"Darwin's Natural Heir" on Ants, Social Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Adrianne Appel
for National Geographic News
March 27, 2006
More than a million ant specimens—meticulously dried, pinned, and
identified—lie in wooden drawers in Harvard University's Museum of
Comparative Zoology.

But these specimens are hardly gathering dust in their Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. The office of Edward Osborn Wilson—renowned scientist and author, father of sociobiology, and ant expert—is right down the hall.

Wilson's body of work is a product of unfailing energy and focus. As a young man he traveled through Europe visiting ant collections.

Then as a Harvard professor he spent years driven by what he calls "the amphetamine of ambition"—working 80-hour weeks, teaching, studying ants, and writing.

From his work in the field he has personally identified more than 400 new ant species.

Now in his late 70s, the man labelled "Darwin's Natural Heir" by Britain's Gaurdian newspaper has not slowed up his nearly lifelong pursuit of collecting and identifying ants, nor has he let the rest of his work lose steam.

In fact, the National Medal of Science winner, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of 22 books says he is stepping up the pace.

In addition to planned fieldwork, Wilson has been blazing through a series of book releases this year.

"I'm trying to get them out while I still have all my creative faculties," he said with a chuckle. "I'm 76 and I've decided to move it."

Author of Controversy

Wilson's name is tied to groundbreaking research and award-winning writings, but he is also no stranger to scientific controversy.

Most famously, Wilson first put forth the much-debated concept of sociobiology in 1975. This exploration of a biological basis of behavior has been met with both avid acclaim and piercing criticism.

For example, critics said that sociobiology would help some people justify aggressive behavior and would provide legitimacy to racism and sexism.

Wilson says he was misunderstood. His theory applies only to understanding how and why societies have evolved, not the way they should be structured, he says.

The author is now collaborating with his former colleague Bert Holldobler on a new sociobiology book to be called The Superorganism.

"We reexamine the whole concept of societies, especially insect societies and higher levels of biological organization, as seen from a modern perspective," Wilson said.

Irking Environmentalists

Despite his strong interest in conservation, Wilson has troubled some environmentalists by championing the use of genetically modified organisms, primarily as a tool to end hunger.

"I jumped right into that controversy … [and] at the end I saw the risks [of genetic modification] were manageable, maybe not as threatening as many people feared. The benefits for conservation and humanity far outweighed the risks."

Wilson's latest foray into scientific debate involves the battle over evolution.

His edited collection of Darwin's four most influential books, a compendium titled From So Simple a Beginning, recently hit store shelves.

"There is no question [Darwin's] body of work, pivoted by Origin of the Species, is the most important scientific work of all time," Wilson said.

"First and foremost, it turned out to be correct. Second, it changed everything. It changed our image of ourselves as a species."

(Read "Was Darwin Wrong?" from National Geographic magazine.)

In public presentations of From So Simple a Beginning, Wilson voices his concern about the popularity of intelligent design.

"The intelligent design argument consists of a default argument, that because biologists haven't explained all complex systems" they can be explained only by the existence of a godlike creator.

Nature: The Common Ground?

Wilson released two more books this spring and a third book, The Creation, is due out in September.

"[This upcoming book] is a call for an alliance between science and religion to save 'the creation'—biodiversity—which is going down the tubes rapidly," he said.

"The preservation of biodiversity is essential for the stable existence of the Earth and our species," he said.

Love of nature and a sense of responsibility for preserving it could be a critical common ground between science and religion, he believes.

"It's a quixotic idea that if we can bring the two most powerful forces together in common purpose, we just might actually get the job done."

Wilson says he can speak to both audiences, because he is a secular humanist who was raised a Southern Baptist.

Karl Giberson is editor-in-chief of Science and Spirit magazine, a publication that seeks to facilitate a dialogue between scientific and religious communities.

Giberson says he is skeptical that Wilson will be successful in convincing U.S. religious organizations, the majority of which are conservative, to listen to his plea.

"I applaud his initiative," Giberson said.

"[But] E. O. Wilson is a very prominent figure in the [human] origins debate. That huge conservative groundswell that wants creationism in the schools sees E. O. Wilson as one of the most prominent enemies they have."

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