E. O. WILSON WRITES ANOTHER BOOK

by Whit Gibbons


April 9, 2006


I have a brother who has won two Pulitzer Prizes and whose name is the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question ("Who wrote Sociobiology?"). Well, actually he is only an “academic” brother, which means we had the same major advisor for an advanced degree. The advisor was Ralph Chermock at the University of Alabama, where the award-winning writer and I both received our master’s degrees in biology. The Pulitzer Prize winner is Edward O. Wilson, arguably the best known entomologist, ecologist, and biologist in the world.

I doubt Wilson even knows who I am, although if he did he would refer to us as "Chermockians" because of our academic lineage. However, I can assure you that every ecologist anywhere knows of him, because of his prolific writing career and leading edge scientific discoveries. Wilson now has another book, Nature Revealed (2006, Johns Hopkins University Press) that is a consolidation of his major works that charted the course of biological study during the past half century. The previously published book chapters, essays, and scientific articles are reprinted in their original format in chronological order, beginning with his first paper on fire ants. Each published work includes a short preamble providing insight into what influenced Wilson's thinking and putting the paper in the scientific context of the times.

One reprinting in the book is his 1998 essay on the potential integration of biology, the social sciences, and humanities into an interdisciplinary approach for addressing environmental problems. Another, from 2000, described the field of conservation biology as "a discipline with a deadline," emphasizing the immediate threats and perils faced by scientists attempting to conserve endangered species and overall biodiversity.

I once checked out E. O. Wilson's master's thesis on fire ants from the Biology Department at the University of Alabama. He was far ahead of anyone else in focusing on the potential threat of these new invaders from South America. Everyone now knows of the peril of fire ants and how they are a continuing nuisance. But imagine a college student publishing the prophetic statement that "it is apparent, however, that the ants are going to have to be controlled soon. We are not certain yet of the danger they constitute to our wildlife and forests, but we are sure, at least, that they are farm pests of the first magnitude and that they have just begun to spread." This was in E. O. Wilson's first scientific paper, published in Alabama Conservation--in 1949! His first major national publication was "Variation and Adaptation in the Imported Fire Ant" in the scientific journal Evolution in 1951.

One of the biological principles with which Wilson is associated in the minds of ecologists and today's conservation biologists culminated in his 1967 book (with R. H. MacArthur) titled The Theory of Island Biogeography. Complex mathematical equations are necessary for understanding all the underlying factors, but the theory is a simple one even I can understand--the number of animal species present on an island is directly dependent on the size of the island. Larger islands have more species than smaller ones. Also, similar-size islands differ in species numbers based on their distance from the mainland--distant islands have fewer species than nearby ones. The formulas are complex, but the basic principle that island size and the distance separating it from other land has been the underpinning of thousands of ecological studies.

E. O. Wilson's many contributions to science can hardly be summarized in a newspaper column, but the highlights are well presented in Nature Revealed. Included among his many landmark books and other works are those that validated the importance of identifying and preserving the world's "biological diversity," a term that he eventually consolidated into the word "biodiversity."

Edward O. Wilson is the only author to have won two Pulitzer Prizes in the General Non-Fiction category, first in 1979 (On Human Nature) and again in 1991 (The Ants, written with Bert Holldobler). Nature Revealed could follow the same course. If a future Trivial Pursuit question is "What famous biologist pulled off the first hat trick with a Pulitzer Prize, by winning three in the General Non-Fiction category?" you'll know the answer: Edward O. Wilson.



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