Natural Wonder : At heart, Edward Wilson’s an ant man. But it’s his theories on human behavior that stir up trouble.
As a boy in Alabama, Edward O. Wilson hated fistfights. But he never ran from a scrap. Beaten and bloody, he wore his scars with pride.
Lord knows he tried to ignore the bullies who taunted him. Yet the ritual of fighting to prove himself seemed to haunt him wherever he went.
“Perfect training for a scientist,” quips Wilson. “It’s especially good if you travel a lot in strange territories like I have. When you take on foreign tribes, there’s trouble.”
Today, the kid who came home black-and-blue is one of the world’s premier biologists and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. More comfortable in front of a microscope than a microphone, he’s been drawn into one nasty controversy after another during a 43-year career at Harvard University, much of it spent on the cutting edge of scientific thought.
Wilson is the world’s leading authority on ants, yet he’s gained more attention for his work in sociobiology--the genetic and evolutionary roots of animal behavior--and for his support of biodiversity in tropical rain forests. A reluctant warrior in wingtip shoes, he’s a hero to many but a perennial target for critics, who call him everything from a Nazi to a knee-jerk liberal.
Long before the current debate over race, genetics and intelligence, Wilson sparked an uproar by suggesting that biology shapes human traits, ranging from the sexual division of labor and religion to love and aggression. While many of his conclusions are now mainstream, he’s been blasted by colleagues, heckled by demonstrators and had water dumped on his head in a public forum.
Such loathing is hard to imagine when you first meet Wilson in his quiet campus laboratory. In one corner, a collection of Central American ants scurry back and forth, carrying leaves to a makeshift colony. Across the room, a wall of awards, photos and certificates reflect the man’s achievements.
And then there’s Wilson himself: A tall, retiring fellow whose long, bony fingers look like chromosomes. Dressed in an Oxford shirt, rumpled tweed sport coat and dark gray slacks, he’s the scientist from Central Casting, hardly the kind to ignite controversy.
Yet appearances are deceiving.
“This man is a landmark in science, a pioneer in the areas he’s explored,” says Paul Ehrlich, a population biologist at Stanford University. “Ed doesn’t seek out conflicts, but he’s paid a price for his courage.”
Wilson tells the story in “Naturalist” (Island Press), a newly published autobiography. It’s an eye-opening memoir of intellectual growth, showing how he evolved from a reclusive boy hooked on bugs into a scientist who’s duked it out on the world stage.
For those who shun science writing, Wilson’s vivid prose can be a revelation. He’s long had the knack of making complex biology seem relevant to a general audience, and students rate him one of Harvard’s top lecturers. He displays the same skills in his latest book. Listen to him dissect an egotistical colleague:
“He was friendly indeed, but supremely self-possessed and theatrically condescending. On the few occasions we spoke, I could not escape the feeling that he was actually addressing an audience of hundreds seated behind me. At the height of the campus turmoil at Harvard and elsewhere (he) was the speaker of choice . . . the kind of elegant, unworldly intellectual who fires up the revolution and is the first to receive its executioner’s bullet.”
Academic warfare fills the book, and Wilson loves to filter it through a biological lens. Look for the roots of human behavior in the past, he says, whether you go back 50 years or 50 million years. His boyhood fights and faculty clashes may seem anecdotal, but aren’t we really talking about Paleolithic man, male initiation rites and tribal warfare?
“I can’t help but look at the world this way, because the past always repeats itself,” Wilson says with a grin. “We all fight battles, but the roots are buried deep in our biological past . . . deep in our genetic makeup.”
Think you understand sports and politics? Think again.
“If we didn’t have this deep biological drive to root on warring groups, we wouldn’t have million-dollar baseball players,” Wilson suggests. “Or multimillion-dollar Senate races where victory parties look like V-E day.”
As for O.J. Simpson, Wilson says those who have rushed to prejudge the defendant are re-enacting an evolutionary drama much older than tabloid TV.
“We find here one of the most basic conflicts in (prehistoric) society, which is ownership of the female,” he ventures. “There are truly dire conflicts when the female struggles to break away or is claimed by another male.”
A vigorous 66, Wilson has spent decades studying ants, and he was one of the first to discover that the insects communicate with each other by secreting chemical trails. His path-breaking research has also shown evolutionary links between ant behavior and mammals, including human beings.
The pursuit of these links led Wilson to sociobiology and, with it, the controversy that has dogged him much of his career. He’s also been attacked for his views on species extinction.
Based on intensive research and mathematical projections, Wilson suggests that more than 20% of all species could become extinct by 2010 if mankind continues to destroy ecological systems in the rain forests and elsewhere. If the pace of destruction continues, he adds, the toll could rise to 50% within 60 years.
That projection is accepted by many biologists, and Wilson has written widely on the subject. But lately a political backlash has developed against his call to arms. Where’s the proof of such extinction? some critics ask.
“It is such a sweeping generalization,” wrote journalist Stephen Budiansky in U.S. News and World Report last year. “Yet the political climate has made it difficult for scientists to challenge the more politically correct view of Wilson.”
Privately, some colleagues grumble at Wilson’s ability to command media attention. But the spotlight isn’t always flattering. In 1978, left-wing demonstrators opposed to his sociobiological theories shouted him down at a crowded Washington, D.C., forum. Then they dumped ice water on his head.
“Most unpleasant, most disagreeable,” says the biologist, sipping a cup of coffee in his office. “I never wanted any of this conflict.”
Just don’t cross him. Wilson can be courteous to a fault, but he rarely forgets an insult. In his book, he offers a crash course in the viciousness of Harvard politics, and lavishes strong but ironic praise on his enemies.
“My critics served me well,” Wilson says. “They forced me to make myself intellectually tough and to make sure I had the facts to support my work.”
Running his fingers through a thatch of thinning hair, Wilson leans forward and smiles. Always look to the past, he says. The playground bullies of his youth didn’t wear lab coats or pin-stripe suits--but they played the same role.
Born in Birmingham, Wilson stood out from the other kids in one key respect: He never outgrew his bug phase. “Sonny,” as he was called, loved the creatures that filled the forests and streams of sub-tropical Alabama.
Looking back, he chalks up his insect love to family upheaval. His parents divorced when he was 7, and Wilson’s father moved from one job to another. Attending 16 schools during his first 12 years of public education, it was hard to make lasting friends, he recalls, but animals were always there.
Wilson says he was shaped by three American institutions. Southern Baptism gave him an unflagging faith in good works. Military school, which he briefly attended, imbued him with an old-fashioned sense of manliness. And the Boy Scouts, which he adored, left him with respect for honor and courtesy.
“Let’s see you do better in 54 words or less,” he says, reciting the Boy Scout oath. “I drank in and accepted every word. Still do, as ridiculous as that may seem to my colleagues in the intellectual trade.”
Wilson’s love of insects grew, and mentors at the University of Tennessee steered him to Harvard, with its world-class ant collection. He was accepted in 1951 and has been there since. Currently, he’s Pelligrino University Professor and curator in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.
He married Irene Kelley, a poet, in 1955, and the couple had a daughter, Catherine, in 1963. Notoriously private, Wilson says little about his family life in “The Naturalist.” But the book contains painful disclosures.
Just before Wilson began his doctoral studies, his alcoholic father committed suicide. Crushed with grief then, the author now sees it as a turning point. Suddenly, he was free to pursue his calling without family distractions.
“There are times when suicide liberates, and I’m sure that’s happened to quite a few people, whether they admit it or not,” Wilson says. “I guess you reach a certain point in life when you can admit that. For me, it’s time.”
Wilson’s early work focused on evolutionary biology, the study of how animals change over time. His first crisis erupted in the mid ‘50s, when James Watson--an influential Harvard scientist who would later win the Nobel Prize for his role in discovering DNA--accused Wilson and other faculty biologists of pursuing obsolete studies. At one point, it seemed they might lose their jobs.
Although he survived the scare, Wilson was challenged as never before. Now a tenured professor, he began exploring sociobiology during a 1956 trip to Puerto Rico. Observing rhesus monkeys, he wondered how ant and primate societies might be compared, as part of a larger theory of animal behavior.
Years of intense study led to a second crisis, with the 1975 publication of his “Sociobiology” (Harvard-Belknap). In the controversial book, Wilson probed the genetic roots of all animal behavior, including human beings.
Most of its findings, dealing with lower forms of life, won praise. But Wilson set off alarms when he suggested that biology shapes human nature as well. Although he won a National Medal of Science in 1977, criticism was fierce and some faculty members shunned him.
Indeed, his opponents insisted that culture is more influential in determining human nature. In 1975, anthropology professor Stephen Jay Gould and 15 other colleagues wrote a blistering letter about Wilson to the New York Review of Books, saying he provided a “genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex.” These arguments, they said, led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
“I had no interest in ideology,” Wilson says, “yet I had to fight back. I felt keenly betrayed, because my colleagues were politicizing science.”
Twenty years later, many of Wilson’s conclusions have been accepted as mainstream. He has since clarified his theories to argue that human behavior is a product of cultural and genetic evolution. The great challenge facing science, he says, is to probe the way those two influences interact.
Meanwhile, he’s received numerous honors, winning the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for “On Human Nature” (Harvard), a response to sociobiology critics, and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for “The Ants” (Harvard), a 700-page opus written with Bert Holldobler. Yet memories of his bitter conflicts have eased only slightly.
The day he was doused with ice water “may be the only occasion in recent American history on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, for the expression of an idea,” he writes. “How could an entomologist with a penchant for solitude provoke a tumult of this proportion?”
The answer is politics. Once a scientist speaks out, Wilson suggests, the niceties of academic discourse and professional courtesy can quickly disappear. His experience with the biodiversity crisis is a good example.
Wilson couldn’t help but notice the inexorable destruction of tropical rain forests during research trips he took to Asia and Latin America as far back as 1956. Urban sprawl, pesticides and overpopulation were wiping out the precious habitats, and it wasn’t simply an aesthetic problem.
Rain forests contain more flora and fauna than any other part of the world, he notes. They’re a gold mine of medicines, such as cyclosporin--a valuable immune-suppressant that comes from a fungus--and taxol, a drug from the Pacific yew that’s used to treat cancer. More miracle drugs are waiting to be discovered, yet as the rain forests shrink, these resources are threatened.
“What we need is a citizens’ wake-up call for the planet,” he says. “It’s a genuine emergency. Nothing should distract us from this task.”
But politics intervene. Along with other biologists, Wilson testified before Congress, urging passage of an expanded Endangered Species Act to protect entire ecosystems, not just individual animals. He also pushed for congressional ratification of the 1992 Rio Pact on Biodiversity.
Both measures are currently blocked by Washington gridlock, however, and Wilson has been attacked for his efforts. The notion that he has exaggerated the rate of species extinction in shrinking rain forests exasperates him.
“These are not smart criticisms,” he says tartly. “They’re absurd.”
Reciting what he calls an ironclad law of ecology, Wilson says the more you reduce the area in which a species lives, the more its numbers will decline. He cites evidence from studies in the Philippines, Madagascar, Brazil, Florida and the forests of the eastern United States to prove his point.
And then . . . weary of the debate, drained by the endless back and forth, Edward O. Wilson stretches his long legs and allows a smile to cross his face. It’s late in the afternoon, and an autumn chill settles on the campus outside.
“Some people may find it odd, but I never forgot the upbeat attitudes of the Southern Baptist experience,” he says. “And that really comforts me. It’s a rock, especially when you deal with all these conflicts.”
Has the ant-chasing biologist found God in his twilight years?
“I wouldn’t phrase it that way,” Wilson says. “But Southern Baptism is a good-news faith, and I always try to stress the positive in science. So sure, put me down as a good news secular humanist. Let the word go forth.”
In a packed lecture hall, he spreads the word.
Here, biodiversity is more than an abstract concept. Dimming the lights, Wilson shows students a dramatic slide--a nighttime photo of Earth taken by satellites--and points out eerie flames stretching across the Equator, across Latin America and Asia.
They’re fires burning out of control in the rain forests on any given evening. It’s a disturbing sight, yet Wilson says there is still time to save the planet.
On another morning, he compares human beings to ants. Consider man’s selfishness and ambition versus the insects’ drive to help their community. They’ll sacrifice their lives for the common good, if need be.
Biology doesn’t get more basic than this, and Wilson ends the lesson amid gales of laughter by raising the subject of Marxism. Why did it fail?
“Good ideology,” he says dryly. “Wrong species.”