Wilson, Edward Osborne

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Wilson, Edward Osborne

Edward Osborne Wilson, 1929–, American sociobiologist, b. Birmingham, Ala. Founder of sociobiology, Wilson was educated at the Univ. of Alabama and Harvard, joined the Harvard faculty in 1956, and later became a professor of zoology. His exhaustive study of ants and other social insects, on which he is 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 a unified effort by secular and religious thinkers to save the earth's biodiversity. A long-time advocate of preserving 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; the work had significant negative implications for attempts to preserve species and environments in areas of limited extent. 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 to stem species extinction by creating interconnected development-free zones on half the earth's surface, and The Origins of Creativity (2017) is a plea for a closer relationship between science and the humanities. Letters to a Young Scientist (2013) celebrates the devoted scientific life.

See his autobiography (1994).

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