Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist, philosopher, humanist, and author. He is a well-known entomologist and is considered the world-leading expert in myrmecology—the study of ants. Wilson is an evolutionary theorist, known for his pioneering work on island biogeography, developed in collaboration with mathematician Robert MacArthur.
Wilson is also considered the father of “sociobiology”, a research paradigm that seeks to explain the development of social behaviors such as altruism, aggression, dominance, and kin selection, by the mechanisms of evolution and natural selection. Aside from his work in biology, Wilson is famous for his writings on secularism and humanism. He is a fierce advocate for conservation efforts. He is a professor emeritus at Harvard and a lecturer at Duke University.
E.O. Wilson was born in Alabama in 1929. From a young age he showed an interest in biology. When he was 7, his right eye was damaged in a fishing accident. Due to his diminished vision, he took to collecting and observing butterflies and other insects as a way to pass the time. Wilson recalls his passion for ants as stemming from a family trip to Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. when he was 9 year old. Scouring the park for insects, he discovered citronella ants and was fascinated by their appearance, behavior, and smell.
After being rejected from the army for his poor sight, Wilson earned his B.S. and M.S. in biology at the University of Alabama. He then went on to earn his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1955. In the 1960s, he along with Robert MacArthur introduce their theory of island biogeography. During this time, he traveled all around the world for his research collecting ant species and married his wife Irene Kelley.
In 1975, he published the book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which he extended his views on the social evolution of insect to all vertebrate mammals. In 1979, he published On Human Nature, a treatise on the origins of human sociality and culture which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Wilson retired from Harvard in 1996, but has remained an active writer since. As of 2019, he has authored over 20 books, the most recent being Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight For Life in 2016.
In the 1960s, Wilson, along with William Bossett, discovered the chemical mechanisms of communication between ants, pheromones. His observations of the behavior of ants and other eusocial insects led him to believe that ant sociality was shaped by evolutionary pressures, just like their biological morphology. In 1990, Wilson published the book The Ants, considered by many to be the seminal text on ant biology.
Wilson’s observations of ants led him to develop his theory of sociobiology. According to a sociobiological view, all social behaviors of animals can be explained as being the product of evolutionary selection pressures, humans included. Essentially, Wilson’s argues that social organization and behavior can be explained by using the resources of evolutionary theory, a radical proposal at the time. Wilson’s sociobiological view has been both highly influential and controversial in the biological sciences.
With respect to his humanism, Wilson is an ardent critic of organized religion, and a proponent of secularism in society. While he rejects the label of “atheist,” he is skeptical of traditional conceptions of God, and has argued that belief in religion and God are products of evolutionary mechanisms. He has also been an advocate for conservation efforts. According to Wilson, “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.”