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 masters 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.
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
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
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.
you have an environmental question or comment, email