How Fit Is E.O. Wilson’s Evolution?

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Bob Sacha
Edward O. Wilson at the ‘Darwin’ exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, 2005

I read E.O. Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1979 while I was an undergraduate studying archaeology. Along with The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976), Sociobiology transformed my view of the world, leading me away from a concern with the typology of stone tools and ceramics to deeper thoughts about human nature. As Wilson now expresses thirty-seven years later in the concluding pages of The Social Conquest of Earth, “History makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.” Whatever the specific arguments and ultimate merits of Sociobiology, it saved me from a life of measuring rim diameters and handle dimensions of ancient pots. Thank you, Professor Wilson.

At the time I did not appreciate E.O. Wilson’s stature as one of the greatest biologists of the twentieth century. I soon came to learn that in 1967 he was coauthor with Robert H. MacArthur of The Theory of Island Biogeography, which remains a key work for conservation today. I then learned that Wilson was the world authority on ants. Like so many others, I had gone through a “bug phase” as a boy and had even once declared to a primary school teacher that I wished to be an entomologist. I then began to appreciate the elegance of his prose. So E.O. Wilson was rapidly installed as an intellectual hero: someone who contributes to the highest-level theory about the nature of humanity, engages in fieldwork, analyzes data with meticulous erudition, and communicates to the layperson as effectively as to his scientific peers. Quite rightfully, he has been described as Darwin’s heir.

Now aged eighty-three, E.O. Wilson once described himself as never having grown out of his own childhood bug phase. Born in Alabama, he was awarded a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard in 1955, where he has remained for the entirety of his academic career, currently as Pellegrino Professor (Emeritus) in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He has published a library of books and academic papers and been awarded a huge anthill of honors for his distinguished academic contributions to entomology, science, and the environment. These include the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, often described as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for biosciences. Wilson has been twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize and has had a profound influence on twentieth- and twenty-first-century thought and culture. He is a champion of the preservation of biodiversity.

Sociobology remains Wilson’s most influential work. It argued that whether dealing with ants or humans, social behavior has a biological basis. It promoted the theory of inclusive fitness, or kin selection, as originally developed by William Hamilton in the 1960s as a means to explain seemingly altruistic behavior while remaining consistent with Darwin’s principle of natural selection. In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson describes how he …

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Letters

The Social Conquest of Earth’: An Exchange August 16, 2012