How many of us would have the curiosity, fortitude, initiative and intellect to spend years searching for and categorizing ant colonies throughout the world? Travel would include some of the most inhospitable locations imaginable.  

Far few I would guess unless you are describing Edward Osborne (E.O.) Wilson.  According to Richard Rhodes in his new book, “Scientist,”  “Few biologists in the history of natural science have been as groundbreaking, controversial and productive as E.O. Wilson, long hailed as ‘Darwin’s successor.’  Throughout Wilson’s seven decade career, his revolutionary research has confirmed his standing among the most eminent American scientists in any field.”  He died last month at age 92 in Burlington, Mass.   

Dr. Wilson was a biologist and author who, besides collecting ants, did pioneering work on biodiversity and conservation biology, other insects, human nature and won two Pulitzer Prizes along the way. His first, “On Human Nature,” was awarded for general nonfiction in 1979 and influenced his fellow scientists while gaining a broad public audience.  Other books soon followed. The second prize was for an encyclopedic  book about ants written with his longtime colleague, Bert Holldobler, in 1991.  

His obituary in the New York Times noted that when Wilson began his career in evolutionary biology in the 1950s, the study of animals and plants seemed to many scientists like a quaint, obsolete hobby. Molecular biologists were getting their first glimpses at DNA, proteins and other invisible foundations of life. Wilson made it his life’s work to put evolution on an equal footing. He developed a mathematic approach to questions about why different places have different numbers of species and later in his career he became one of the world’s leading voices for protecting endangered wildlife.

Early Life

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala., on June 10, 1929. He traced his roots back through a government accountant, a river pilot and Confederate veteran, a New England furniture maker, a marine engineer and generations of farmers. None of his relatives were college graduates, not even his father, an accountant, who had learned his trade in the United States Army in the years after World War 1. His mother, Inez Linnette Freeman, was a secretary. They divorced when Edward was 8 years old.

One day, as he was casting a fishing line, he hooked a pin fish, a small, silvery Gulf fish with 12 sharp spines on its back.  It flew out of the water and into his face. One of the spines pierced the pupil of his right eye, leaving him partially blind. According to Wilson, the attention of his surviving eye turned to the ground, and he developed an obsession with ants that would last his entire life. In high school, he discovered the first colony of imported fire ants in the United States, a species that went on to become a major pest in the South.  

Education

Wilson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology at the University of Alabama, where he studied dacetine ants, a species native to the American South.  

In 1950, Wilson went to Harvard University to earn his Ph.D.  To further his graduate work, he embarked on a long journey. In 1953, to explore the global diversity of ants, he started in Cuba, and moved on to Mexico, New Guinea and remote islands of the South Pacific.  During his travels he studied the geographical ranges of ant species, looking for clues as to how they spread from place to place, and how old species give rise to new ones.

Research

Toward his later years, Wilson began to campaign for the preservation of the Amazon, and of tropical forests in general.  In one of his last books, “Half Earth: Our Planets Fight for Life,” he called for setting aside half of the world’s surface as untouchable. “The only hope for the species still living is a human effort commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.”

Final Thoughts

While writing this column I recall a description about ants described many years ago by Dr. Lewis Thomas, a much quoted medical writer. (See the chapter on ants in my book “Science Snippets.”)     

According  to homas:  "Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment.  They farm fungi, raise aphids as live stock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, and even capture slaves. And they exchange information ceaselessly – in fact, they do almost everything but watch television." (Much earlier Henry Thoreau noted that ants fight with more intensity than bulldogs, and are not inclined to retreat.)  Thomas could not have written about these ubiquitous insects without Wilson’s meticulous research.

Perhaps, Paula J. Ehrlich, chief executive and president of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation put it best, when she said that “his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet.”

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com