E.O. Wilson Saw the World in a Wholly New Way

David Wilson in Nautilus:

I first met Edward O. Wilson in 1971 when I was a student in an ecology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Wilson, a famous Harvard professor, was sitting in on the student project reports. After I reported my experiments on food size selection in zooplankton, Wilson remarked, “That’s new, isn’t it?” I was so proud to have impressed the great E.O. Wilson that I have remembered his comment ever since!

Our next personal interaction came near the end of my graduate career at Michigan State University. I had constructed a mathematical model that provided support for the theory of group selection, which explains how altruism and other “for the good of the group” behaviors can evolve. This theory had been almost universally rejected by evolutionary biologists. Convinced of its importance, I wrote to Wilson asking if he would consider sponsoring it for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He invited me to visit him at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. After giving me a tour of his ant laboratory, he stood me in front of a blackboard, sat down in a chair, and said, “You have 30 minutes until my next appointment.”

I talked like an auctioneer, filling the board with my equations. Wilson was sufficiently intrigued to sponsor my article for PNAS after sending it out for review by two experts in theoretical biology. The article was published in 1975, the same year that Ed published his landmark book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The article became my Ph.D. thesis, which is probably the shortest in the history of evolutionary science (four pages).

Wilson, who passed away at the age of 92 on Dec. 26, 2021, is widely recognized as a giant of both the sciences and arts, which he worked to unify. He regarded the creative dimension of science as an artistic endeavor, and wrote beautifully for the public, resulting in two Pulitzer Prizes in nonfiction.

More here.