Edward O Wilson, Naturalist 1929-2021 – Mike LeRoy

On Boxing Day, a great naturalist came to the end of his days aged 92. He was Edward Osborne Wilson. He was often known simply as EO Wilson.

EO was not just a scientist. He was: a biologist, a botanist, an ecologist, an entomologist, a close observer of life with plenty of fieldwork skills. Some compared him to Charles Darwin because of his ability as a synthesiser and as a close observer of living things. His respect for Darwin is evident from his introduction to his compilation of Darwin’s writings in From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (2005).

EO was also an assiduous writer who wrote science in ways that anyone can understand, but also an environmentalist alerting others to the loss of species. He wrote more than 35 books and was still writing them through his eighties. Here is a selection of them. Most are readily available second-hand:

  • The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967) with Robert H MacArthur
  • The Insect Societies (1971)
  • Biophilia (1984)
  • The Ants (1990) with Bert Hölldobler
  • The Diversity of Life (1992)
  • Journey to The Ants: a story of scientific exploration’ (1994) with Bert Hölldobler
  • Naturalist (1994, new edition 2006) his autobiography
  • In Search of Nature (1996)
  • Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)
  • The Future of Life (2002)
  • The Creation: an appeal to save life on earth (2006).

In his 80s EO wrote a trilogy of books:

  • The Social Conquest of Earth (2012)
  • The Meaning of Human Existence (2014)
  • Half-Earth (2016).

EO carried out field studies in: New Guinea, the South Pacific, the Amazon and Florida Keys, though he cut his entomological teeth as a child in Alabama where he discovered all 42 species of ants and produced a report about them, then told the authorities about the arrival of the invasive fire ant.

EO was brilliant at identifying insects, at observing them and understanding their behaviour. One reason he concentrated on ants was because at age seven he blinded himself in a fishing accident. But he retained his vision in the other eye and this led to him focusing on little things as he lost his stereoscopic vision but could still see fine details on insects.  His book The Ants written jointly with Bert Hölldobler led the field in understanding the complex world of social insects.

EO worked on studies of how new species evolved. He was also a clever and deep-thinking scientist, and developed several new theories not just about insects but also about ecology and the future.

While a Director of WWF, EO met Tom Loveday who worked for WWF. They both went on explorations to major wildlife areas such as the Brazilian rain forests and began to realise the scale at which species were being lost. In the 1970s they discussed the need for new terminology to describe what they were studying and came up with the term ‘Biological Diversity’ which they later abbreviated to ‘Biodiversity’.

EO’s book The Diversity of Life (1992) shows the immense span of his understanding of the origins of life, its evolution, and the amazing range of living things in our own times. EO also developed controversial ideas about Sociobiology and human nature, so controversial that a protester poured a jug of ice-cold water over his head when he was a speaker at a major scientific conference. Less controversial were EO’s ideas about Biophilia, how we as humans feel an intimate connection with nature and animals.

EO was involved in launching the Encyclopaedia of Life to create a global database of all the 1.9 million species recognised by science and information about each of them. EO set up an experiment in the Amazon known as the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, which increased understanding of how habitat fragmentation was accelerating the loss of species. He said: “Destroying a tropical rainforest for profit is like burning all the paintings of the Louvre to cook dinner.”

EO became increasingly disturbed about climate change caused by humankind and our burning of fuels and consumption of materials. About this he said: “Only in the last moment in history has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world.”

He also became more and more troubled by the extinction of species and said: “The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”

Mike LeRoy
January 2022