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Edward O. Wilson

Edward Osborne Wilson was born June 10, 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama USA). He is a distinguished biologist (entomology), a seminal researcher (sociobiology) and provocative theorist (consilience, biophilia), a passionate naturalist (conservationism, biodiversity), and a prominent man of letters. Wilson is highly regarded for his soundness and equanimity as a scientist; his creativity and moral courage as an advocate for environmentalism; and his sage and sympathetic understanding as a scientific humanist concerned with religious, moral, and ethical matters. He is currently the Pellegrino Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

Wilson's specialty is ants. He is famous for starting the sociobiology debate, one of the greatest scientific controversies of the late 20th century, when he suggested in his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) that animal (and by extension human) behavior can be studied using an evolutionary framework. He is also credited with bringing the term biodiversity to the public.

Wilson's many scientific and conservation honors include the 1990 Crafoord Prize, a 1976 U.S. National Medal of Science, and two Pulitzer Prizes. In 1995 he was named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in America.

He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, attained the rank of Eagle Scout (Boy Scouts of America)|Eagle Scout, graduated (B.S. and M.S.) from the University of Alabama and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He received a D.Sc. from Bates College in 1996 and has received other honorary degrees from various colleges and universities.

Early life

After the divorce of his parents, Edward and Inez Wilson, at the age of seven, Wilson grew up in several different cities and towns, moving around with his father, and stepmother Pearl. In his autobiography Naturalist he describes his formative years in [Washington DC and in the countryside around Mobile, Alabama.From an early age he was interested in natural history. At the age of seven he was blinded in the right eye by a cataract (caused by a fish fin which jerked into his eye while fishing); this accident reduced his ability to watch mammals and birds and so he concentrated instead on insects. At nine years of age Wilson held his first expeditions at Rock Creek Park.[citation needed] At the age of sixteen, intent on becoming an entomologist, he began by collecting flies, but the shortage of insect pins caused by the Second World War caused him to switch to ants, which could be stored in vials, and with the encouragement of Marion R. Smith, a myrmecologist from the National Museum of Natural History,he began a survey of all the ants of Alabama.

Entering university (the only way to pursue a career in entomology) at that time was an unusual choice and Wilson felt that he and his family would be unable to afford it. For this reason he attemped to enlist in the US Army so that after leaving the army he could get assistance in paying for college. However he failed the medical due to his impaired sight. He was able to enter college, however, as the University of Alabama was open to all graduates of Alabama's high school system, and which had affordable fees.


Wilson coined the phrase scientific humanism (when referring to Humanism) as "the only worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature". [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Academic work

The selfish gene

Wilson has argued that the preservation of the gene, rather than the individual, is the focus of evolution (a theme explored in more detail and popularized by Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene).


Wilson inadvertently created one of the greatest scientific controversies of the late 20th century when he suggested that animal (and by extension human) behaviour can be studied using an evolutionary framework, which came to be known as sociobiology.


In his book 'Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge' (1998) Edward O. Wilson argued that it was time for a cooperation of all the sciences to explore human nature. He defined human nature as a collection of epigenetic rules: the genetic paterns of mental development. Cultural phenomena, rituals etc. are products, not part of human nature. Artworks, for example are not part of Human nature, but our appreciation of art is. And this art appreciation, or our fear for snakes, or incest taboo (Westermarck effect) can be studied by the methods of reductionism. Until now these phenomena were only part of psychological, sociological or anthropological studies. Wilson proposes that it can be part of interdisciplinary research.


Some critics accused Wilson of racism. At a conference in 1978, members of the International Committee Against Racism poured water on his head and chanted "Wilson, you're all wet". The controversy caused a great deal of personal grief for Wilson; some of his colleagues at Harvard, such as Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould, were vehemently opposed to his ideas.

Wilson was surprised by attacks on his theory, much to the astonishment of his critics. He wrote that “the political objections forcefully made by the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People in particular took me by surprise.” Wilson had not considered his paper relevant to political analysis such as Marxists offered. He was annoyed with his critics for “blind-siding” him. He objected that no one had made him aware of their feelings while he was writing his book, even though several of them, Gould and Lewontin included, were well aware of his project. Furthermore, he was angered because he felt that the critics were being hysterical and misrepresenting his position. He rejected the charge that his theory was biologically deterministic, and pointed to several passages in articles he had written which he claimed had already addressed their concerns, for example,

"The moment has come to stress that there is a dangerous trap in sociobiology, one which can be avoided only by constant vigilance. The trap is the naturalistic fallacy of ethics which uncritically concludes that what is, should be. The ‘what is’ in human nature is to a large extent the heritage of a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer existence. When any genetic bias is demonstrated, it cannot be used to justify a continuing practice in present and future societies." (New York Times Magazine)

A result of these controversies has been his work "Genes, Mind and Culture: The coevolutionary process" (1981) coauthored with Charles Lumsden. This very mathematical work has been popularized in "Promethean fire: reflections on the origin of mind" (1983). The paradigm of coevolutionary process takes its place in the history of modern science and anthropology.


Wilson has also studied the mass extinctions of the 20th century and their relationship to modern society. He explains:

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.

and adds:

Let us get rid immediately of the notion that all you have to do is keep a little patch of the old growth somewhere, and then you can do whatever you want with the rest. That is a very dangerous and false notion.

He concludes:

Had people taken the alert signals seriously, as intelligent people must, this 1992 book [The Diversity of Life] would have set the basis for a new level of discussions on the environment and the current ongoing worldwide biotic holocaust exterminating species at the rate of one every 20 minutes. People might be working on solutions by now instead of still wallowing in ignorance. The facts are clearly and well laid out. The evidence is presented, the theories and data explained at length, at a reasonable cost in paperback (or free from the public lending library). Eight years later people are still presenting in public flawed paradigms (perhaps deliberately) to excuse their gluttonous behaviour which is crushing the planetary life-support systems.

– E. O. Wilson 2000

Main works



  • Wilson, E.O. and Bossert, W.H. (1963) Chemical communication among animals, Records of Progress in Hormone Research 19: 673-716


Among Wilson's many awards for his works are two Pulitzer Prizes for his 1978 On Human Nature and 1991 The Ants (with Bert Hölldobler), The U.S. National Medal of Science, The Craaford Prize (the highest award given in the field of ecology), the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the Nierenberg Prize.

See also

External links

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