In Memoriam: Edward O. Wilson, 1929-2021

December 26, 2021

The Lecture (Edward O. Wilson)

Edward O. Wilson (1929–2021) was a preeminent biologist and environmentalist whose prolific writing reached general audiences and helped establish the scientific disciplines of biogeography and sociobiology. Known as the world’s foremost expert on ants, his research also explored broader questions about human nature and the future of life on Earth.

Wilson’s groundbreaking study Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) claimed a genetic basis for the evolution of social behaviors of all kinds of organisms, including—most controversially—humans. Spurred by critics who accused Wilson of engaging in biological determinism, he published On Human Nature (1978), for which he received his first of two Pulitzer Prizes. Wilson is also known for his foundational work in the field of island biogeography during the 1960s and for popularizing the term “biodiversity” in the 1980s. More recently, in Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016), he urged keeping half of the planet wild to stave off mass extinctions. “[W]hen people become familiar with what’s in their natural environment, what’s interesting, what’s important on a broader scale, what gives them pleasures,” he said in a 2021 interview, “that depth of understanding leads to a long-term improvement in their quality of life.”

scholarly man seated at a desk with insect specimens
The Lecture (Edward O. Wilson) by Nelson Shanks | Oil on canvas, 2008–9 | Gift of Ian M. and Annette P. Cumming