Wilson, Edward Osborne

Wilson, Edward Osborne, 1929–2021, American sociobiologist, b. Birmingham, Ala., Univ. of Alabama (B.S., 1949; M.S.,1950), Harvard Univ (Ph.D., 1955). Founder of sociobiology, Wilson joined the Harvard faculty in 1956, eventually becoming university professor (1994) and university research professor (1997, emeritus from 2002). His exhaustive study of ants and other social insects, on which he was the world's chief authority, led to his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), a controversial work on the genetic factors in human behavior in which Wilson argued that all human behavior, including altruism, is genetically based and therefore “selfish.” He later called for careful study of “gene-cultural co-evolution.” Critics have called sociobiology a dangerously reductive determinism that could be used to defend notions of racial superiority and eugenics; others have defended Wilson's evidence and biological reasoning.

Wilson's On Human Nature (1978) won the Pulitzer Prize; Biophilia (1984) suggests that human attraction to other living things is innate; Consilience (1998) urges wider integration of the sciences; and The Creation (2006) pleads for secular and religious thinkers to work together to preserve biodiversity. He and Robert H. MacArthur wrote The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967), which examined and sought to explain how isolated natural communities acquire and lose species; it became highly influential in the development of the field of ecology. Other books by Wilson are Insect Societies (1971), The Diversity of Life (1992), The Ants, with Bert Hölldobler (1990; Pulitzer Prize), The Future of Life (2002), The Superorganism, also with Hölldobler (2008), The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), Anthill (2010, a novel), The Meaning of Human Existence (2014), A Window on Eternity (2014), on the destruction and rebirth of Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park, Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life (2016), a call for interconnected development-free zones on half the earth to preserve species, The Origins of Creativity (2017), a plea for a closer relationship between science and the humanities, and Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies (2019), which discusses the transitions and factors that underlie increasing biological and social complexity. Letters to a Young Scientist (2013) celebrates the devoted scientific life.

See his autobiography (1994).

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