EO Wilson, a Birmingham native and former Harvard University biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner whose study of ants and human behavior has made him one of the most influential scientists in the world and sparked his calls for action to protect millions of species on the planet, has passed away. He was 92 years old.
Wilson, a University of Alabama (UA) graduate who spent part of his childhood in southern Alabama, died in Burlington, Massachusetts on Sunday, the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation said. on its website. No cause was given. Wilson was a resident of the nearby town of Lexington, Massachusetts.
âThrough a relentless quest for new knowledge, our friend EO Wilson has taught us to see the natural world in a new and inspiring way,â said AU President Stuart R. Bell. âHis legendary work will continue to encourage future generations of students passionate about science and innovation.
Alabama Legacy Moment: EO Wilson from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
Widely recognized as the foremost authority on ants, Wilson advocated protecting what he called “the little things that run the world,” the millions of billions of insects that help preserve Earth’s biosphere. He warned that half of all animal and plant species are in danger of extinction by the turn of the century if human interference with the environment continues unabated, and that humans would become extinct within months if the insects were eliminated.
“We are going to destroy these ecosystems and the species that make them up, risking our own existence, and unfortunately we are destroying them with relentless ingenuity and energy,” he said in a speech at the TED conference in 2007.
Wilson applied his study of ants to other organisms, including humans, to develop a science known as sociobiology. His notion that genetics and evolution play a role in social behavior has been challenged by those who have argued that his ideas justify some forms of discrimination. Wilson’s 1978 Pulitzer-winning book “On Human Nature” addressed his critics by elaborating on the connection between biology and human behavior in areas such as morality, sex and aggression.
After joining Harvard College in the mid-1950s, Wilson embarked on a study of ants and discovered that they communicated with each other through chemicals called pheromones, and formed new species. related when faced with adverse conditions. Originally proposing the concept of sociobiology in ants and other tiny creatures in “The Insect Societies” (1971), Wilson returned to his main area of ââexpertise two decades later to produce “The Ants”, co-authored with Bert Hoelldobler , which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
He claimed that ants – as well as humans – become “super-organisms” by acting in groups and showing selflessness and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the species. His views have been challenged by some academics, including Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins, who rejected Wilson’s ‘group selection’ model of evolution and argued that ‘survival of the fittest’ applies to a single gene.
The “father of biodiversity”, as Wilson was also called, attempted to unify the natural sciences with the humanities and said there was still time to reverse a “sixth extinction” of most species of the planet if environmental degradation was stopped. Mass extinctions generally occur every 100 million years; the last dates back 65 million years, when dinosaurs became extinct, he said in a 2010 interview.
Edward Osborne Wilson was born June 10, 1929 in Birmingham, son of Edward O. Wilson and the former Inez Freeman. His father, a government accountant, often moved with his family for assignments in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, according to the American Academy of Achievement. Wilson’s parents divorced when he was about 7, he writes in his 1994 autobiography, titled “Naturalist.”
An only child, Wilson developed a fascination with the natural world while exploring Rock Creek Park in Washington and during a summer beach vacation near Pensacola, Florida.
His fate as an ant lover was sealed on the same trip when he permanently damaged his right eye while fishing. Losing his vision from afar, he was unable to pursue his interest in birding, and a congenital hearing loss prevented him from choosing frogs as an alternative subject of study.
âThen I would celebrate the little things in the world, the animals that can be picked up between thumb and forefinger and brought together for inspection,â he wrote in his autobiography.
At 13 living in Mobile, Wilson discovered the first colonies of non-native fire ants. Local authorities tasked him with investigating the insects, which threatened agriculture in the state, while he was in college, according to the American Academy of Achievement website. He received a BA in Biology in 1949 and an MA in Biology, both from AU, the following year. He received a doctorate in biology from Harvard in 1955. He returned to his native state frequently as a lecturer and resident scholar, and was inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.
As a fellow of the Harvard’s Society of Fellows, Wilson conducted research on ant species in Cuba, Mexico, and the South Pacific for three years, starting in 1953. He joined the university faculty. in 1956 and remained there for almost 60 years.
Wilson has written over two dozen books, including âThe Theory of Island Biogeographyâ (1967), with Robert MacArthur; “Sociobiology: the new synthesis” (1975); âConsilience: the unity of knowledgeâ (1998); and âThe Social Conquest of the Earthâ (2012). He has served as director of the American Museum of Natural History, Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund.
He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1976, the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1990, and the International Prize for Biology in 1993. In 1995, he was named one of Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential Americans. .
His wife, former Irene Kelley, was predeceased by him, according to the Wilson Foundation. They had a daughter, Catherine.
(Courtesy of the Alabama NewsCenter)