Book review – Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

9-minute read

The recent loss of famous entomologist and brilliant mind Edward O. Wilson shook me. In an attempt to find some solace I turned to Richard Rhodes’s recent biography, published only a month before. I already had this lined up for review and was looking forward to it, but this must be the saddest possible reason to prioritise reading a book. Fortunately, I found a warm and respectfully written biography that, as the title suggests, focuses foremost on the scientific achievements of Wilson.

Scientist

Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature, written by Richard Rhodes, published by Doubleday in November 2021 (hardback, 271 pages)

Rhodes opens his biography, unexpectedly, with a 25-year-old Wilson collecting ants throughout the South Pacific for the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard. The next chapter covers Wilson’s itinerant childhood – with the divorce of his parents and his father’s frequent work-related moves going some way towards explaining the solace he found in nature. These first two chapters are easily the most private. They feature the infamous fishing accident that permanently damaged Wilson’s eyesight, his father’s shocking suicide, and a young man’s letters to his waiting fiancée. But also his early commitment to entomology, to “the small things that run the world”, as he famously said. In Wilson’s own words, it was something he was destined to do “not by any touch of idiosyncratic genius, not by foresight, but by a fortuitous constriction of physiological ability” (p. 40).

Despite Wilson’s modesty, Rhodes shows this precocious young man was possessed of both genius and a serious work ethic. He completed a four-year undergraduate programme at the University of Alabama in three years and landed an assistant professorship at Harvard in 1956 before even having finished his PhD. This is also where he met his first serious challenger: James Watson. Though they would find rapprochement later in life, and Wilson always acknowledged the scale of Watson’s achievements, there was much initial friction. Watson, buoyed by his recent success deciphering the structure of the DNA molecule, was pushing molecular biology hard and “was determined to sweep the Harvard biology department clean of field scientists” (p. 62) that he considered mere “stamp collectors”. In turn, it stimulated Wilson to bring more quantitative thinking to taxonomy, which first required that he join undergraduate calculus courses.

“An important theme in Scientist is Wilson’s indefatigable drive to expand his intellectual horizon throughout his long and productive life. “

An important theme in Scientist is Wilson’s indefatigable drive to expand his intellectual horizon throughout his long and productive life. His track record of publications offers a suitable handhold by which to structure the book. Rhodes thus focuses on the work with Robert MacArthur leading to the 1967 book The Theory of Island Biogeography (an idea that remains relevant to this day), including the remarkable fieldwork with Daniel Simberloff to experimentally test the repopulation of defaunated islands. It would later prove important to his work on the biodiversity crisis, for what is habitat fragmentation but the creation of islands of a different kind?

This was followed in 1971 by The Insect Societies, the first of several Wilson-style monographs synthesizing all available knowledge up to that point. It was a statement on his interest in complex social behaviours and its final chapter foreshadowed what was to come next with its call for someone to write a similar book for vertebrates. Wilson’s 1975 Sociobiology: The New Synthesis became that book, setting off an intellectual firestorm that rages to this day. Rhodes makes good use of Ullica Segerstråle’s analysis for his reporting on the acrimonious fallout of the sociobiology debate. The ongoing polarized nature-nurture debate was a trap that Wilson could not rise above with his book. Initially blindsided by attacks from close colleagues, including Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, it ultimately led to a fresh surge of ambition and a survey of humanism literature in his 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature. Rhodes is briefer in his later coverage of the controversy that erupted around the 2010 Nature paper that saw Wilson reject kin selection in favour of group selection*.

“[island biogeography] would later prove important to his work on the biodiversity crisis, for what is habitat fragmentation but the creation of islands of a different kind?”

In several instances, Rhodes nicely traces the roots of Wilson’s intellectual interests. Regarding natural selection, he writes that “what was in sharp debate in Darwin’s time was not the evidence of evolution, but the mechanism” (p. 46). The rediscovery of Mendel’s work and the generation-long struggle of biologists to get their ducks in a row regarding genetics, featuring “much disagreement and mutual incomprehension along the way” (p. 53), was the context in which Wilson came of age. The backdrop to the rivalry between Wilson and Watson was the emerging struggle between “classic” field-oriented biology and molecular biology. Rhodes charts the discoveries that led to DNA rather than proteins being recognized as the carrier of hereditary information, as well as some of Watson’s inspiration. Finally, Rhodes explains how W.D. Hamilton‘s paper on kin selection was not just initially a struggle for Wilson to understand, but also a struggle for Hamilton to write.

A few caveats are in place, two of them minor. First, as the title suggests, this is squarely a scientific biography. Wilson’s family makes very limited appearances. Rhodes only quotes from Wilson’s letters to his fiancée; possibly hers were not available? After their marriage, she only makes a brief appearance in chapter 6 when the couple adopts a daughter, and in the last chapter when Rhodes mentions she was under extended care at their retirement home. I can only surmise that she was not available to answer any questions Rhodes had for her, but neither do we hear from Wilson’s daughter. I was similarly missing input from Wilson’s co-author Bert Hölldobler, though given that he is now 85, he might similarly have been unavailable. A second caveat is that Rhodes, understandably, draws heavily on Wilson’s autobiographical writings in Letters to a Young Scientist, Tales from the Ant World, and foremost Naturalist. Readers of these books will likely recognize some of the stories here, though they are much enriched by material Rhodes collected during lengthy in-person and phone interviews over two years.

“A major caveat is that Scientist is heavily weighted towards the first half of Wilson’s life. […] Rhodes has left fertile ground for other biographers to explore, especially regarding the intellectual legacy of his later career.”

A major caveat is that Scientist is heavily weighted towards the first half of Wilson’s life. By the time I reached chapter 11 I was, pardon the pun, getting a bit antsy: with only two substantive chapters left, Rhodes was still in 1980 and we all know that Wilson did not slow down after this. The focus is, deservedly, on Wilson’s growing concern about the biodiversity crisis. In a few big strides, it takes in major papers and essays, and the launch of the online Encyclopedia of Life. Books such as Biophilia and Half-Earth only receive a paragraph, while The Diversity of Life is merely quoted from twice. Similarly brief are mentions of The Ants (fun fact: Rhodes was the one who pushed for its Pulitzer Prize) and the monograph on ants of the genus Pheidole. All the other books, notably the Hölldobler–co-authored monograph The Superorganism, and those on human nature such as The Meaning of Human Existence, The Social Conquest of Earth, and The Origins of Creativity are skipped over. Rhodes does not mention why**. To me it partially confirms my impression that some of these books have met with mixed reception and have not contributed substantial new ideas – I was personally underwhelmed by the short Genesis, for example. It is, however, a far cry from the more in-depth analysis of Wilson’s early work. And, given that Rhodes was the last person to speak to Wilson, it feels like a unique opportunity not fully used.

Rhodes circles back to his theme of Wilson’s relentless intellectual drive by describing how, even during the final year of his life, he was working on a novel synthesis of ecosystems. Frankly, any 92-year-old who can seriously say “I’m studying the mathematics of origami […] I think it may allow me to model how ecosystems form” (p. 221) commands respect. Indeed, when Wilson gives the gist of his argument while folding a handkerchief during one of their conversations, Rhodes calls it “the most extraordinary demonstration I’ve ever seen in my life” (p. 220). It is a fitting conclusion to this warm and respectful biography. I do not expect this to be the last word on Wilson – Rhodes has left fertile ground for other biographers to explore, especially regarding the intellectual legacy of his later career – but it gave me a deeper appreciation of his extraordinary genius.


* This paper, co-authored with two mathematical biologists, received unprecedented pushback in five response papers in Nature in 2011. Rhodes mentions that “Wilson remains confident his argument is valid” (p. 210-211) and briefly quotes from a review of the argument by Jonathan Birch, but he refrains from analysis of why so many think Wilson is mistaken. However, I do not blame Rhodes for considering this outside of the scope of this book. Reading through some of the discussion that resulted on e.g. Jerry Coyne’s blog in 2011, or Herbert Gintis’s review of Evolutionary Restraints that mentions that the group selection dispute “seems to be a hopeless muddle even in the hands of the most adept contemporary thinkers“, this is clearly a technical rabbit hole that would need a book-length treatment.

** In emails I exchanged with Rhodes since publication of this review, he confirmed that a combination of publication deadline and the difficulty of communicating during the COVID-19 pandemic made him focus on Wilson’s earlier achievements. Rhodes also clarified that Wilson was very private about his family life and confirmed that he did not have the opportunity to speak to Wilson’s wife, nor study her letters.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Scientist

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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