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Encyclopedia > E.O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson with Dynastes hercules
E.O. Wilson with Dynastes hercules

E. O. Wilson, or Edward Osborne Wilson, (born June 10, 1929) is an entomologist and biologist known for his work on ecology, evolution, and sociobiology. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, graduated from the University of Alabama and received his Ph.D. from Harvard. Wilson's specialty is ants, in particular their use of pheromones for communication. He is also famous for starting the sociobiology debate when he wrote Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975 and for coining the term biodiversity.


Wilson has argued that the preservation of the gene, rather than the individual, is the focus of evolution (a theme explored in more detail by Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene). Wilson has also studied the mass extinctions of the 20th century and their relationship to modern society.


Wilson explains, "Now when you cut a forest, an ancient forest in particular, you are not just removing a lot of big trees and a few birds fluttering around in the canopy. You are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you. The number of these species may go to tens of thousands. Many of them are still unknown to science, and science has not yet discovered the key role undoubtedly played in the maintenance of that ecosystem, as in the case of fungi, microorganisms, and many of the insects."


Wilson adds, "Let us get rid immediately of the notion that all you have to do is keep a little patch of the old growth somewhere, and then you can do whatever you want with the rest. That is a very dangerous and false notion."


Wilson inadvertently created one of the greatest scientific controversies of the late 20th century when he came up with the idea of sociobiology. Sociobiology suggests that animal, and by extension human, behaviour can be studied using an evolutionary framework. Some critics accused Wilson of racism, and he was even physically attacked for his views. However, Wilson did not intend to apply a 'survival of the fittest' model on human society as had been true of so-called social Darwinists. His theory was scientific, not ethical — a distinction that many of his detractors failed to make. The controversy caused a great deal of personal grief for Wilson; some of his colleagues at Harvard, such as Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould, were vehemently opposed to his ideas.


A fruitfull result of this controversies has been his work "Genes, Mind and Culture: The coevolutionary process" (1981) coauthored with Charles Lumsden. This very mathematical work has been popularized in "Promethean fire: reflections on the origin of mind" (1983). The paradigm of coevolutionary process stands at the forefront of modern science and anthropology.


Wilson has received many awards for his works, most notably National Medal of Science, Crafoord Prize and twice the Pulitzer Prize (category non fiction).


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