© 2012 Rick Friedman

 

By Dan Moreland

There are certain people who transcend their field of endeavor, impacting the broader culture through the sheer power of their intellect. Dr. Edward Osborne Wilson (1929-2021) was one such individual.

An Eagle Scout, pioneering scientist, evolutionary biologist and prolific author, Wilson bridged the academic and lay worlds, bringing science to the masses, much like contemporaries Jane Goodall, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

“It would be easy to underestimate Ed’s scientific achievements, but hard to overstate his impact, which extends to every facet of society,” observed David J. Prend, chairman of the board of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. “He was a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanize. He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human.”

It was a unique gift that allowed Wilson’s influence to extend well beyond the hallowed walls of Harvard University, where he served on the faculty for 40 years.

His fame reached its apex with the publication of such groundbreaking works as “On Human Nature” and “The Ants,” each earning him the coveted Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction 12 years apart, one of only two authors to do so in their lifetime. (The other was American historian Barbara W. Tuchman.)

A prodigious producer of compelling nonfiction, Wilson’s frequent presence on The New York Times bestseller list cemented his reputation as one of America’s most original thinkers, earning kudos from both the public and his colleagues in academia.

His fame also resulted in periodic pop culture references, like when SimAnt, an ant-themed video game in the popular Sim series — inspired by Wilson’s research — was introduced by Maxis in 1991. (See related article on page 122.) Or when a graphic novel of the scientist’s memoir, “Naturalist,” was adapted by best-selling comics writer Jim Ottaviani and illustrator C.M. Butzer in 2020, capturing the zeitgeist of the times.

In short, E.O. Wilson’s life was among the most productive of the 20th century, compared favorably with such transformative scientific figures throughout history as Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.

Yet Wilson’s humble beginnings growing up in a family of modest means in Birmingham, Ala., belied a career that would one day have global reach.

Creative Commons | Jim Harrison
E.O. Wilson in 2003.


A BRIEF BIO. E.O. Wilson was born on June 10, 1929. His mother, Inez Linnette Freeman, was a secretary. His father, Edward Osborne Wilson Sr., was a traveling auditor for the Depression-era Rural Electrification Administration, resulting in more than a dozen moves during his youth and making it difficult to form lasting relationships. They divorced when their son was 7.

An intellectually curious child who was solitary by nature, Wilson grew up exploring the fields of “America’s Amazon,” the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, laying the foundation for his lifelong love of insects. “Animals and plants I could count on,” Wilson wrote in his 1994 memoir “Naturalist.” “Human relationships were more difficult,” he said.

The trajectory of Wilson’s life was forever altered when a childhood fishing accident — which has become the stuff of legend — resulted in permanent damage to his right eye. The freak accident limited Wilson’s ability to see objects that were far away, but allowed him to see small objects, like insects, clearly thanks to 20/10 vision in his left eye.

“This event changed history as E.O. switched his interests from larger animals to insects, resulting in a spectacular career in entomology, especially myrmecology,” recalls Dr. Karen Vail, who had the unique experience of hearing the story first-hand while sharing a meal with Wilson and several colleagues during the scientist’s visit to the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture in 2014.

The experience prompted Wilson to become “an avid naturalist from a very early age,” Vail said. So early, in fact, that Wilson has been credited with discovering the first colony of imported fire ants, Solenopsis invicta, in the United States at the age of 13.

“Recognizing fire ants as an exotic invader, he notified the state authorities,” said Dr. Ed Vargo of Texas A&M University, a longtime admirer. The discovery proved to be an early harbinger of things to come.

Despite these early successes, however, Wilson was no stranger to rejection.

Upon graduating from high school and with limited financial resources at his disposal, Wilson tried to join the U.S. Army to take advantage of the GI Bill, but was denied entry because of his poor eyesight. A scholarship application to Vanderbilt University also was rejected, likely due to his undistinguished high school grades, exacerbated by a mild form of dyslexia that made excelling at math difficult.

Yet true to his nature, Wilson remained undeterred and ever confident, securing a spot in the freshman class of 1946 at the University of Alabama.

Vail recalls one particular story from that memorable dinner eight years ago when Wilson, recalling his freshman year, approached the department head in hopes of securing space for his ever-growing insect collection.

“At this point (in the conversation),” Vail recalled, “he chuckled, I guess at his naiveté of assuming the department would provide him space,” as well as the sheer gumption it took to make the request. “Nevertheless, he succeeded,” she said. “The world is indebted to that department head who showed compassion, understanding and insight!”

After graduating with both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama in five years, Wilson headed off to Harvard University, where he earned his Ph.D. As a graduate student, he cultivated his love of insects by participating in field expeditions to Cuba, Mexico, Australia and the South Pacific to study ants.

He ultimately joined the faculty at Harvard, becoming a tenured professor by the age of 29.

While at Harvard, he became widely recognized as one of the foremost naturalists in both science and literature, authoring groundbreaking books (see related story online) and receiving numerous high- profile awards including the National Medal of Science (1977), Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (1984), the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1990), the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science (1994) and the National Audubon Society’s Audubon Medal (1995).

Perhaps his most cherished recognition, however, was the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, presented to him in 2004 by an organization that was formative in nurturing his love of nature and played a key role in his secondary education. In fact, he once said, the Boy Scouts “seemed invented just for me.”

A PRODUCTIVE ‘RETIREMENT.’ Wilson was a member of the Harvard University faculty from 1956 to 1996, before officially retiring from teaching in 2002 at the age of 73. Even in retirement, however, Wilson remained incredibly productive, publishing more than a dozen books and devoting his later years to various environmental causes, most notably protecting the world’s wildlife and biodiversity.

Wilson co-founded the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation in 2005, whose mission is to support biodiversity research and education initiatives around the globe. “The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a power line,” he warned. “It causes lights to go out all over.”

In 2016, he published “Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” and co-founded the Half-Earth Project, which is dedicated to educating future generations about biological diversity, and putting “Half-Earth” — conserving half the land and seas for biodiversity — into practice. In addition, he played a key role in launching the Encyclopedia of Life project, an online resource devoted to identifying all living species known to science.

Wilson’s final lecture, “Ecosystems & the Harmony of Nature,” was presented in conversation with British naturalist Sir David Attenborough and Sir Tim Smit at Half-Earth Day in October 2021, just two months before his death.

Despite myriad threats to the globe’s biodiversity, Wilson remained confident that the planet could be saved, as long as mankind took concrete action now. “I’m optimistic, I think we can pass from conquerors to stewards,” he said.

Wilson died on Dec. 26, 2021, in Burlington, Mass. He was preceded in death by his wife Irene, and is survived by a daughter, Catherine.

INDUSTRY REACTION. Although Wilson wasn’t particularly well-known among the rank and file of the structural pest control industry, his groundbreaking research had practical implications for every PMP who ever serviced a route.

Dr. Ed Vargo, endowed chair in urban and structural entomology at Texas A&M University, described Wilson as “a giant in the field of entomology” and “a pioneer in the study of chemical communication in ant societies,” becoming the first to determine that ants communicate largely through the release of chemical substances known as pheromones.

Making the accomplishment even more impressive was the fact that at the time Wilson was conducting his pheromone research in the 1950s, “we didn’t have a lot of instruments that could measure these chemical cues, so a lot of his initial work was observational,” according to Dr. Roger Gold, a retired Texas A&M University faculty member.

Creative Common License | Ragesoss
E.O. Wilson at a “fireside chat” at Yale University in October 2007, at which he was awarded the Addison Emery Verrill Medal from the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Yet Wilson’s groundbreaking research, performed more than six decades ago, continues to pay dividends today. “His work laid the foundation for the study of pheromones, and we’re seeing the application of that work now in the recent incorporation of trail pheromone components in Argentine ant baits,” Vargo observed, something that would have no doubt pleased the man Dr. Barbara Thorne of the University of Maryland described as a field biologist at heart.

Wilson also was a talented taxonomist who described more than 400 species of ants around the globe, “a truly remarkable accomplishment for someone not trained as a taxonomist,” Gold observed. “Most scientists, if they’re really good, might name one or two, but 400 is well beyond anything you would ever expect from a single person.”

While Wilson’s impact on urban entomology is impressive, it’s his gifts as a “science communicator” that set him apart from so many entomologists, according to Dr. Faith Oi, associate extension scientist and professor of urban entomology, University of Florida.

“The value of his research is well known, but as I have struggled to be a better science communicator, I have come to appreciate Dr. Wilson’s contributions in a different way,” she said. “His ability to adapt his writing and speaking so that science became meaningful to the public, globally and humbly, is unparalleled.”

While Oi was inspired by Wilson’s gifts as a communicator, other prominent members of the industry were animated by his extensive book catalogue. “To say Dr. Wilson was an inspiration to several generations of urban entomologists would be an understatement,” observed industry consultant Stoy Hedges. “Most, if not all, entomologists working in structural pest control have two, three or more of his publications on their bookshelves.”

“A good part of my own enthusiasm and joy working in pest management to this day is attached to my reading of E.O. Wilson’s autobiography: ‘Naturalist,’” added Bobby Corrigan, the country’s leading rodentologist. “E.O.’s inspirational advice there: ‘To the lazy hunter, the woods are always empty’ reminds me to be the observational biologist each and every time I head out to the field for any pest problem, or even for when I just go for a casual hike-about.”

HUMBLE BY NATURE. While Wilson’s scientific accomplishments are among the most significant of the 20th century, what may be even more impressive is the inherent kindness and humility Wilson exhibited throughout his 65-year career.

Hedges, the author of the “PCT Field Guide for the Management of Structure-Infesting Ants,” recalls meeting Wilson at a 2004 conference hosted by PCT magazine. At a cocktail reception and book-signing following Wilson’s speech, Hedges tentatively approached his science hero in hopes of exchanging signed copies of each other’s books.

“Although his book was a far more important scientific work than my own, Dr. Wilson was friendly, congenial and interested in my narrow field of structure- infesting ants,” Hedges recalled. “He seemed delighted to receive a copy of my little field guide. It was indeed a bucket list moment for me!”

CONCLUSION. “With the passing of E.O. Wilson, we have lost one of the world’s greatest scientific minds,” Corrigan observed.

“Certainly, the pest management industry realizes the impact Dr. Wilson had on our understanding of the complexity of nature, but in particular the complexity of ants and ant colonies,” he said. “But beyond ants and insects, whether whales or microbes, Dr. Wilson celebrated the natural world and dedicated his life to protecting its diversity.”

“E.O. Wilson’s holy grail was the sheer delight of the pursuit of knowledge,” added Paula J. Ehrlich, CEO and president of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. “A relentless synthesizer of ideas, his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet.”

“Dr. Wilson stated not too long ago that if he had the chance to start his career all over again as a young scientist, he would ‘Take one teaspoon of soil from my backyard and spend the rest of my life studying it,’” Corrigan said.

And, no doubt, that teaspoon of soil would come from his boyhood home in Alabama, where the headwaters of Wilson’s love of nature was formed and a solitary child’s fascination with insects was nurtured.

“I’ve told him many times that he is the most famous Alabamian,” longtime friend Bill Finch, founding director of the Paint Roack Forest Research Center, told alabamanewscenter.com shortly after Wilson’s death. “If you go to Asia or Africa and mention the Alabama football coach, almost no one will have any idea who you’re talking about. But if you mention Ed Wilson, a huge percentage of the world knows him,” he said.

And they will continue to know him thanks to the groundbreaking scientific contributions and literary legacy left behind by a man who, despite significant odds, achieved fame on a global scale, earning the right to be called “Darwin’s natural heir.”

The author is publisher emeritus of PCT.