Edward O. Wilson is dead: mourning evolutionary biologist and “ant man”

Status: December 27, 2021 5:41 p.m.

He was sometimes called the “ant man”. But Edward O. Wilson was much more: the Harvard professor was considered one of the most important biologists of his time. His evolutionary research was the main cause of debate. Wilson died at the age of 92.

The US biologist and evolutionary researcher Edward O. Wilson is dead. The scientist died on Sunday at the age of 92 in the US state of Massachusetts, as his foundation announced.

The starting point of his scientific work was originally ants. In 1993, Wilson showed an AP reporter a microscope photograph of such an insect, remarking that it was the “face of creation” for him. Together with his German colleague Bert Hölldobler, he described everyday ants in detail in the book “The Ants” (German: “Ameisen”). The study of these insects, in particular their communication via pheromones, gave him insights into the environment because the welfare and diversity of ants are an indicator of destructive changes in an apparently normal area, he said.

But he was best known for his theses on social biology and the biological predetermination of humans – they caused heated debates: The long-time professor at the elite Harvard University gave this scientific discipline its name in 1975 with his work “Social Biology”. His thesis in the last chapter that human behavior is largely genetically determined was controversial.

“I thought my career was going up in flames”

Critics accused him, among other things, of increasing social injustice and discrimination against women. When Wilson was speaking at a scientific event in 1978, activists poured a bucket of ice water over his head. Wilson emphasized that he was by no means of the opinion that genes determine all human behavior, only about ten percent. The reaction to his book shocked him and he hadn’t given public lectures for a while. “I thought my career was going up in flames,” he said.

In later years Wilson turned more and more to environmental protection and warned of the destruction of biodiversity by humans. “The diversity of life on earth is greater than even most biologists realize,” he said in 1993. Less than ten percent of the species have scientific names, which means that the earth is still a largely unexplored planet.

1996 on the list of “Time” magazine

Wilson was born in the US state of Alabama in 1929. He went blind in one eye after a fishing accident and became hard of hearing as a teenager. Wilson found consolation in nature, among other things during his time as a boy scout. Even then he was fascinated by ants.

According to the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, he is considered one of the most important and recognized American scientists in modern history. He was affectionately known as “the ant man” and the author of more than 30 books and hundreds of scientific treatises.

The biologist received the renowned Pulitzer Prize for two of his non-fiction books – including the standard work on ants “The Ants”. Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential people in America in 1996. He was also awarded the National Medal of Science, which is awarded by the US President to outstanding personalities in science.


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