Rob Duffy: From the Library; Edward Wilson

Naturalist: Edward O. Wilson



EDWARD O. WILSON ( at 89) is one of the world’s renowned myrmecologists (studied ants) and has been an enthusiastic naturalist since the age of 7. Growing up in the Alabama swamplands, natural history kept him on an even keel through broken schooling, parental separation and his father’s suicide. Ensconced at Harvard, since the early 1950’s, he pioneered the exploration of New Guinea as an entomologist and developed the study of desert island re-colonisation in the Florida Keys.

Academically, he felt isolated as a naturalist, as thinking on the molecular basis of biology side-lined the relevance of field work in the early 1970’s and in the late 1970’s he courted controversy with promoting sociobiology’s thinking on the genetic determination of populations-all following studies of social insects. He was instrumental in discovering the means of ant communication.

By the 1980’s, he was a committed environmentalist and was associated with the origin of the term “Biodiversity”: He had long ago seen the desecration of Cuba’s natural flora, pre-Castro.

This autobiography at least explains to one miffed 1970’s undergraduate why his Environmental Sciences course studies were subsumed into a Molecular Sciences department offering much lab work but no field work. The setting of population dynamics problems-which also left me confused- was another product of Harvard thinking but the importance of this institution to natural sciences has proved immeasurable.

Wilson is an amiable companion, graceful, even to his scientific detractors and is thus an amenable read, even to this confirmed botanist, horrified at the thought of raiding ant colonies for removal back to a lab far, far away.

Rob Duffy