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definitions - E._O._Wilson

E. O. Wilson (n.)

1.United States entomologist who has generalized from social insects to other animals including humans (born in 1929)

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synonyms - E._O._Wilson

E. O. Wilson (n.)

Edward Osborne Wilson, Wilson

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E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson

October 16, 2007
Born (1929-06-10) June 10, 1929 (age 83)
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
Known for Coining the terms 'sociobiology',
Epic of Evolution,
Character displacement
Notable awards

Pulitzer Prize (1979)
Crafoord Prize (1990)
Pulitzer Prize (1991)

Kistler Prize (2000)
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, the study of ants.

Wilson is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. He is known for his scientific career, his role as "the father of sociobiology", his environmental advocacy, 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. He earned the Eagle Scout award and served as Nature Director of his Boy Scout summer camp. 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. This study led him to report the first colony of fire ants in the US, near the port of Mobile. (first-hand account, Smithsonian Institution talk, April 22, 2010).

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 1996 he officially retired from teaching at Harvard and continues to hold the positions of Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology [5]. He and his wife Irene now reside in Lexington, Massachusetts[6].

  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." Wilson's intended usage of the word "myth" does not denote falsehood - rather, a grand narrative that provides people with placement in time—a meaningful placement that celebrates extraordinary moments of shared heritage.[7] 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:[8]

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.

The worth of the epic, he said is, "The true evolutionary epic retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic."[9]

Cosmologist Brian Swimme concludes in a 1997 interview:[10]

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 have used it in a number of texts. These authors however have at times used other terms to refer to the idea: Universe Story (Brian Swimme, John F. Haught), Great Story (Connie Barlow, Michael Dowd), Everybody's Story (Loyal Rue[11]), New Story (Thomas Berry, Al Gore, Brian Swimme) and Cosmic Evolution (Eric Chaisson[12]).[13][14][15]


Michael McGoodwin paraphrasing and quoting Wilson (pp. 16 and 222) on sociobiology[16]

Sociobiology is defined as the scientific or systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior, in all kinds of organisms including man, and incorporating knowledge from ethology, ecology, and genetics, in order to derive general principles concerning the biological properties of entire societies. "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 the transcendental goals of societies dissolve, and will our post-ideological societies regress steadily toward 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.[16]

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."[17] 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.[18]

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,[19] 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 actual 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",[20] 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 offspring, while finding innovative ways to use the societies they live in for their own benefit.[21]


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 regard 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."[22]

  Spiritual and political beliefs

  Views on religion

As paraphrased by Michael McGoodwin[16]

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, 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".[23] 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.[24] 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."[17] Wilson argues that the belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution.[25] 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 ought to "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."[26]

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."[27]

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.[28] 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.[29]

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,[30] 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.[31]

Politically, Wilson's sociobiological ideas have offended some people 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.[32] In one incident, a member of the International Committee Against Racism poured a pitcher of water on Wilson's head and chanted "Wilson, you're all wet" at an AAAS conference in November 1978.[33] 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."[34]

“I believe Gould was a charlatan,” Wilson told The Atlantic. “I believe that he was ... seeking reputation and credibility as a scientist and writer, and he did it consistently by distorting what other scientists were saying and devising arguments based upon that distortion.”[35]

Religious objections included those of Paul E. Rothrock, who said: "... sociobiology has the potential of becoming a religion of scientific materialism." [36]

  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

  Edited works

  • From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books, edited with introductions by Edward O. Wilson (2010 W.W. Norton)

  See also


  1. ^ a b Novacek, Michael J. (2001). "Lifetime achievement: E.O. Wilson". CNN.com. Archived from the original on 2006-10-14. http://web.archive.org/web/20061014091550/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. ^ Archive.org; E. O. Wilson biography
  4. ^ Edward O. Wilson – Naturalist, Island Press; (April 24, 2006), ISBN 1-59726-088-6
  5. ^ "E.O. Wilson Biography". Academy of Achievement. http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/wil2bio-1. 
  6. ^ "E.O. Wilson Biography". Academy of Achievement. http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/wil2bio-1. 
  7. ^ Connie Barlow. "The Epic of Evolution: Religious and cultural interpretations of modern scientific cosmology". Science & Spirit Magazine. http://www.science-spirit.org/article_detail.php?article_id=31. [dead link]
  8. ^ 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 0-7914-4392-2,
  9. ^ Edward O. Wilson, Consilience 1998
  10. ^ Brian Swimme interview
  11. ^ Rue, Loyal (1999). Everybody's Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution. SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-4392-2. 
  12. ^ Chaisson, Eric (2006). Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-13560-2. 
  13. ^ Thomas, Alfred K. (1989). The Epic of Evolution, Its Etiology and Art: A Study of Vardis Fisher's Testament of Man. University Microfilms International. 
  14. ^ Miller, James B (2003). The Epic of Evolution: Science and Religion in Dialogue. Pearson/Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-093318-X. 
  15. ^ Kaufman, Gordon. The Epic of Evolution as a Framework for Human Orientation, 1997
  16. ^ a b c Edward O. Wilson: On Human Nature - Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1991 [1]
  17. ^ a b E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, New York, Knopf, 1998, pp. 127-128.
  18. ^ Wolfe, Tom (1996). Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died. Vol. 158, Issue 13, pp.210ff. Forbes
  19. ^ Nicholas Wade (July 15, 2008). "Taking a Cue From Ants on Evolution of Humans". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/15/science/15wils.html. 
  20. ^ Wade, Nicholas (May 12, 1998). "Scientist at Work: Edward O. Wilson; From Ants to Ethics: A Biologist Dreams Of Unity of Knowledge". The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D02E6D71F31F931A25756C0A96E958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all. Retrieved May 1, 2010. 
  21. ^ Wilson, Edward O. (March 27, 1997). Karl Marx was right, socialism works. (Interview). Harvard University. http://www.froes.dds.nl/WILSON.htm. 
  22. ^ Richard Conniff "Discover Interview: E.O. Wilson" June 25, 2006.
  23. ^ in Harvard Magazine December 2005 p 33.
  24. ^ The Creation
  25. ^ Human Nature
  26. ^ Naturalist E.O. Wilson is optimistic Harvard Gazette June 15, 2006
  27. ^ Scientist says there is hope to save planet mywesttexas.com September 18, 2009
  28. ^ 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. 
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ 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 0-19-929116-0. 
  31. ^ Sahlins, Marshall David (1976). The Use and Abuse of Biology. ISBN 0-472-08777-0. 
  32. ^ Douglas, Ed (17 February 2001). "Darwin's natural heir". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2001/feb/17/books.guardianreview57. 
  33. ^ Wilson, Edward O. (1995). Naturalist. ISBN 0-446-67199-1. 
  34. ^ David Dugan (writer, producer, director) (May 2008). Lord of the Ants (Documentary). NOVA. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/eowilson/program.html. Retrieved 2008-01-25. 
  35. ^ French, Howard (November 2011). "E. O. Wilson's Theory of Everything". The Atlantic Magazine. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/e-o-wilson-rsquo-s-theory-of-everything/8686/?single_page=true. Retrieved 13 October 2011. 
  36. ^ Mythology of Scientific Materialism. Paul E. Rothrock and Mary Ellen Rothrock
  37. ^ "Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences Recipients". American Philosophical Society. http://www.amphilsoc.org/prizes/franklinscience. Retrieved November 27, 2011 (2011-11-27). 

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