Why E.O. Wilson Is Called the 'Darwin of the 21st Century'

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

E.O. Wilson
Nonagenarian E.O. Wilson is the professor emeritus in entomology at Harvard University. He is a biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist and author, and is considered to be the world's leading authority on myrmecology, the study of ants. Rick Friedman/Getty Images

Scientist Edward Osborne "E.O." Wilson, famously wrote in his memoir "Naturalist," "Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine."

Wilson, sometimes called a modern-day Charles Darwin, is considered the world's foremost authority on ants — in particular their behavior and social structure. Broadening his scope, he applied that same perspective when studying the nature of humans, finding important parallels in both communities, such as the desire to live in groups and build complex societies. Wilson is also a pioneer of the concept of biodiversity, a term used to describe the biological diversity of life on Earth at every level.

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A Biographical Sketch

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929 but grew up dividing his time between the Gulf Coast near Mobile and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He was enamored with the natural world and spent his childhood riding his bike, exploring the woods and fishing. Though a fishing accident left him blinded in one eye when he was young, it caused him to narrow his focus on the study of insects — entomology — which he could examine in detail through a microscope.

Wilson was still in high school in 1940 when he reported the first colony of red imported fire ants in the U.S. After earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from the University of Alabama, he went to Harvard University to work on a Ph.D. in biology in 1951. He remained there for his entire career as a fellow and a faculty member.

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Wilson, the Writer

A prolific researcher and writer, Wilson authored 36 books, including the groundbreaking 1967 work "The Theory of Island Biogeography," with Robert H. MacArthur, which greatly influenced the field of ecology and the conservation biology movement. Other notable books include "The Insect Societies" (which was a 1972 National Book Award finalist and in 1999 named as one of the Top 100 Science Books of the Century); "Sociobiology" (which was a 1976 finalist for the National Book Award); "On Human Nature" (winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction); "The Ants," with Bert Hölldobler (winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction); and his memoir, "The Naturalist" (published in 1994, which won awards from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review and the National Book Critics Circle).

As a writer, Wilson has a strong gift for storytelling and narrative. His writing is evocative and approachable, even for readers who wouldn't normally gravitate toward scientific topics.

"He's helped make a space for people who are still trying to develop that sense of narrative about science in the face of science that has become highly dependent on numbers," says Bill Finch, an award-winning natural history writer and a friend of Wilson's. "Ed balances both."

E.O. Wilson
Wilson studies fire ants in the insectary at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sept. 8, 1975.
Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images

Finch is the former conservation director for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama and founder of the Paint Rock Forest Research Center. Finch's first exposure to Wilson's work was through the book "The Theory of Island Biogeography."

"Anybody who studies natural history runs headlong into Ed's work; you can't avoid it," he says. "It basically says we can describe islands as a lot of different things. Sometimes they are real islands like an island in a stream or in the Gulf. Sometimes they are islands created by humans. Sometimes they are islands created by differences in geology. But we know, and he demonstrated that it came down to, that the smaller the island, the greater the chances that species in that island are going to disappear. It made people think about biology and natural history where they are. I suddenly started looking at Alabama and realizing these little islands that I was looking at, with all these wonderful plants, that were now little islands because of the way humans had treated the environment were in real trouble."

Finch's next exposure was in the mid-1990s in a phone call from Wilson himself, the result of reading a newspaper story Finch had written about forests in Alabama.

"He said, 'This is Ed Wilson,'" Finch recalls, "I thought, 'OK, what's your question,' and, at some point in the conversation — luckily pretty early on — I realized by the questions he was asking, it was E.O. Wilson. We began a conversation about conservation in Alabama and how to do it and make it better that has lasted many years.

"I don't think anyone before Ed emphasized the concept of biodiversity the way he did," Finch says. "We may have thought here's a species we can harvest drugs from or here's some species that are rare that we need to protect, but Ed is saying no. These are companions. And that's really important."

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Connectedness and Biodiversity

Wilson further amplified that notion of connectedness extending from living things (biology) to other disciplines — anthropology, psychology, philosophy, even the arts — in his 1998 book, "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge." In it he argued that "everything in our world is organized in terms of a small number of fundamental natural laws that comprise the principles underlying every branch of learning."

Finch's friendship with Wilson was apparent in the 2015 PBS documentary, "E.O. Wilson of Ants and Men," during which the two men wandered through an Alabama woodland. It was one of many visits Wilson took to reconnect with his Alabama roots.

E.O. Wilson
Wilson delivers his address, "On The Shoulders Of Giants: A Special Address by E.O. Wilson" at the World Science Festival at the NYU Global Center June 2, 2012, in New York City.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

"We arranged a trip inside the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to see some of the remarkable sights," says Finch. "On his 87th or 88th birthday he wanted to collect ants in the delta so we did that. We also went to a lot of other areas, the Red Hills, which is a center of oak diversity and pitcher plant bogs. I'm younger than Ed but it was like two boys getting into the woods, having a great time exploring."

Wilson retired from teaching in 1996, but remains a professor emeritus. In 2005, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation was launched to promote worldwide understanding of the importance of biodiversity and the preservation of our biological heritage.

"He is still writing," says Finch. "He always tells me, 'This is my last book.' He told me that six books ago."

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