It sometimes happens that great works and careers emerge from misfortune; Frida Kahlo’s painting might not exist without the serious bus accident that almost took her life. Some might say that this occurs in the world of art, but that in science the characters are more replaceable, as someone eventually makes the discoveries. But in science, too, adversity can forge outstanding careers, such as that of Edward Osborne (E. O.) Wilson (10 June 1929 – 26 December 2021), the world’s leading expert on ants, the father of sociobiology, defender of biodiversity and one of the great science popularisers. And while his recent death has fuelled controversy over accusations of racism, it is worth asking whether we should give as much weight to the persona of the author as to his work, at the risk of losing many of his great contributions to humanity.
The man who would come to be known as Ant Man, or Lord of the Ants, was a humble boy in provincial America with few expectations of becoming a world figure in science: an only child from a broken family, with an alcoholic father who would commit suicide. In 1936, at the age of seven, Edward was sent to spend the summer with a foster family in Florida while his parents divorced. His passion for nature helped to shelter him from his difficult boyhood, but here too he was unlucky: that summer he pulled too hard on his fishing line and his catch hit him in the face. It was a bream of the species Lagodon rhomboides, commonly known as a pinfish, a well-earned name as the anterior dorsal fin has 12 rigid spines. And Wilson was unfortunate enough to have one of them scratch his right pupil.
The misfortunes behind Ant Man
“The pain was excruciating, and I suffered for hours,” he wrote in his autobiography, Naturalist (Island Press, 1994). Nevertheless, anxious to stay outdoors, he carried on fishing. For reasons he himself could not quite remember, his host family did not take him to the doctor, and it was months later, back home, that he developed a cataract from the trauma. A visit to the hospital was then unavoidable, no longer to save the eye but to remove the lens. Wilson described the operation as “a terrifying nineteenth-century ordeal.” He was held down on a stretcher while ether was administered in a gauze cone over his nose and mouth.
According to Wilson himself, that calamity determined what kind of naturalist he would become. Having lost the sight in his right eye, the vision in his left eye became particularly acute, so much so that he could even count the hairs on the bodies of small insects with the naked eye. This was compounded by a second misfortune, a likely congenital defect that in his adolescence caused him to become noticeably deaf to high-pitched sounds, which prevented him from hearing birdsong. Thus, half deaf and partially sighted, but with almost a natural magnifying glass in his only functional eye, the object of his attention was clear: small creatures that don’t make noise. As an enthusiastic youthful entomologist, he focused on flies, until a final stroke of luck set him on his definitive path. During World War II, there was a shortage of pins for mounting insect specimens. Ants, on the other hand, could be preserved in vials of alcohol. So it was to be myrmecology in the end. And E. O. Wilson would not be just another myrmecologist, but the best in the world.
In fact, it was his determination and talent that would take him from facing the prospect of not being able to enter university, because he couldn’t afford it, to eventually being accepted at Harvard and continuing there with his doctorate and as a professor. In the 1950s, he began his time as a travelling naturalist, collecting ants in various countries in the Americas, Oceania and Asia. In the history of science there have been many scientists who have contributed to compiling the inventory of terrestrial life in this way, discovering countless new species, describing and classifying them. But few have done something infinitely more fundamental, unravelling the workings of nature, as detectives gather clues and evidence at the scene of a crime to reconstruct what happened. Based on his observations as a naturalist, Charles Darwin understood that natural selection was the essential mechanism of evolution. Wilson is among Darwin’s great heirs with the founding credit for his own branch of science: sociobiology, a concept born decades earlier but officially inaugurated in 1975 with his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press).
The official birth of sociobiology
Sociobiology drew on the sources of contemporary knowledge about biological evolution, along with Wilson’s own discoveries about the behaviour of insects and the organisation of their societies. During these studies, in collaboration with his student Daniel Simberloff and the ecologist and mathematician Robert MacArthur, Wilson conducted a famous experiment that would be unacceptable today. To understand how the isolation and size of a territory affected its biological diversity, the researchers sprayed mangrove islets in the Florida Keys with chemicals to exterminate all the insects and then observed how they were repopulated until a new equilibrium was reached.
The results led to a study and a book (The Theory of Island Biogeography, 1967) considered foundational in ecology. The theory of island biogeography developed by Wilson and MacArthur, although today considered too simplistic, was taken up by other scientists as a wake-up call about the risk of species extinction due to the progressive isolation of pockets of nature between lands occupied and transformed by humans, inspiring the adoption of measures such as wildlife corridors. In his later years, Wilson emerged as one of the fathers of biodiversity and one of the pioneers of an important generation of scientists promoting environmental conservation, alongside names such as Paul Ehrlich and Thomas Lovejoy (who also died in 2021, one day before Wilson). Among his prolific work in popular science, two of his books won Pulitzer Prizes: On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991).
With all this, Wilson fashioned his greatest scientific legacy—sociobiology—but it was also the most controversial aspect of his career. He proposed that the individual and social behaviour of species was essentially governed by what he described as a “genetic leash” resulting from evolution and the environmental influence on it. Wilson extended this principle, born of his studies of insect societies, to vertebrates and, in the last chapter of his 1975 book, to humans as well. The theory had a major influence on the fields of anthropology, ethology, sociology and evolutionary psychology. But a section of the scientific community openly rejected the genetic determinism and biological automatism of behaviour advocated by Wilson, judging that it also fuelled eugenic, racist and sexist ideas. Among his greatest critics was the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom in 2011—Gould had died in 2002—Wilson harshly branded a “charlatan” in search of reputation and credibility.
A controversial figure
Regardless of what certain ideological sectors may have derived from his theories, and although in his later years Wilson moved away from his earlier deterministic view, his legacy is complicated, as University of California clinical scientist Monica R. McLemore described in Scientific American in the days following his death. The article by McLemore, an African-American, was met by an open letter of rejection led by science blogger Razib Khan, who has been linked to racist movements. In an interview with The Harvard Gazette in 2014, Wilson lamented that his ideas had been twisted to promote racism and sexism. “I tried to be cautious,” he said. “I should have been more politically careful, by saying this does not imply racism, it does not imply sexism.”
But recently two separate pairs of researchers have uncovered a series of letters from Wilson to J. Philippe Rushton, a Canadian psychologist known for his support of eugenics and for advocating the existence of intellectual, personality and sexual behavioural differences between races due to genetic factors, and whose key studies were retracted. In his correspondence, Wilson praised Rushton’s work, and went so far as to lament that he himself was prevented from speaking more freely by the dominant culture, a “leftward revival of McCarthyism.” When Rushton’s work was pilloried by his university, Wilson sent letters of support and sought endorsements from a conservative academic association. In 2014, Wilson praised journalist Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, which had been accused of racism and pseudoscience.
The reaction of the scientific community to these new revelations has been ambivalent. The discoverers of these documents suggest that the myrmecologist was guarding his public image by moderating his discourse on what he actually thought; others suggest that their significance is being exaggerated. It is possible that the public image of the Lord of the Ants will worsen in the years to come. At least there is one part of his legacy that will never be tarnished, his fundamental drive for the conservation of nature.