Portrait of the Biologist as a Young Man

Naturalist

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 …

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