Sunday, May 22

He was called the “ant man” and was loved and hated. 21st Century Darwin is dead.

  • Nils Chr. Stenseth

    Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, University of Oslo

With the death of Edward O. Wilson (pictured), we have lost a natural scientist of great dimensions. With his death, the world has also lost one of nature’s most obvious guardians, writes Nils Chr. Stenseth.

Edward O. Wilson was the scientist who changed the view of ourselves and the nature around us.

The knowledge is Aftenposten’s commitment to research and science, where researchers and professionals from all over the country contribute articles.

Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson – “The Darwin of the 21st century” – died on Christmas Day, aged 92.

Biological research has lost a giant, and the world has lost a clear voice for the conservation of biological diversity.

In addition to a large number of professional articles, he published more than 30 books, many aimed at the general public. In 1995, Time Magazine named him one of the 25 most influential Americans. The encyclopedia Encyclopedia Britannica included him in its guide to history’s 100 most influential researchers.

He received a number of awards, among them the Crafoord Award. It is biology’s answer to the Nobel Prize and is also awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Sweden.

He was active until recently and prepared for a professional trip to Cuba in 2022.

Hated and loved

Wilson is best known to many for the book “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” from 1975.

The book was hated because it sought to understand human behavior and the structure of society based on an evolutionary biological foundation.

And it was loved, albeit by others, for the synthesis Wilson put forward. It is precisely the synthesis – to put together – a wide range of knowledge that has characterized many of Wilson’s professional contributions.

3.5 kilo ant

The start of Wilson’s career, however, was far more nerdy, with studies of ants. He studied both their biological development and social behavior.

In 1971 he published the book “The Insect Societies”. Until recently, Wilson continued his ant studies, and he was often called the “ant man”.

In 1990, he and his colleague Bert Hölldobler, an evolutionary biologist from Arizona State University, published the book “The Ants”. The book weighs 3.5 kilos and could, according to Wilson, kill a human being if it was released from a three-storey building.

In 1991, the book was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in the “General Nonfiction” category.

From weird hobby to landmark

When Wilson began his natural history studies in the 1950s, many considered studying animals and plants in nature a peculiar hobby of little value to modern biological research.

“Stamp collectors” were the label Wilson and his natural history research colleagues received from, among others, Harvard colleague James D. Watson – later known as one of the people behind the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule.

Modern biological research, however, is not either research on ecology or DNA, but both. Wilson’s contribution has been to link ecology (often based on natural history studies), evolution and genetics more closely.

Important in this work was Wilson’s collaboration with Princeton ecologist Robert MacArthur. They developed a mathematical theory for how biological diversity is regulated, under natural conditions: the so-called island biogeography.

In 1967 they published together the book “The Theory of Island Biogeography”. This work became a landmark in ecological research. Ecological nature studies are linked to mathematical modeling – a modernization of ecology.

For Wilson, mathematics in ecology became sterile without natural history. Just as natural history without mathematics often gets messy.

Aroused much indignation

In 1975, Wilson followed up “The Insect Societies” with the book “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis”. There he used the same evolutionary biological methods that he used in the study of ant communities, to understand man and human society.

In the mid-1970s, this caused much outrage, especially among non-biologists. First and foremost because of the last chapter of the book, which was specifically about us humans. Today, this is far more accepted.

In 1978, Wilson followed up with the book “On Human Nature”, a book that focused exclusively on us humans. This book was also honored with a Pulitzer Prize.

Was a great communicator

Wilson was not only an outstanding researcher, but also a great communicator.

Here I would like to highlight the book “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge” from 1998. In it he connects knowledge and theory from a number of disciplines in both the natural sciences and the humanities.

In this book, he follows up “Sociobiology” and “On Human Nature” by emphasizing that much of what we humans do can be understood from biological considerations.

However, he emphasizes that culture and rituals are not part of human nature, but products of it. Similarly, he emphasized that art is not part of our nature, but that the ability to value it is.

Commitment to the protection of biological diversity

Ever since childhood, Wilson had felt close to nature.

In his book “Biophilia” from 1984, he elaborates on this by emphasizing that we humans have an inherent urge to seek fellowship with other living beings and nature. This has provided the basis for his commitment to protecting the Earth’s biological diversity.

I would like to highlight two major initiatives in which Wilson has played a crucial role: “Encyclopedia of Life” and “Half Earth”.

The former with the aim of building a global database with information about all life on Earth. The latter with the aim that half of the Earth should be preserved, as he elaborated in the book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life” (2016).

Here he argued that the only way to avoid a new mass death of species is to preserve half of the Earth’s areas – create nature reserves, if you will. Human activities must take place on the premises of nature, not on our premises.

One of nature’s clearest guardians

One example he constantly highlighted is Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. During a long visit there, he wrote “A Window to Eternity” (2014). The park’s headquarters has a biodiversity laboratory bearing his name: “Edward O. Wilson Laboratory”.

It is a state-of-the-art laboratory with good electrical units. They ensure that expensive equipment and experiments are not destroyed by the many power outages that affect large parts of Africa – including laboratories near the untouched African nature.

Wilson has, not least in connection with the Gorongosa Park, contributed to philanthropists providing money for the conservation of biological diversity.

Wilson inspired the very wealthy American entrepreneur Greg Carr to donate large sums to the further development of Gorongosa Park. Together, Wilson and Carr have contributed to a new trend in nature reserve financing, many of them in low-income countries.

With the death of Edward O. Wilson, we have lost a natural scientist of great dimensions. With his death, the world has also lost one of nature’s most obvious guardians.

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