By Diversity Possessed - Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson

Natural History, December 1994 | Go to article overview

By Diversity Possessed - Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson


"My truths," writes Edward O. Wilson in Naturalist, "...are the following: first, humanity is ultimately the product of biological evolution; second, the diversity of life is the cradle and greatest natural heritage of the human species; and third, philosophy and religion make little sense without taking into account the first two conceptions."

Wilson is, by any measure, one of the great biologists of this century: a synthesizer who brings disparate facts and divergent fields into unity, the co-creator of sociobiology, and a global voice in conservation. His autobiography is destined to be greeted with abounding interest. But Naturalist is more than the chronicling of a life. It is a frank appraisal of dogma and revelation, and the relationship between science and society. Moreover, it is a declaration of biophilia (a word Wilson coined), the epiphanic wonder of living on this life-mantled planet.

What are the wellsprings of scientific creativity? What nucleated this interesting mind? Wilson grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in the South, ostensibly a child of middle-class convention: the Baptist Church, the Boy Scouts, a year at the Gulf Coast Military Academy. The son of an itinerant government accountant, an alcoholic who meandered every year or so to a new town and eventually committed suicide, Wilson grew up in twelve cities, none farther north than the District of Columbia. By necessity, he adapted to a "perpetual role as new kid on the block," acquiring the outsider's perspective that decades later may have endowed his science with its startling originality. "I was a normal boy," he writes, "within reason." But curiosity and reason, of course, were his exceptional strengths. Small of stature and introverted, Wilson took solace in nature "as a sanctuary and a realm of boundless adventure," wandering in back lots, turning over stones, peering into rotten logs, noticing the panoply of species. "A lifetime," he writes, "can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree."

Two accidents punctuated this lonely childhood, and these events, as much as the boy's innate characteristics, fated him to be a scientist. Both occurred in his seventh year, when he spent the summer with a foster family in Pensacola while his parents underwent a divorce. The boy made daily, solitary pilgrimages to the ragged shore of Perdido Bay, enchanted by the peculiar life forms tossed up by the waves. Now, in retrospect, he writes that "loneliness in a beautiful environment might be a good if risky way to create a scientist." But beachcombing, I submit, is also a way. Here, while wading in the warm, shallow Gulf of Mexico, Wilson had a vision that transformed him into a passionate biologist. A sea nettle, an opalescent pink jelly-fish of complex gelatinous architecture, fretted with stringy red gonads and innumerable soft tentacles, drifted past in the still water. Wilson was mesmerized. "It came to my world abruptly, from I knew not where, radiated what I cannot put into words except--alien purpose and dark happenings in the kingdom of deep water." Fifty-nine years later, he writes, "the scyphozoan still embodies, when I summon its image, all the mystery and tensed malignity of the sea."

That same summer, while fishing in Perdido Bay, Wilson tugged a little too hard on the line and flicked a minnow-sized pinfish, dorsal spines erect, into his right eye. Within weeks, he was partly blind. However, the vision in his left eye was more acute than average at close range, and thus ideally suited for the examination of minute detail. "So inevitably, and given that I was looking at the world with only one visually acute eye, I became an entomologist." More specifically, Wilson became a myrmecologist, a specialist who studies the ubiquitous ants. "To put the matter as simply as possible: most children have a bug period, and I never grew out of mine."

The boy also had a gift of expression, certainly not an accident in his environment. …

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