A tribute to Professor EO Wilson

In the days following the passing of Edward O. Wilson, obituaries proliferated in newspapers and journals, and the web was flooded with blogs and messages lamenting his loss and recounting his many scientific and social contributions, and often his personal interactions with their authors. Ed was 92 and challenged by substantial health problems for over a decade, so we were saddened by his death but not shocked, and grateful for all those years he was with us. His state was such that he could command attention on urgent issues, and he was extremely generous even near the end in doing so in the service of conservation.

The details of Ed’s life and scientific career are nicely bookended by his autobiography, Naturalist (1994), and the new biography by Richard Rhodes, Scientist (2021), the titles of which convey the essence of his outlook on how to study biology and his stunning accomplishments as he did so. Ed was always interested in the big picture: global and regional patterns (eg the dynamic equilibrium theory of island biogeography; the taxon cycle), universal principles (eg sociobiology), the status of the biosphere (eg biodiversity and threats to it). His inspirations and explorations at these levels were always informed by details of the biology of species after species after species – natural history.

However these volumes do not capture the warmth of Ed’s many personal interactions and the attention and assistance he lavished on so many of us, as numerous blogs, Facebook posts and the like are now doing. My own memories of Ed have centered as much on these interactions as on the great scope of his scientific contributions.

I first met Ed in 1963, as I was beginning my senior undergraduate year at Harvard. As a math major who had decided that he probably did not want to pursue a career in mathematics, I was struggling to imagine what I ought to do next. A classmate, aware that I was greatly enjoying George Wald’s famous biology course for non-majors, Nat Sci 5, suggested I go talk with the graduate secretary of the Department of Biology, who directed me to the paleoentomologist Frank Carpenter. When I detailed my current situation, including my math background, longstanding interest in natural history (I was collecting insects by age four), and enthusiasm for Nat Sci 5, Carpenter, who incidentally had been Ed’s doctoral advisor, said that my dearth of biology courses would not preclude graduate work in biology. He sent me to see Ed, who, according to Frank, was very interested in using math in important biological research. It is a telling indication of my lack of knowledge at the time that I had not heard of Ed, though he was already well known for his copious research on ants, on biogeography, and for an influential paper with Bill Brown introducing the concept of character displacement.

Despite my remarkable ignorance of his work and the subjects that he studied, Ed was beyond cordial. Our first meeting lasted close to an hour, during which Ed asked about my background and my interests with probing questions about why exactly I was excited by Nat Sci 5. He particularly approved of the fact that I had collected insects as a child. Like Carpenter, he advised me that lack of undergraduate courses in biology was not a hindrance to graduate work. He pointed out that I could quickly catch up, beginning even the next semester (when along with other courses I took Carpenter’s entomology course) and that he could direct me to reading that would also fill in some gaps. Ed was emphatic in this first meeting about his belief that mathematics would prove to be more important in advancing ecological knowledge than molecular biologists were proclaiming their field would be: my earliest introduction to Ed’s skepticism that an understanding of important things in nature could all be reduced to molecules. As an example, he described in some detail the work he was doing with Robert MacArthur on the equilibrium theory that culminated in their 1963 paper in Evolution and classic 1967 book, and why he felt it was exciting and important. At the end of this exhilarating meeting, he urged me to apply to Harvard for graduate work in biology. We continued meeting occasionally, and when the Biology Department made me a generous offer, my mind was made up.

Ed asked me to read critically, over the summer of 1964, the 1963 paper, and as I started my graduate career that fall, he handed me some preliminary drafts of chapters for 1967 book with the same request. A week or two later, he asked what I thought about the entire equilibrium idea. With some trepidation, I replied that it was theoretically fascinating and logical but that, at least as he and MacArthur had presented information so far, there seemed not to be many data to provide direct support to the key hypothesis – that the equilibrium was dynamic, with a substantial amount of ongoing disappearance on islands of existing species and arrival of new ones in roughly equal numbers. His immediate response was both heartening and intimidating: “You know, you’re right. Why don’t you test that?

It was a relief that he didn’t mind the criticism and intimidating that he challenged me to take the criticism further. Thus began the joint adventure that constituted my doctoral dissertation: the ‘defaunation’ by fumigation of several small mangrove islands in the Florida Keys and the laborious censusing and monitoring to see what arthropod species were present there originally, which ones colonised, when they did so, and especially whether any of the colonists then disappeared as the dynamic aspect of the theory posited.

This research itself became somewhat of a classic, so it need not be described here, and it also led me in several directions that have comprised much of my own research career. What does not show up in any of the resultant papers or Ed’s autobiography or biography is that my graduate years with him were an amazing crash course in ecology, evolution, and biogeography. As he had promised, he filled in the gaps – and then some. In boats and on islands and in restaurants and motels in the Keys, then back at the Biological Laboratories at Harvard, he provided innumerable fascinating accounts from his knowledge of biology, and not only of ants. He described, in embryo, his idea that the social insects were only part of a phenomenon that he came to call ‘sociobiology’ and that was later a major thrust of his research career. He spent hours depicting the environmental crisis as he perceived it then, and specifically the threats to what subsequently became known as ‘biodiversity’, especially habitat destruction. His call for half of the Earth to be devoted to the rest of life on the planet was many years in the future, but he was already very specific about sites that should be protected, and he was even specific about the importance of protecting certain with extraordinary numbers of species; this was two decades before Norman Myers publicized biodiversity ‘hot spots’. He was also optimism: he felt that educating the public about the nature and extent of the problem would lead to its solution. Ed was also remarkably interactive. In these discussions he solicited and listened to the opinions and ideas of an enthusiastic but very inexpert graduate student, and in these discussions and in response to my drafts of various dissertation chapters, he was unfailingly constructive.

Ed’s concern for engaging others on equal terms, and thoughtful consideration of the feelings of others, was manifested throughout our occasional interactions after I completed my dissertation. He made several trips to Florida State University and the University of Tennessee. He always devoted time to meeting with the students and postdoctoral fellows in my laboratory to learn what they were working on, and to respond to questions they might have about his opinion of their projects or any other matter. And on each of these trips, which also invariably included exploration for ants, he asked me to arrange for several students to accompany him into the field. They always came back both excited by the scientific interaction and impressed that a renowned scientist was so patient in engaging them.

Ed’s thoughtfulness is epitomised for me by an event that occurred around 2006, when a documentary crew shot part of a biographical film about Ed in the Florida Keys. Much of the footage appeared in the PBS NOVA documentary Lord of the Ants. They had me come down to the Keys to discuss the project with Ed and to recreate part of it by looking for insects on nearby mangrove islands. I decided to take my teenage daughter with me, as she was interested in the process of filming and editing videos. We all ended up at a hotel-restaurant complex in the Middle Keys: Ed, me, the contractor who had performed the island fumigations, the film crew… plus my daughter. Ed recognised right away her isolation in this setting and began talking with her, gradually bringing her in to the group discussion and dynamics. I will always remember Ed for his great, diverse science and effective activism, for the wonderful advisor and colleague that he was, but also for the warmth, thoughtfulness and respect that characterised his interactions.

Dr Daniel Simberloff
Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Science, University of Tennessee and member, IUCN SSC Invasive Species Specialist Group

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