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Portrait of the Biologist as a Young Man


by Edward O. Wilson
Island Press/Shearwater Books, 380 pp., $24.95

Nothing is so fascinating or complicated as the trajectory of a human life. We emerge partly programmed at birth, and we change with our experiences thereafter. Some of us finally blow apart in adulthood like long-fuse time bombs, while others grow to shine brightly like comets. Most of us have less spectacular careers, which are still hard to explain in hindsight, even to ourselves, and impossible to foresee in detail.

A familiar example is the surprise that so many of us experience at our school or college class reunions. When I finally re-met my college classmates, it was a shock to discover how differently, for many of them, their future had turned out from the promise (or lack thereof) that they seemed to show as undergraduates. Many of the class leaders as undergraduates went on to undistinguished lives, while some who as students were dissolute or seemed ordinary went on to brilliant careers. Even for those who remained in academia, good grades as an undergraduate had almost no predictive value for later success as scholars.

These familiar paradoxes are what make biographies and autobiographies of unusual people so interesting to us. The problem of understanding the course of a human life is especially acute in creative thinkers who repeatedly achieve complex syntheses, not just a single discovery. Their success cannot be dismissed as a matter of luck; it must stem directly from their own qualities. Could one have predicted their success when they were children? What qualities made their creativity possible?

Such questions are well illustrated by the autobiography of the great Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Like his other books, this one is vividly, often beautifully, written. Wilson emerges not only as a gifted scientist, but also as a likable, passionate, eloquent person. His life seems surprising, because his adult environment is very different from that of his childhood. Part of the autobiography’s appeal derives from its helping us, as well as helping its author, to understand how such apparently unlikely connections make sense in hindsight. His book is in many respects a self-revealing effort on Wilson’s part to figure out how he became who he is, although significant parts of his life are only hinted at, and the author remains in some respects an enigma to readers and perhaps to himself. Wilson’s field of study, our rapidly changing biological environment, is central to the question whether the world in which this year’s crop of babies reaches their prime will be worth living in or will even support human civilizations.

We can compare Wilson as he now is and as he began in order to appreciate the paradox posed by his career. Today, at age sixty-four, Wilson ranks among the leading biologists and scientific thinkers of this century. Among other achievements, he opened up the field of chemical communication among insects. He revolutionized our understanding of the distributions of plants and animals on islands, and in doing so transformed other fields of population biology as well; he reconceived the study of animal societies by seeing them as products of natural selection; and he has now become a leader in promoting our awareness of the gathering crisis in which so many species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction. His discoveries and writings have been honored by two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Medal of Science; by Harvard’s highest academic distinction, the rank of University Professor; and by most of the top prizes in population biology, including the Tyler Prize, the International Prize for Biology, and the gold medal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Wilson was born in Alabama into a family that had never included a scientist or an academic, or even a college graduate. He was the only child of parents who divorced when he was seven, leaving him in the care of others. His father degenerated into alcoholism and eventually committed suicide. His formal education began at seven at a military boarding school and continued through a succession of fourteen schools, in and out of Alabama, during the next eleven years. Wilson grew up in one of the most racist and segregated parts of America, where one’s highest aspiration was to become an officer in the military and carry on the Confederate spirit. As a child, he suffered from impaired hearing, and in the year of his parents’ divorce he became virtually blind in one eye when a spine of a pinfish pierced the pupil of his right eye. He describes himself as chronically poor at mathematics, unable to memorize lines of poetry, and as having difficulty in copying numbers correctly or in visualizing words spelled out letter by letter. This is not exactly the start one expects for a Harvard University Professor, least of all a biologist renowned for painstaking observations of ants.

Wilson’s book nevertheless succeeds in making plausible the connections between his seemingly disparate start in life and the outcome. An only child who moved often, skipped third grade, and was the class runt throughout his school years, Wilson was shy and introverted. In Alabama, though, Nature was always close by, in his back yard or just across the street. Wilson thought of himself as a big-game hunter and became a collector of, in succession, lizards, snakes, butterflies, ants, cave insects, and bats. When at age ten he moved with his father for two years to Washington, DC, its National Zoo, the Smithsonian, and Rock Creek Park stimulated his developing interest in animals.

From the military academy that he attended and the southern white ethos, Wilson absorbed the ideal of military heroism, transforming it into an admiration for other self-disciplined people (including biologists) who concentrate their efforts toward a single goal. In Wilson’s words, he became a “child workaholic.” The Boy Scouts, which he joined when he was twelve, fitted perfectly both the work ethic and his love of nature. At thirteen he took a job delivering 420 newspapers every morning between 3:00 and 7:30 AM, before school, to earn money to buy Boy Scout paraphernalia and candy. A straight line runs from the Boy Scouts and the paper route to Wilson’s single-minded devotion to work as an adult. During his last years in high school, Wilson had become absorbed in natural history to the exclusion of all else. Once he discovered that attending college was a prerequisite for becoming an entomologist, he drove himself to straight-A grades so that he could compete for scholarships.

He was congenitally hard of hearing. While the fishing accident left his right eye permanently blinded, he retained excellent close-up vision in his left eye. That combination of weaknesses and strengths turned him away from his early love of quick-moving butterflies and of frogs and birds with high-pitched calls, to concentrate instead on silent small insects such as ants, which move slowly and require close scrutiny. At sixteen, wanting to carry out a survey of Alabama ants—the scientific equivalent of a big newspaper route—Wilson wrote to a Smithsonian ant expert for advice. The expert, who had surveyed the ants of neighboring Mississippi, replied with an encouraging letter, and sent Wilson a guide to identify different species of ants. At the University of Alabama, to which Wilson as a white graduate of an Alabama high school was guaranteed admission, the biology faculty welcomed him as a virtual colleague and gave him laboratory space for his ant studies. He moved at age twenty-one to what proved his final destination, Harvard, because—why else?—it has the world’s best ant collection, and his mentors encouraged him to go there.

Thus, in hindsight, his trajectory from rural Alabama to a Harvard University professorship seems not so surprising. Wilson’s experiences illustrate two truths about how we end up as we do. First, scrutiny of the careers of America’s intellectual elite shows that they tend to come from non-elite backgrounds. The members of the National Academy of Sciences are concentrated at a few prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Berkeley, and Stanford, but it turns out that as undergraduates they studied disproportionately at state universities or small liberal-arts colleges which had few or no NAS members on their faculties. Today, of 1,702 members of NAS, only one works in Wilson’s home state of Alabama (at Wilson’s alma mater, the University of Alabama), compared to 280 working in Massachusetts. Among intellectual leaders, Wilson’s geographical and cultural migrations thus prove not nearly as exceptional as one might have guessed.

Second, given a child with the requisite cognitive abilities and drive to do original work, what influences the child’s choice of a particular field? We all know that chance can be important. But Wilson’s story adds to a growing body of illustrations of the way that our physiological and sensory apparatus influences what we are capable of doing well and what fits our self-image.

Wilson’s fishing accident, loss of hearing, and acute near vision in the left eye suited him to studying ants and barred him from his earlier interests in butterflies and frogs. Conversely, most ornithologists that I know, including myself, share an acute far-distance vision and memory for sounds, and also tend to be quick-moving people with the high metabolic rates characteristic of birds. Zoologists specializing in lizards and snakes are notorious for being rather slow-moving, fond of the hot sun, and rising late, like the reptiles that they study. This all may sound naive and silly—until we reflect on the mysterious moments of insight and decision which so many of us experience as children or young adults and which set our direction in life. Such an “epiphany” is merely the final stimulus falling on an already prepared mind.

While this brief account of Wilson’s childhood helps us to understand his choice of career and his self-discipline, it doesn’t answer the more important question, how he came to be so gifted. One part of the answer may be the exceptional freedom that he enjoyed as a child. At seven, when not at school, he was able to wander about alone all morning, then again all afternoon, and again after dinner, along the beach or into swamps nearby, in search of animals. In that respect Wilson’s childhood is strikingly similar to that of Albert Einstein, who was already traveling by himself on an urban public-transport system at an early age. For both Wilson and Einstein, the early freedom to explore contributed to their self-confidence and interest in intellectual exploration as adults.

Nevertheless, childhood exploration was not entirely safe for Wilson. Besides the accident that cost him half his eyesight at seven, he tells us, he accidentally slashed himself to the bone with a machete at eleven; he was bitten by a rattlesnake that he handled carelessly at thirteen, and narrowly escaped from a big cottonmouth moccasin that he foolishly grabbed at fourteen—at all these times he was alone. Any of those incidents, and who knows how many others, could have ended differently and been decisive. How many other talented children who were free to go about the countryside as they wished were undone by such incidents?

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