Making a Difference: Dr. E. O. Wilson: Champion of Biodiversity

Dr. E.O. Wilson

Dr. Wilson with one of his favorite subjects—ants.

Dr. Edward Osborne Wilson deserves some of the credit for the fact that this book includes a chapter called “Biodiversity.” Just a few decades ago, the word biodiversity was used by few scientists and wasn’t found in many dictionaries. Dr. Wilson has helped make the concept and value of biodiversity widely recognized, through his extensive research, publishing, organizing, and social advocacy.

Since his early career as a pioneer in the fields of entomology and sociobiology, Dr. Wilson has gained recognition for many additional accomplishments. He has written two Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction books, and has received the National Medal of Science and dozens of other scientific awards and honors. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the most influential scientists and citizens of our time.

It All Started with Bugs
Even before his scientific career, Wilson developed a fascination with insects and the natural world. He always had high expectations of himself but made the best of circumstances. Although his parents were divorced and his father’s government career required frequent moves, Wilson found companionship in the woods of the southern United States or the museums of Washington, D.C. After injuries damaged his vision and hearing, Wilson focused his scientific skills on the smaller forms of life.

By the time he earned his master’s degree at the University of Alabama at the age of 20, Wilson was well known as a promising entomologist—an expert on the insect world. His specialty is the study of ants and their complex social behaviors. So it makes sense that Wilson next went to study at Harvard University, home to the world’s largest ant collection. While at Harvard, he earned his Ph.D., conducted field research around the world, collected more than 100 previously undescribed species, and wrote several books on insect physiology and social organization. He eventually became curator of the Museum of Entomology at Harvard.

Clearly, Wilson has a passion for insects. “There is a very special pleasure in looking in a microscope and saying I am the first person to see a species that may be millions of years old,” he says. Some of Wilson’s research has focused on the social behavior of ants. Among other important scientific findings, Wilson was the first to demonstrate that ant behavior and communication is based mostly on chemical signals.

From Insects to Humans
In 1971, Wilson published The Insect Societies, which surveyed the evolution of social organization among wasps, ants, bees, and termites. Wilson began to extend his attempts to understand the relationship of biology and social behavior to other animals, including humans. In 1975, Wilson published a controversial book exploring these new ideas, called Sociobiology. Now an accepted branch of science, sociobiology is the study of the biological basis of social behavior in animals, including humans.

During Wilson’s studies of the behavior of ants and other social insects, he became interested in the insects’ role in the ecosystems where he studied them. Some of his research involved camping for months at a time in a remote wilderness such as the Amazon basin, carefully studying the activities of certain species. His writings include amazing tales of watching huge colonies of “driver” ants swarm out over an area, capturing and killing a great many other species in their path.

In 1990, Wilson received his second Pulitzer Prize for co-authoring The Ants, an enormous encyclopedia of the ant world. In addition to describing 8,800 known species of ants, the book details the great variations among ant species in terms of anatomy, biochemistry, complex social behaviors, and especially their critical role in many ecosystems. Wilson reminds us that ants “are some of the most abundant and diverse of the Earth’s 1.4 million species. They’re among the little creatures that run the Earth. If ants and other small animals were to disappear, the Earth would rot. Fish, reptiles, birds—and humans—would crash to extinction.”

Onward to Biodiversity
As with many great scientists, each thing Dr. Wilson studies leads him to new questions and new ideas. During his research, Wilson spent time reflecting and writing on the nature of ecosystems, the importance of biodiversity, and the role of humans in relation to these. In 1992, he put many of these ideas into another popular book called The Diversity of Life. This book combined Wilson’s engaging writing style and personal expertise with the latest ecological research.

The book showed both how such incredible biodiversity has evolved on Earth and how this asset is being lost because of current human activities. The book clearly explained for the general public many of the problems and potential solutions regarding biodiversity that we have studied in this chapter.

Urgent Work
Despite his fame, Wilson is a soft-spoken fellow who would prefer to live a quiet life with his research and with his family in their home in the woods of Massachusetts. But the urgent problem of species loss makes Wilson willing to face the public. “Humanity is entering a bottleneck of overpopulation and environmental degradation unique in history. We need to carry every species through the bottleneck . . . Along with culture itself, they will be the most precious gift we can give future generations.”

In the early 2000s, Dr. Wilson began promoting the need for a global biodiversity survey. This project would involve an international scientific effort on par with the Human Genome Project.

This vision for a global biodiversity survey led to the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) project. The EOL is a free, online collaborative encyclopedia with the goal of providing information about all 1.9 million species that have been described. Wilson states that “to describe and classify all of the species of the world deserves to be one of the great scientific goals of the new century.” As of September 2011, hundreds of partners have added more than 700,000 species to EOL and Wilson’s vision is moving toward being fulfilled.

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