E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature
By Richard Rhodes
The scientist and naturalist E. O. Wilson has always reminded me of the great 19th-century German polymath and explorer Alexander von Humboldt: Both obsessed with empirical observation and detailed field study, they are also great synthesizers. They have the ability to focus on the tiniest detail — the minuscule gland of a fire ant, for example, in Wilson’s case — but can also zoom out to examine comparative patterns across species and global environments. Their minds are microscopic and telescopic at the same time. Their scientific books are sweeping in scope and thoroughly researched but also reveal their deep love for the natural world. And both are driven by what Wilson calls the “amphetamine of ambition.”
Wilson did not have a happy childhood. He was born in 1929 in Birmingham, Ala. His parents divorced when he was 7 and after that he lived an itinerant life with his alcoholic father. Over a period of nine years, Wilson went to 14 different schools. He found comfort in nature because “animals and plants I could count on,” he later explained, “human relationships were more difficult.” The young boy spent as much time outdoors as possible — Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., Wilson remembers, “became Uganda and Sumatra writ small.”
He was a lanky teenager who crawled on forest floors in search of the fascinating “netherworld” of ants. A childhood fishing accident left him partially blind and so he turned his healthy eye to small things that could be picked and brought up close to be inspected. At the age of 13, Wilson decided to survey a vacant plot of land next to his family’s house to find every nest and species of ant there. He made, in his own words, “the find of a lifetime” when he discovered an ant he had never seen before: an invasive red fire ant that had arrived from Argentina. In 1942, when he spotted it, no one had yet reported the presence of the invasive species in America. He also became a dedicated member of the Boy Scouts, an organization that brought his favorite pursuits together: outdoor life and natural history.
Most of these childhood descriptions are based on Wilson’s own memoir, “Naturalist,” from which Richard Rhodes quotes extensively and almost exclusively in his own new biography, “Scientist.” It’s also through these quotes that the reader comes the closest to Wilson as a person. Though Rhodes met Wilson and interviewed him, he includes little about Wilson’s later private life. We meet the naturalist, the scientist and later the activist, but not the husband, father and friend.
By the time he was a teenager, Wilson knew that he wanted to become a field biologist. In 1946, he enrolled at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and continued his studies in 1951 at Harvard University, where he later completed his Ph.D. Rhodes describes how a series of mentors took the young man under their wings. Alongside the story of Wilson’s professional career, Rhodes provides a useful broader scientific context, like the succinct account of Darwin’s theories he offers when describing Wilson’s immersion in evolutionary biology (a term Wilson himself coined in 1958). Similarly, Rhodes writes about the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA when setting up how Wilson met its co-discoverer James Watson.
The clash between the two young biologists who started teaching at Harvard at the same time, in 1956, is a poignant reminder of the divisions in biology in the mid-20th century — the “molecular wars,” as Wilson called it. Buoyed by his success, Watson believed that biology should move into laboratories to apply the principles of physics and chemistry. He looked with disdain at field biologists such as Wilson, or “stamp collectors,” as he derisively called them. And though Wilson was excited about the new advances, he believed that there was more to biology than molecules — he was interested in the relationships within and between species. Watson, Wilson recalls in his memoir was “the most unpleasant human being I had ever met.” The dislike was mutual. When Wilson received tenure at Harvard, Watson stomped through the Biological Laboratories’ halls, shouting a string of expletives. Wilson retaliated by calling Watson “the Caligula of biology.”
Rhodes continues his story of Wilson’s professional life by recounting the scientist’s experiments on ant communication and island ecologies, as well as the publication and reception of some of his most famous books, such as the magisterial “Insect Societies” in 1971, his controversial “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” in 1975, and his love letter to nature, “Biophilia,” in 1984. This is all interesting enough but the telling is sometimes a little flat. In his analysis of Wilson’s books, for example, Rhodes relies heavily on long quotes from said publications, which makes the text clunky. Given that E. O. Wilson himself is such a great writer, it feels somehow wrong that his life isn’t told in all its kaleidoscopic and colorful nuances.
Wilson is a scientist who celebrates the wonder of nature. He popularized the term “biophilia,” defining it as the love for the natural world and “‘the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms.” He eventually became an activist, one of the few scientists who dared to leave the comfort and security of the ivory tower. The trigger was, Rhodes explains, a report in the late 1970s, published by the U.S. National Research Council, which stated that the world was losing one species a day, rather than one a year as most biologists had previously believed. Rhodes describes how Wilson made it his mission to create public awareness of this mass extinction and loss of biodiversity. Wilson rallied fellow scientists, wrote articles and books, lectured and tried to convince others of his cause. He also underlined the importance of field biology. How can we hope to save species from extinction, Wilson asked, if we don’t even know them?
Wilson is the author of more than 30 books and almost 500 scientific papers. As Rhodes summarizes in the last chapter of “Scientist,” he founded a new field of scientific research, received more than 45 honorary degrees, is a member of more than 35 scientific organizations and societies, and has won dozens of awards — yet he has achieved so much more. My guess is that Wilson has inspired a great many young men and women to swap lab coats for muddy boots and go out into the field again. And like Alexander von Humboldt, Wilson is also a master of science communication.
In the past, Wilson has deployed great storytelling to convey his arguments. I’ve read many books about nature, climate change and the loss of biodiversity, but I will never forget a short passage that I came across five years ago in Wilson’s book “Half-Earth.” In one of the early chapters he writes about the decline of freshwater mollusks (so important for filtering and cleaning water) in American rivers. He finishes his account by simply listing the names of all river mussels that have been driven to extinction in the Mobile and Tennessee River basins so that we might know about their loss: coosa elktoe, sugarspoon, angled riffleshell, Ohio riffleshell, Tennessee riffleshell, leafshell, yellow blossom, narrow catspaw, forshell and 10 other species. It’s a terse obituary, yet deeply touching in its matter-of-fact way. They are lost. All of them. Forever. It’s also a passage that illustrates how Wilson brings together the small detail with the greater picture, the scientific observation with the emotional sentiment. Little of this passion comes across in “Scientist.” Rhodes clearly admires Wilson but, sadly, this short biography only scratches the surface of a remarkable life.