Edward O. Wilson: A Personal Tribute

Out of his many accomplishments, the late ecologist’s conservation work will be his most lasting legacy.

The lights went down in the large lecture hall in McGill University, and the visiting speaker started flashing overhead slides to illustrate his points, each one depicting comical drawings of little people performing acts of altruism towards members of their own family. It was November, 1977, and Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University was there to explain his new theory of sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of social behavior, which was then only about two years old. My friends and I may have laughed at the little figures shown risking their lives for kin (what counts in his theory isn’t the individual so much as the successful survival of genes), but we sensed that something excitingly disruptive had been born. And we were hearing it explained by the theorizer himself.

Scientist, naturalist, and author ​E.O. Wilson died on December 26 at the age of 92. Photo by Jim Harrison.

Through his books and many ripples of influence in the natural sciences, E.O. Wilson went on to become a towering figure in my pantheon for decades. His final public appearance before his December, 2021 death was a discussion with fellow nonagenarian hero of nature, Sir David Attenborough, in the Half-Earth Day 2021 virtual summit. I watched it in October.

The middle of the twentieth century spawned legions of groundbreaking thinkers in the natural sciences, from Rachel Carson to James Watson, Paul Ehrlich to Jane Goodall. Yet Wilson still managed to distinguish himself with the quantity and quality of his accomplishments, any one of which alone could have inscribed his name in the history of science. Consider that, in addition to sociobiology, he developed the theory of island biogeography, which arose from his challenging field work in the Florida Keys with mathematical biologist Robert MacArthur. The theory grew into Wilson’s first book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, in 1967, co-written with his brilliant Harvard colleague. While still a schoolboy, Wilson began his study of ants (he even alerted authorities to the arrival of invasive fire ants in his home state). He dominated the field of myrmecology for decades, turning his findings into several books, including two that won the Pulitzer Prize. He filled yet other books with his thoughts and research on biodiversity, and ended his life still promoting Half-Earth, his proposal that half the planet’s area be set aside for wildlife.

My favorite E.O. Wilson book has to be Biophilia: The Human Bond With Other Species (1984), which I read in 1987. For years, I had been perching on the edge of the natural world that had comforted me as a young person, and that led to my choosing Biology as a university major, Ecology as area of specialization. After I graduated, I was preoccupied with almost everything but ecology. Yet the fierce love of nature must have been smoldering under the surface, like the vestiges of a once-intense forest fire. That may explain why I snapped up Wilson’s book as soon as I saw it in a local store. It spoke to me, the real me that had been buried by good and bad distractions. Before long, my poetry and photography reflected my resurrected obsession with nature, and so did my book collection. I called myself a “born-again environmentalist.”

Two years after reading the book, I enrolled in graduate school in environmental studies. Almost every project, every dream of the work I was meant to do, involved biophilia, which Wilson defines as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” It also, I’m sad to say, involved (and still involves) excessive preoccupation with the absence of biophilia. Many people feel empathy for animal suffering and outrage over clear-cut forests, but suppress those feelings in the service of the so-called real world of dollars and cents. I credit Wilson’s book for triggering my transformation into an armchair eco-warrior, and for giving my avocation significance and direction at last.

Biophilia and its study informed everything Wilson lived for, as if he never stopped being the 10-year-old boy who collected snakes and watched ant colonies for hours at a time. That is why he fought so hard for biodiversity (the word itself coined by ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, who died just a day before him). In several of his books that are heavy on autobiographical material, Wilson alludes to his need to replenish himself by getting out of the office and classroom to return to the field, usually in a tropical area. (More and more of us can identify with that near-visceral craving for green spaces these days, I imagine.) His relief at being in a wild place radiates from the page.

I did not love everything he wrote, I have to admit. The very first serious book review I ever wrote was of Consilience, his 1998 attempt to create another grand synthesis of knowledge following his work on sociobiology. He believed a Theory of Everything, which would combine various disciplines into a single explanatory system, would help us from “drowning in information, while starved for wisdom.” I shared that dream, but I found his uncritical love of Enlightenment thinking somewhat troubling. It is so easy to stand in awe of human reason. At least Wilson was under no illusion that rational thinking alone could solve our problems. That is why, over and over, he celebrated art and wonder. We will not fight for what we do not love.

We are so fortunate that he found time to write many books in his long career, for they are not only packed with information about his research and stories about his adventures, they are eloquent, inspiring, and immensely comforting — which is a strange thing to say, perhaps, about books that often speak grimly about the way human beings have mangled the web of life.

Rereading some of his work these past weeks, I found myself mildly shocked at how much faith he had in our ability to change our willful and careless ways in time to allow healing of the fractured biosphere. He always had hope. When I checked the dates on the books, however, I realized that he fostered such hopes more than 20 years ago. So much more has gone wrong since then. And a good deal of it happened because we didn’t listen to E.O. Wilson’s impassioned pleas when we still could have avoided many tipping points now in evidence, such as the rash of heat-related natural disasters last year alone. Yet, neither in his Half-Earth discussions, nor anywhere else, did I suspect that these and other disasters diminished his resolve. If anything, they strengthened it.

For Wilson and many of his associates, the upsurge of emotion felt in a forest or swamp did not end there. Nor did it end at the front of a classroom, or in the pages of prestigious journals. It spread into the political realm. It led a call for change, a call to protect our natural world and all its diversity. That is the difference between hope and optimism: Hope always requires our participation. It never assumes things will work out somehow.

Like Wilson’s thinking in general, his conservation work had global scope, implications far beyond the United States — and it was mainly due to his great gift for combining science with art, appealing to minds and hearts. Out of all his remarkable accomplishments, I dare say it will be his most lasting and easily identifiable legacy.

I’m sure he would have had no problem with that. I doubt anyone who cares about this incredible world would, either.

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