“Scientist”, the biography of Wilson by Richard Rhodes, born in 1929, does not begin with these formative years, however. Instead, it depicts him on all fours picking up and sorting ants, many of which were previously unknown to science, in the jungles of New Guinea. Despite the sweltering heat and mosquitoes, he is an Indiana Jones delighted with insect hunters.
As fascinating as this material is, it was all made much better in Wilson’s 1994 autobiography, “Naturalist.” In fact, Rhodes relies almost entirely on quotes from this book, supplemented by letters Wilson wrote to his beloved and eventual wife, Irene Kelley. Oddly enough, Wilson’s vivid, vivid prose, at the heart of every chapter, consistently surpasses that of the professional writer, whose best-known work is the award-winning “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.”
With the exception of his bio-nerd inclinations, Wilson led a typical Southern childhood. He briefly attended military school. At 14, he was “born again” at First Baptist Church in Pensacola, although he later decided that his faith was based more on science than on Christianity. He loved to fish, at least until an accident with a pinfish left him blind in his right eye. Although skinny and skinny, he managed a brief flirtation with football.
In Wilson’s autobiography, he claimed that the Eternal Power of Football at the University of Alabama had “saved” him. The truth is, this genius ran away. When he arrived on campus, he knocked on the door of the director of the biology department and showed him his large collection of insects. He received laboratory space and became a sort of departmental mascot.
Wilson would make Harvard, owner of the world’s largest collection of ants, his professional home. As a young assistant professor, he was almost drawn to Stanford – by a visit from its dean and president! – until Harvard responds to the poachers’ offer and grants him tenure. In this first phase of his career, he focused on the link between fieldwork and the classification of insects and the theory of evolution. However, a challenge looming in the hot new field of molecular biology is on the horizon. To his credit, Rhodes provides useful background information on what Wilson called the “molecular wars.”
When James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, joined Harvard faculty, the battle was on. Wilson remembers this brilliant but arrogant and rude man as “the most obnoxious human being I have ever met”. Watson, the Nobel Prize winner, said Wilson was nothing but an old-fashioned “stamp collector”. (Ironically, Wilson had previously helped persuade the department to hire this opponent, despite his abrasive personality.) Ultimately, in a win-win decision, evolutionary biology and molecular biology split into separate departments.
Wilson’s emphasis on evolution, however, would prove awkward in the wider public arena. His earlier work on the social behavior of insects had been praised, but his 1975 book, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” caused a firestorm. He was accused of giving the green light to eugenics, racism and the socio-economic status quo. This time, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin led the charge. During a scientific conference in Washington, demonstrators sprayed him with ice water, chanting “Wilson, you’re all wet!”
Rhodes implicitly sides with Wilson, saying the scientist’s efforts to root all animal behavior, including that of humans, in genetics have been poorly understood. But it seems to me that Wilson’s theorizing in this classic nature and education debate clearly tips the scales towards something akin to genetic determinism. Likewise, the author fails to scrutinize Wilson’s “On Human Nature”, in which the biologist explores the links between genetic and cultural evolution.
A shameless fan of Wilson, Rhodes reveals that he was Wilson’s main advocate on the Pulitzer jury that recommended that the General Non-Fiction Prize be awarded to “The Ants,” a comprehensive work intended for scientists. (Wilson had previously won in the same category for “On Human Nature” – both of his awards are an astonishing triumph for a scientist.)
Towards the turn of the century Wilson gained fame in the newly ascending field of ecology. He advocated for conservation efforts to preserve wildlife habitats and end species extinction. Millions and millions of species, he warned, have remained unidentified but potentially lost forever. In “Half-Earth,” he recommended setting aside half the world’s land to ensure the survival of our as yet undiscovered genetic treasures.
In this effort, citizens were more likely to crown it with roses rather than soaking it in cold water. Indiana Jones had become the Great Old Man of environmental advocacy.
In researching this book, Rhodes conducted numerous interviews with Wilson, now in his 90s living outside of Boston. However, the effort did not yield much, a few details but no major ideas. The autobiographer took precedence over the biographer. “Naturalist” was a pleasure, “Scientist” a disappointment.
Dan Cryer is the author of the biography “To Be Alive and Must Die: The Forrest Church Spiritual Odyssey“and the memory”Forget my mother: a blues from the heart of the country. “
Scientist: EO Wilson: A Life in Nature
Double day, $ 288.30