The entire Earth was Ed Wilson’s lab. When his death was announced on Monday, I knew that I wanted to write a few words words in his honour, but I also knew that this would be a difficult task. One can not write just a few words about EO Wilson. In fact, there are books recounting his life and legacy. Not bad for an entomologist from Alabama.
The year Wilson turned eight, the Great Depression was biting hard across America. It was also the year that Ed’s mother divorced his alcoholic father. And it was the year that young Ed Wilson lost an eye while fishing. The accident ultimately prevented Wilson from studying plants and large animals, he said, and forced his one good eye to focus where stereo-vision is less important. He looked down to the ants.
Ants fascinated him. (Eventually they would become the subject of one of his two Pulitzer Prize-winning books.) As a child, Wilson set about identifying all the ant species in his neighbourhood. Still in high school, he was first to discover that the South American red fire ant (an extraordinarily damaging invasive pest) had reached the United States. He discovered these ants near his home in Mobile, Alabama, though they were likely established for several years around his harbour town. He was simply the one who was curious enough to spot them. Wilson would make a life out of discovering the obvious, the things hidden in plain sight.
After high school, he tried to enlist in the army – so he could eventually have the GI bill pay for his education. He was rejected due to his sight disability. Somehow he managed to pay for his education at the University of Alabama, then he was invited to Harvard. He earned his PhD there and eventually taught, wrote, and conducted much of his research at Harvard.
I knew Professor Wilson’s work on eusociality, a type of species organization defined by cooperative brood care, overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. In other words, the sort of society we find among ants, bees, and very few other creatures. This concept interests beekeepers, of course. It led to the idea of the “Super-organism” – the colony is a unit, with lungs, thermostat, pantry, defence – even an ovary, shaped like a queen. It can catch a virus, run a fever, become infertile.
EO Wilson was among the first to contemplate one of the most important aspects of eusociality, the seemingly anti-Darwinian nature of self-sacrifice. Very few species among the millions on Earth have individuals willing to die so that others can live. Darwin and his followers maintained that among life’s clearest goals is the reproduction of one’s own kind. This ties survival of the fittest, natural selection, and evolution into a tidy package – any species made up of individuals that do not strive for replication would not exist today. Although humans are likely the only creatures to understand this from a scientific and philosophical vantage, all living things participate in the struggle to survive and reproduce – or perish.
And yet, we have social insects (and sometimes social humans) who sacrifice their lives so that others may live and reproduce. Ants are known to attack an intruder, dying by the hundreds, but continuing to attack until the intruder is dead or gone. Humans have jumped on grenades or marched into cannon fire to serve comrades of their tribe. And bees? Here’s some of what Wilson wrote about the bees’ altruistic nature in his 1979 Pulitzer-winning book, On Human Nature:
Honeybee workers have stings lined with reversed barbs like those on fishhooks. When a bee attacks an intruder at the hive, the sting catches in the skin; as the bee moves away, the sting remains embedded, pulling out the entire venom gland and much of the viscera with it.
The bee soon dies, but its attack has been more effective than if it withdrew the sting intact. The reason is that the venom gland continues to leak poison into the wound, while a banana-like odor emanating from the base of the sting incites other members of the hive to launch kamikaze attacks of their own at the same spot.
From the point of view of the colony as a whole, the suicide of an individual accomplishes more than it loses. The total worker force consists of twenty thousand to eighty thousand members, all sisters born from eggs laid by the mother queen. Each bee has a natural life span of only about fifty days, after which it dies of old age. So to give a life is only a little thing, with no genes being spilled.
Sharing the capacity for extreme sacrifice does not mean that the human mind and the “mind” of an insect (if such exists) work alike. But it does mean that the impulse need not be ruled divine or otherwise transcendental, and we are justified in seeking a more conventional biological explanation. A basic problem immediately arises in connection with such an explanation: fallen heroes do not have children. If self-sacrifice results in fewer descendants, the genes that allow heroes to be created can be expected to disappear gradually from the population. A narrow interpretation of Darwinian natural selection would predict this outcome: because people governed by selfish genes must prevail over those with altruistic genes, there should also be a tendency over many generations for selfish genes to increase in prevalence and for a population to become ever less capable of responding altruistically.
In the last paragraph cited above, Wilson reflects on one of the main results of occasional altruism: “fallen heroes do not have children.” Altruistic genes should fade from mankind, but Wilson goes on to consider that culture, a result of selective pressure, has partially sublimated genetics in our species with respect to altruism. Almost. Wilson oscillates, just as society oscillates, between the roles of culture and genetics. Culture should press toward cooperation and altruism; genetics toward individualism and selfishness.
He writes, “Human beings obviously occupy a position on the spectrum somewhere between the two extremes, but exactly where? The evidence suggests to me that human beings are well over toward the individual end of the spectrum. We are not in the position of sharks, or selfish monkeys and apes, but we are closer to them than we are to honeybees in this single parameter. Individual behavior, including seemingly altruistic acts bestowed on tribe and nation, are directed, sometimes very circuitously, toward the Darwinian advantage of the solitary human being and his closest relatives. The most elaborate forms of social organization, despite their outward appearance, serve ultimately as the vehicles of individual welfare. Human altruism appears to be substantially hard-core when directed at closest relatives, although still to a much lesser degree than in the case of the social insects and the colonial invertebrates. The remainder of our altruism is essentially soft. The predicted result is a melange of ambivalence, deceit, and guilt that continuously troubles the individual mind.”
You may wish to read his classic On Human Nature to learn more. Wilson’s adherence to the role of genetics as an explanation for human behaviour and variation quickly branded him a eugenicist, racist, and troglodyte in some circles. Sociobiological research, which he was instrumental in creating, was at the time particularly controversial with regard to its application to humans. Sociobiology established a scientific argument for rejecting the popular idea that human beings are born no innate mental content. This belief, popular in the early 1970s, states that culture functions to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success. We are born with a blank slate, an uncorrupted brain, which can be programmed with high standards of morality and interpersonal diffidence. In the final chapter of his book Sociobiology (1975), Wilson argued that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture – if not more. There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behaviour, he said.
Critics misunderstood this message, or at least didn’t want it broadcast for fear of lending credence to potentially illiberal ideals. In an attempt to dump cold water on Wilson’s sociobiology conclusions, a pitcher of ice water was dumped on him by demonstrators (who chanted, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”) while he attempted to address a scientific conference in 1978. Wilson, generally appreciated for his calm demeanour, later related that the stunt “may be the only occasion in recent American history on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, simply for the expression of an idea.” Of course, since the 1970s, physical violence against scientists espousing unpopular ideas has vastly expanded.
Ed Wilson’s ecological research was impressive. Besides coining the word “biodiversity,” which he used to explain the fundamental concept of connectivity among Earth’s variety of life forms, he worked on a practical level to enhance sustainability and encourage stewardship for the planet. His get-your-hands-dirty efforts included discovering 400 species of ants – and figuring out the chemical means they use to communicate. By examining islands in the Florida Keys, Wilson determined the importance of habitat size and habitat location that keeps animal populations viable.
Ecologists will continue to associate his name with biodiversity, biogeography, microevolution, group selection, and the taxon cycle. If these concepts feel beyond the reach of the ordinary intelligent non-specialist, consider viewing Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life, an online resource accessible to all of us. Cooperating with the Smithsonian, various biodiversity organizations, and several laboratories, this resource lists and describes millions of species of life. One simple search (“Insects“) returns 1.3 million pages of photos and details; a similar search on “Apiodea” is sure to delight bee enthusiasts – it presents over 75,000 pages of bee images.