E. O. Wilson: Wikis


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Ed Wilson

Edward O. Wilson on October 16, 2007
Born June 10, 1929 (1929-06-10) (age 80)
Birmingham, Alabama United States
Nationality American
Fields Biologist
Institutions Harvard University
Alma mater University of Alabama
Harvard University
Doctoral students Daniel Simberloff
Donald J. Farish
Other notable students Steven Pinker
Known for Coining the terms 'sociobiology', Epic of Evolution
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize (1979)
Crafoord Prize (1990)
Pulitzer Prize (1991)
Nierenberg Prize (2001)

Edward Osborne Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author. His biological specialty is myrmecology, a branch of entomology.

Wilson is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. He is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist and deist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.[1]

As of 2007, he is Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.[2][3]


Early life

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. According to his autobiography Naturalist, he grew up mostly around Washington, D.C. and in the countryside around Mobile, Alabama[4]. From an early age, he was interested in natural history. His parents, Edward and Inez Wilson, divorced when he was seven. In that same year, he blinded himself in one eye in a fishing accident. The young naturalist grew up in several cities and towns, moving around with his father and his stepmother. His reduced ability to observe mammals and birds led him to concentrate on insects. At nine, Wilson undertook his first expeditions at the Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. At the age of 18, intent on becoming an entomologist, he began by collecting flies, but the shortage of insect pins caused by World War II caused him to switch to ants, which could be stored in vials. With the encouragement of Marion R. Smith, a myrmecologist from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, Wilson began a survey of all the ants of Alabama.

Concerned that he might not be able to afford to go to a university, Wilson attempted to enlist in the United States Army. His plan was to earn U.S. government financial support for his education, but he failed his Army medical examination due to his impaired eyesight. Wilson was able to afford to enroll in the University of Alabama after all. There, he earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees. He later earned his Ph.D. degree from Harvard University.

In 1994 Island Press published "Naturalist" an autobiography of Wilson's life [5].

Theories and beliefs


Epic of evolution

"The evolutionary epic," Wilson wrote in his book on human nature, "is probably the best myth we will ever have." Myth as falsehood was not the usage intended by Wilson in this statement. Rather, myth as a grand narrative that provides a people with a placement in time — a meaningful placement that celebrates extraordinary moments of a shared heritage.[6] Wilson was not the first to use the term, but his fame prompted its usage as the morphed phrase epic of evolution.[1].

Wilson explained the need for the Epic of Evolution

Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity became part of it (…) Religious epics satisfy another primal need. They confirm we are part of something greater than ourselves (…) The way to achieve our epic that unites human spirituality, instead of cleave it, it is to compose it from the best empirical knowledge that science and history can provide.[7]

The worth of the Epic, he said is, "The true evolutionary epic retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic."[8]

Cosmologist Brian Swimme concludes in a 1997 interview :

I think that what E. O. Wilson is trying to suggest is that to be fully human, a person has to see that life has a heroic dimension (…) I think for the scientist, and for other people, it's a question of 'is the universe valuable? Is it sacred? Is it holy? Or is the human agenda all that matters?' I just don't think we're that stupid to continue in a way that continues to destroy. I'm hopeful that the Epic of Evolution will be yet another strategy in our culture that will lead our consciousness out of a very tight, human-centered materialism.


Naturalistic and liberal religious writers have picked up on Wilson's term and it have used in a number of texts. These authors however have at times used other terms as synonyms for the story such as: Universal Story (Brian Swimme, John F. Haught), Great Story (Connie Barlow, Michael Dowd), Everybody’s Story (Loyal Rue), New Story (Thomas Berry, Al Gore, Brian Swimme) and Cosmic Evolution (Eric Chaisson) [10].


Michael McGoodwin quoting Wilson on sociobiology -[11]

Sociobiology is defined (by Wilson) as the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of behavior, including human, incorporating ecology, ethology, and genetics. "If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species." "The brain [and the mind] exists because it promotes the survival and multiplication of the genes that direct its assembly." The two apparent dilemmas we face therefore are: (1) We lack any goal external to our biological nature (for even religions evolve to enhance the persistence and influence of their practitioners). Will societies transcendental goals dissolve and will we regress to mere self-indulgence? (2) Morality evolved as instinct "which of the censors and motivators should be obeyed and which ones might better be curtailed or sublimated."

Although much human diversity in behavior is culturally influenced, some has been shown to be genetic - rapid acquisition of language, human unpredictability, hypertrophy (extreme growth of pre-existing social structures), altruism and religions. "Religious practices that consistently enhance survival and procreation of the practitioners will propagate the physiological controls that favor the acquisition of the practices during single lifetimes." Unthinking submission to the communal will promotes the fitness of the members of the tribe. Even submission to secular religions and cults involve willing subordination of the individual to the group. Religious practices confer biological advantages [12]

Wilson used sociobiology and evolutionary principles to explain the behavior of the social insects and then to understand the social behavior of other animals, including humans, thus established sociobiology as a new scientific field. He argued that all animal behavior, including that of humans, is the product of heredity, environmental stimuli, and past experiences, and that free will is an illusion. He has referred to the biological basis of behaviour as the "genetic leash."[13] The sociobiological view is that all animal social behavior is governed by epigenetic rules worked out by the laws of evolution. This theory and research proved to be seminal, controversial, and influential.[14]

The controversy of sociobiological research is in how it applies to humans. The theory established a scientific argument for rejecting the common doctrine of tabula rasa, which holds that human beings are born without any innate mental content and that culture functions to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success. In the final chapter of the book Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argues that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture (if not more). There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior.

Ants and social insects

Wilson, along with Bert Hölldobler, has done a systematic study of ants and ant behavior,[15] culminating in their encyclopedic work, The Ants (1990). Because much self-sacrificing behavior on the part of individual ants can be explained on the basis of their genetic interests in the survival of the sisters, with whom they share 75% of their genes (though the actually case is some species' queens mate with multiple males and therefore some workers in a colony would only be 25% related), Wilson was led to argue for a sociobiological explanation for all social behavior on the model of the behavior of the social insects. In his more recent work, he has sought to defend his views against the criticism of younger scientists such as Deborah Gordon, whose results challenge the idea that ant behavior is as rigidly-predictable as Wilson's explanations make it.

Edward O. Wilson, referring to ants, once said that "Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species",[16] meaning that while ants and other eusocial species appear to live in communist-like societies, they only do so because they are forced to do so from their basic biology, as they lack reproductive independence: worker ants, being sterile, need their ant-queen to survive as a colony and a species and individual ants cannot reproduce without a queen, thus being forced to live in centralised societies. Humans, however, do possess reproductive independence so they can give birth to offspring without the need of a "queen", and in fact humans enjoy their maximum level of Darwinian fitness only when they look after themselves and their families, while finding innovative ways to use the societies they live in for their own benefit.[17]


In his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Wilson discusses methods that have been used to unite the sciences, and might be able to unite the sciences with the humanities. Wilson prefers and uses the term "consilience" to describe the synthesis of knowledge from different specialized fields of human endeavor. He defines human nature as a collection of epigenetic rules, the genetic patterns of mental development. He argues that culture and rituals are products, not parts, of human nature. He says art is not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. He argues that concepts such as art appreciation, fear of snakes, or the incest taboo (Westermarck effect) can be studied using scientific methods. Previously, these phenomena were only part of psychological, sociological, or anthropological studies. Wilson proposes that they can be part of interdisciplinary research.

The unit and target of selection

Wilson has argued that the "unit of selection is a gene, the basic element of heredity. The target of selection is normally the individual who carries an ensemble of genes of certain kinds." With regards to the use kin selection in explaining the behavior of eusocial insects, Wilson said to Discover magazine, the "new view that I'm proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin."[18]

Spiritual and political beliefs

Wilson’s views on religion

As summarized by Michael McGoodwin [11]-

The predisposition to religious belief is an ineradicable part of human behavior. Mankind has produced 100,000 religions. It is an illusion to think that scientific humanism and learning will dispel religious belief. Men would rather believe than know (…) A kind of Darwinistic survival of the fittest has occurred with religions (…) The ecological principle called Gause's law holds that competition is maximal between species with identical needs (…) Even submission to secular religions such as Communism and guru cults involve willing subordination of the individual to the group. Religious practices confer biological advantage. The mechanisms of religion include (1) objectification (the reduction of reality to images and definitions that are easily understood and cannot be refuted), (2) commitment through faith (a kind of tribalism enacted through self-surrender), (3) and myth (the narratives that explain the tribe's favored position on the earth, often incorporating supernatural forces struggling for control, apocalypse, and millennium). The three great religion categories of today are Marxism, traditional religion, and scientific materialism. Though theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline, traditional religion will endure for a long time to come and will not be replaced by scientific materialism.

Scientific humanism

Wilson coined the phrase scientific humanism as "the only worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature".[19] Wilson argues that it is best suited to improve the human condition.

God and religion

On the question of God, Wilson has described his position as provisional deism.[20] He has explained his faith as a trajectory away from traditional beliefs: "I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist & Christian no more."[13] Wilson argues that the belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution.[21] He argues that they should not be rejected or dismissed, but further investigated by science to better understand their significance to human nature. In his book The Creation, Wilson suggests that scientists "offer the hand of friendship" to religious leaders and build an alliance with them, stating that "Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth and they should come together to save the creation."[22]

Wilson makes a similar suggestion, and appeal to the religious community, on the lecture circuit. An article on his September 17, 2009 lecture at Midland College, Texas, reports, "he said the appeal received a 'massive reply' and a covenant has been written. 'I think that partnership will work to a substantial degree as time goes on,' Wilson said."[23]

Wilson appears in the upcoming documentary Behold The Earth, which inquires into America's "divorce from nature", and the relationship between the forces of science and religion.


When discussing the reinvigoration of his original fields of study since the 1960s, Wilson has said that if he could start his life over he would work in microbial ecology.[24] He studied the mass extinctions of the 20th century and their relationship to modern society, arguing strongly for an ecological approach:

Now when you cut a forest, an ancient forest in particular, you are not just removing a lot of big trees and a few birds fluttering around in the canopy. You are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you. The number of these species may go to tens of thousands. ... Many of them are still unknown to science, and science has not yet discovered the key role undoubtedly played in the maintenance of that ecosystem, as in the case of fungi, microorganisms, and many of the insects.[25]

His understanding of the scale of the extinction crisis has led him to advocate a number of strategies for forest protection, including the Forests Now Declaration, which calls for new markets-based mechanisms to protect tropical forests.

Criticism of human sociobiology

Wilson experienced significant criticism for his sociobiological views from several different communities. The scientific response included several of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard,[26] such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, who were strongly opposed to his ideas regarding sociobiology. Marshall Sahlins's work The Use and Abuse of Biology was a direct criticism of Wilson's theories.[27]

Politically, Wilson's sociobiological ideas have offended some liberals and conservatives who favored the idea that human behavior was culturally based. Sociobiology re-ignited the nature-versus-nurture debate, and Wilson's scientific perspective on human nature led to public debate. He was accused of racism, misogyny, and eugenics.[28] In one incident, a female member of the International Committee Against Racism poured a pitcher of water on Wilson's head and chanted "Wilson, you're all wet" at a AAAS conference in November 1978.[29] Wilson later spoke of the incident as a source of pride: "I believe...I was the only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea."[30]

Religious objections included those of Paul E. Rothrock, who said: "... sociobiology has the potential of becoming a religion of scientific materialism." [31]

Awards and honors

Wilson at a "fireside chat" during which he received the Addison Emery Verrill Medal in 2007
Dr. E.O. Wilson addresses the audience at the dedication of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center at Nokuse Plantation in Walton County, Florida.

Wilson's scientific and conservation honors include:

Main works

See also


  1. ^ a b Novacek, Michael J. (2001). "Lifetime achievement: E.O. Wilson". CNN.com. http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2001/americasbest/science.medicine/pro.eowilson.html. Retrieved 2006-11-08.  
  2. ^ "E.O. Wilson Profile" - Comprehensive list of Degrees, Awards and Positions
  3. ^ E. O. Wilson biography
  4. ^ Edward O. Wilson – Naturalist, Island Press; (April 24, 2006), ISBN 1597260886
  5. ^ Edward O. Wilson - Naturalist, Island Press; ISBN 1-55963-288-7 (cloth)[QH31.W64A3 1994 508'.092--dc20 94-13111]
  6. ^ Connie Barlow - The Epic of Evolution: Religious and cultural interpretations of modern scientific cosmology, Science & Spirit Magazine [1]
  7. ^ Edward O. Wilson, Foreword of Everybody's Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution By Loyal D. Rue, SUNY Press, 1999, page ix and x,ISBN 0791443922,
  8. ^ Edward O. Wilson, Consilience 1998
  9. ^ Brian Swimme interview
  10. ^
    • Eric Chaisson - Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos, Columbia University Press, 2006, ISBN 0231135602, 9780231135603
    • Loyal Rue - Everybody's Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution, SUNY Press, 1999, ISBN 0791443922
    • Alfred K Thomas - The Epic of Evolution, Its Etiology and Art: A Study of Vardis Fisher's Testament of Man, University Microfilms International, 1989*James B. Miller - The Epic of Evolution: Science and Religion in Dialogue, Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2003, ISBN 013093318X
    • Gordon Kaufman - The Epic of Evolution as a Framework for Human Orientation,1997
  11. ^ a b Edward O. Wilson: On Human Nature - Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1991 [2]
  12. ^ Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1991
  13. ^ a b E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, New York, Knopf, 1998, pp. 127-128.
  14. ^ Wolfe, Tom (1996). Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died. Vol. 158, Issue 13, pp.210ff. Forbes
  15. ^ Taking a Cue From Ants on Evolution of Humans
  16. ^ [3]
  17. ^ [4]
  18. ^ Richard Conniff "Discover Interview: E.O. Wilson" June 25, 2006.
  19. ^ in Harvard Magazine December 2005 p 33.
  20. ^ The Creation
  21. ^ Human Nature
  22. ^ Naturalist E.O. Wilson is optimistic Harvard Gazette June 15, 2006
  23. ^ Scientist says there is hope to save planet mywesttexas.com September 18, 2009
  24. ^ Edward O. Wilson. (2008) (documentary film). Lord of the Ants. [television]. NOVA/WGBH. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/eowilson/program.html. Retrieved 2009-03-01.  
  25. ^ Wilson, E. O. (1998 April 28, 1998). Slide show, page 2. Delivered at Washington, DC. Website of Save America's Forests. Accessed 2008-11-13.
  26. ^ Grafen, Alan; Ridley, Mark (2006). Richard Dawkins: How A Scientist Changed the Way We Think. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 75. ISBN 0199291160.  
  27. ^ Marshall David Sahlins - The Use and Abuse of Biology (1976: ISBN 0472087770)
  28. ^ Douglas, Ed (2001). Darwin's Natural Heir. Guardian Unlimitied.
  29. ^ Wilson, Edward O. (1995). Naturalist. ISBN 0446671991.
  30. ^ David Dugan (writer, producer, director). (May year 2008title = Lord of the Ants). [Documentary]. NOVA. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/eowilson/program.html. Retrieved 2008-01-25.  
  31. ^ Mythology of Scientific Materialism

External links








Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

Edward Osborne Wilson (born 10 June 1929) is an entomologist and biologist known for his work on ecology, evolution, and sociobiology. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Wilson is also known for his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanism ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.[1]



  • [Biology has] become the paramount science, exceeding other disciplines, including physics and chemistry at least, in the creative tumult of its disciplines and disputations. [...] I'll also be so bold at this point to suggest that we are now at the edge of establishing the two fundamental laws of biology: The first law is that all of the phenomena of biology, the entities and the processes, are ultimately obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. Not immediately reducible to them, but ultimately consistent and in consilience with them, by a cause and effect explanation. The second law is that all biological phenomena, these entities and processes that define life itself, have arisen by evolution through natural selection.
    • Talk at the 50th anniversary of New Scientist magazine (2006)
  • Wonderful theory, wrong species. (On Marxism, which he considered more suited to ants than to humans.)

On Human Nature (1978)

  • The evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.
  • God remains a viable hypothesis as the prime mover, however undefinable and untestable that conception may be.
  • We are not compelled to believe in biological uniformity in order to affirm human freedom and dignity.
  • the genius of human society is in fact the ease with which alliances are formed, broken, and reconstituted, always with strong emotional appeals to rules believed to be absolute.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)

  • We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.
    • p. v
  • True character arises from a deeper well than religion. It is the internalization of moral principles of a society, augmented by those tenets personally chosen by the individual, strong enough to endure through trials of solitude and adversity. The principles are fitted together into what we call integrity, literally the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true. Character is in turn the enduring source of virtue. It stands by itself and excites admiration in others. It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.
  • The most dangerous of devotions, in my opinion, is the one endemic to Christianity: I was not born to be of this world. With a second life waiting, suffering can be endured- especially in other people. The natural environment can be used up. Enemies of the faith can be savaged and suicidal martyrdom praised.
    • p. 245
  • Old beliefs die hard even when demonstrably false.
    • p. 256
  • If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth.
    • p. 262
  • The essence of humanity's spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another.
    • p. 264
  • Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself. No one wished it so, but we are the first species to become a geophysical force, altering Earth's climate, a role previously reserved for tectonics, sun flares, and glacial cycles. We are also the greatest destroyer of life since the ten-kilometer-wide meteorite that landed near Yucatan and ended the Age of Reptiles sixty-five million years ago. Through overpopulation we have put ourselves in danger of running out of food and water. So a very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic.
    • p. 277-278

The Diversity of Life

  • Stable climates with muted seasons allow more kinds of organisms to specialize on narrower pieces of the environment, to outcompete the generalists around them, and so persist for longer periods of time. Species are packed more tightly. No niche, it seems goes unfilled. Specialization is likely to be pushed to bizarre, beautiful extremes.

Gaia Atlas of Planet Management

  • The worst thing that can happen during the 1980s is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s 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 that our descendents are least likely to forgive us.

Biophilia (1984)

  • The naturalist is a civilized hunter. He goes alone into the field or woodland and closes his mind to everything but that time and place, so that life around him presses in on all the senses and small details grow in significance. He begins the scanning search for which cognition was engineered. His mind becomes unfocused, it focuses on everything, no longer directed toward any ordinary task or social pleasantry.


  1. Novacek, Michael J. (2001). Lifetime achievement: E.O. Wilson. CNN.com. Retrieved on 2006-11-08.

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