Jürgen Heinze, Universität Regensburg
On Dec. 26, 2021, organismic and evolutionary biology lost one of its most ingenious and influential scholars: Edward Osborne Wilson, often called “Darwin’s natural heir” – died at age 92.
The careers of many good scientists are based on a few sudden inspirations on which they feed for years. Very good researchers may have numerous such ideas with lasting effects on their subject area. But only the very best go beyond their own discipline and set the path for a large field of science. E.O. Wilson was certainly one of these latter geniuses.
He devoted much of his scientific life to ants, meticulously deciphering the inner workings of their colonies, and quickly became one of the leading experts in social insect biology. Much of what novices in ethology and ecology might believe to have been eternal knowledge, i.e., concepts such as island biogeography or character displacement, goes in fact back to ingenious experiments and revolutionary thinking by E.O. Wilson and his colleagues. The tome “The Ants,” excellently written and illustrated together with his close friend Bert Hölldobler, earned them a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and is still among the most comprehensive treatments of ant biology.
Beyond social insects, E.O. Wilson cleverly assembled puzzle stones from different areas of biology to form new concepts about the fundamentals of group-living. In his 1975 book “Sociobiology,” he applied W.D. Hamilton’s gene-centered approach to explicate the nuances of social behavior not only in ants and other social animals but also ventured far and not without fierce opposition into the details of human behavior. Close to 50 years later, the exceedingly aggressive response to this new discipline of sociobiology is probably best understood in the context of the political climate in the late 60s and 70s. Nevertheless, many of his claims about the evolved basis of human nature, repeated and extended in 1978 in his second Pulitzer-prize winning book, “On Human Nature,” and again in 1998 in "Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge" still remain provocative. From the mid 80s and early 90s on he used his broad understanding of ecology to emphasize the urgent need for protecting earth’s biodiversity, making him one of the most prominent and competent advocates of nature conservation.
It cannot be my aim to fully cover everything E.O. Wilson has achieved and to name all the honors and awards he received during his productive life. Rather, I would like to end with a few personal words. During my time as a postdoc in Harvard, working in the floor he shared with Bert Hölldobler, I was always deeply impressed by the acuity and seriousness Ed showed during our meetings, which quickly turned from discussing details of my ant project to the larger scheme of social evolution. The contact never ceased, and despite all his busyness and obligations, Ed immediately volunteered to join the editorial board of Frontiers in Zoology when our journal was founded close to 20 years ago. Thence he has followed its development with patience and continuous interest. Biology lost one of its giants but even more importantly, the world will miss him as an outspoken advocate for nature.
Photo by Jim Harrison, 2003, used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.5.