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?
About the other qualities that enabled him to become a great biologist, Wilson gives us less guidance. He introduces himself to us as a child of seven, already fascinated by natural history. Wilson says nothing about his earliest years—about when and how he learned to read, or his parents’ relation to each other. The divorce of parents of seven-year-old children, especially an only child, can affect them deeply—whether in blaming themselves for the break-up, fears of being abandoned, or distrust of intimacy. Wilson is silent on these subjects.
He does say, “A nomadic existence made Nature my companion of choice, because the outdoors was the one part of my world I perceived to hold rock steady. Animals and plants I could count on; human relationships were more difficult.” Perhaps those first seven years prepared Wilson for his passion for natural history and his escape into intense scientific work. However, Wilson leaves us to guess not only about his early childhood but also about his adult life, except for matters bearing on his career. He hardly mentions any hobbies except for jogging, or friendships beyond those with professional colleagues, and he says little about his wife and daughter. Yet no scientist’s life can be entirely understood in isolation from the rest of his person. The most moving part of Darwin’s autobiography consists of his account of his wife and children, and of his relationships with them.
In describing his co-author, friend, and close colleague Bert Hölldobler,* Wilson may also be suggesting something about his own reluctance to write about his personal life:
He was deeply devoted to his family, somehow finding time to participate with his wife, Friederike, in every step of the rearing of their three sons. Science was not everything for Hölldobler. A gifted painter and photographer, a good musician, he enjoyed the arts as I never could, locked as I was into my unyielding workaholic’s momentum. In darker moments I envied him that.
As for Wilson’s scientific interests, and the obstacles that he has faced in exploring them, these are best conveyed by Wilson’s own words:
In my heart I will be an explorer naturalist until I die. I do not think that conception overly romantic or unrealistic. Perhaps the wildernesses of popular imagination no longer exist. Perhaps very soon every square kilometer of the land will have been traversed by someone on foot. I know that the Amazon headwaters, New Guinea Highlands, and Antarctica have become tourist stops. But there is nonetheless real substance in my fantasy of an endless new world. The great majority of species of organisms—possibly in excess of 90 percent—remain unknown to science. They live out there somewhere, still untouched, lacking even a name, waiting for their Linnaeus, their Darwin, their Pasteur. The greatest numbers are in remote parts of the tropics, but many also exist close to the cities of industrialized countries. Earth, in the dazzling variety of its life, is still a little-known planet.
Among the problems that Wilson has faced in exploring that biological heritage, the obstacles posed by his colleagues in other fields of biology have been large ones. Among them, the one best known outside academia has been the controversy, repeatedly aired in these pages, surrounding Wilson’s book Sociobiology, published in 1977. During the last twenty years or so, sociobiology—the study of animals’ social organization and behavior—has become a thriving academic discipline. It is pursued by hundreds of scientists who have been successful in explaining why species vary so much in their social organizations. Some scientists remain wary of the enterprise, especially of attempts to apply it to the distinctive social organization of the human species. By Wilson’s own account, efforts to extend sociobiology by studying the co-evolution of human genes and culture have languished, and Wilson, for his part, has moved on to other interests.
Of far greater harm to humanity than opposition to sociobiological studies has been the grim determination with which molecular biologists have sought to extirpate non-molecular research in biology. In his chapter fittingly entitled “The Molecular Wars,” Wilson describes two famous Harvard molecular biologists, Nobel laureates George Wald and James Watson, who were hostile to his interest in studying entire animals (as opposed to their molecular components).
He [Wald] was friendly indeed, but supremely self-possessed and theatrically condescending. On the few occasions we spoke, I could not escape the feeling that he was actually addressing an audience of hundreds seated behind me. He would in fact adopt political and moral oratory before large audiences as a second calling during the late 1960s…. He was the kind of elegant, unworldly intellectual who fires up the revolution and is the first to receive its executioner’s bullet. And on the future of our science he agreed completely with Watson. There is only one biology, he once declared, and it is molecular biology.
As for the young Watson:
When he [Watson] was a young man, in the 1950s and 1960s, I found him the most unpleasant human being I had ever met…. He arrived with a conviction that biology must be transformed into a science directed at molecules and cells and re-written in the language of physics and chemistry. What had gone before, “traditional” biology—my biology—was infested by stamp collectors who lacked the wit to transform their subject into a modern science…. At department meetings Watson radiated contempt in all directions. He shunned ordinary courtesy and polite conversation, evidently in the belief that they would only encourage the traditionalists to stay around…. Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology.
Wilson recognizes that Watson has broadened his interests since the 1960s, and he admires Watson’s scientific achievements and the skill and vision that he displayed as director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory beginning in 1968. But, unfortunately, innumerable young molecular biologists are today as shortsighted as Watson once was and continue to be hostile to non-molecular biologists. It is the latest in a long history of frequent and deep-seated disagreement among scientists, pitting so-called reductionists—those who seek explanations at the cellular, molecular, or atomic level—against scientists interested in higher levels of organization. The battle also pits so-called “hard scientists,” working in fields where controlled replicated laboratory experiments are feasible, against so-called “soft scientists,” who are dependent on other methodologies.
It ought to be obvious that both reductionist understanding and higher-level understanding are essential, and that it’s pointless to berate scientists for failing to do controlled experiments on subjects for which controlled experiments would be immoral, illegal, or impossible. For example, ecologists could learn a lot about the postulated ecological importance of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears by exterminating them, then sitting back to watch the effects on elk and trees. Of course, that modest proposal, modeled on so many decisive laboratory experiments, won’t be carried out (at least, not intentionally). Unfortunately, in their belief that only reductionist experimental approaches qualify as true science, many molecular biologists continue to try to strangle evolutionary biology, ecology, and related fields. The strangulation takes the form of vigorously opposing academic appointments and research funds for evolutionary biologists. Wilson quotes Watson’s response to his proposal that Harvard appoint even just one ecologist: “Anyone who would hire an ecologist is out of his mind.”
The dispute is not a mere academic cat fight, but a tragedy with heavy consequences for all of us. Now that the risk of nuclear holocaust appears to have receded, the chief risk to the world in which my sons will reach maturity has become the risk of an ecological holocaust. Nor is that risk hypothetical: the world’s biological resources are already being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, and at present rates the destruction will come to a climax in the next century. Yet human civilization depends ultimately on biological resources to provide its food, to maintain its atmosphere and soils, and to absorb its wastes. To stem the destruction, and to manage the remnants, will require all the knowledge of our biological environment that we can muster. That knowledge is the province of evolutionary biologists such as Wilson.
Consider the following typical example of the value of such knowledge. If one listed fields of modern biology that have high economic importance, the classification of earthworms would rank below the bottom of most people’s lists. But a moment’s reflection should teach one otherwise. By decomposing dead matter and mixing the soil, earthworms take a major part in maintaining soil texture and soil fertility, and in regulating the exchange of gas between soil and the atmosphere. In July 1991 I visited Arizona’s Biosphere II, the controversial effort to build a self-sustaining microcosm, while it was still being de-bugged before being sealed off. One of the organizers’ many serious problems was earthworms, which were of course required to aerate the soil and thereby to regulate the atmosphere within Biosphere II. Alas, there was almost no one to whom to turn for advice, because by 1991 the crusade against “stamp collectors” had reduced the world’s number of experts on tropical rainforest earthworms to two, one of whom was already unemployed. The result is now notorious: the Biosphere II organizers failed to solve the problem of soil aeration and failed to attain an atmosphere of constant self-regulating composition; gases had to be pumped into the Biosphere to safe-guard the lives of its human residents That failure in a microcosm can serve as a metaphorical warning to us to be concerned about the current breakdown of self-regulation of the whole Earth’s atmosphere.
The development of Wilson’s efforts to address biological environmental problems illustrates the qualities that have made him outstanding as a scientist. While surveying his beloved ants on tropical Pacific islands in the 1950s, he realized that small remote islands have fewer ant species than big islands near continents. As he also realized, islands come in all sizes, shapes, and distances from other land masses. Those natural variations among islands can be seen as a natural experiment on the biological effects of island area and isolation—a methodology for understanding systems that scientists cannot manipulate in the laboratory. In collaboration with a mathematical ecologist, the late Robert MacArthur, Wilson developed a simple but powerful theory of how the number of species on islands varies with island area and distance from other land masses. That theory inspired literally thousands of follow-up studies of islands, and also provided an example that inspired mathematical modelers to illuminate many other fields of population biology, ecology and animal behavior.
However, instead of pursuing those theoretical efforts that he had launched, Wilson left them to others and devised a bold practical test of his theory. Were there any islands for which it would be neither immoral, nor illegal, nor impossible to alter the island’s set of species experimentally?
Wilson’s experience of staring at tiny insects in front of his nose suggested to him the solution: miniaturize the system. To ants and other insects, individual mangrove trees growing in waters around the Florida Keys function as virtual islands. Hence Wilson arranged for a professional exterminator to fumigate mangrove trees of various sizes and differences from shore, killing their insects (but not killing the trees themselves). With the original set of bugs gone, Wilson was then able to observe the self-assembly of island faunas, as new bugs recolonized the trees.
This study, too, exerted an influence far beyond its particular subject matter, by encouraging ecologists to devise experiments that can be executed outdoors rather than in a laboratory. Again characteristically, though, Wilson did not pursue this approach himself but shifted to new interests. He came to realize that islands constituted natural experiments in still another respect. As we humans destroy natural environments, surviving pieces of natural habitat are being converted into virtual islands surrounded by seas of asphalt, farmlands, and urban sprawl. Our national parks and nature reserves have become unintended experiments that test how many species can survive in reserves of a given area. Insights gained from Wilson’s seemingly useless ant-collecting trips of the 1950s have thus developed into foundations of resource management policy.
We no longer have the luxury of being able to concentrate on our own country’s resource policies, immune from the consequences of those of other countries. The front pages of every day’s newspapers remind us that problems of environmental mismanagement in remote third world countries have an inconvenient way of becoming our own problems as well. Immigrants from those countries come to our shores, wars in those countries threaten to spread, and microbes from those countries become major health hazards in America. It’s no accident that Haiti, Cuba, Rwanda, Iraq, and other countries now dominating the headlines were already among the world’s nations with the most ravaged biological environments before their current unrest exploded. These were among the concerns that caused Wilson, around 1979, to shift his efforts to the relations between biology and public policy.
Wilson’s book shows that natural history studies can be not only pleasurable and fascinating, but also offer some of the most important ways for biologists to contribute to human welfare. It still is possible to realize the romantic ideal of exploration that many of us harbor in childhood and then abandon as impractical. By explaining how Wilson realized that ideal, his book helps us to understand one of the brighter trajectories in twentieth-century intellectual life.
January 12, 1995