection, proposing that the survival of a gene is more important that the survival of any particular individual (kin selection).
Teaming up with physicist Charles Lumsden in 1980, Wilson attempted to create mathematical models for the genetic evolution of culture.
He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his best seller book “On Human nature”. The book discussed the social behaviors of aggression, sexuality and ethics. He gained a second Pulitzer prize for his 1990 book “The Ants” which he co-authored with German entomologist Bert Hölldobler.
Wilson is also noted for his environmental advocacy, and his secular-humanist and deist ideas related to religious and ethical subjects.
His autobiography “Naturalist” was published in 1994.