Naturalist, by Edward O. Wilson
Lord of the Ants
by Edward O. Wilson.
Island Press. 380 pp. $24.95.
“Go to the ant, thou sluggard,” counsels the book of Proverbs, “consider her ways and be wise.” Edward O. Wilson took that advice early. Scouring the swamps and woodlands of the deep South hunting for bugs, Wilson followed an insect trail right out of an impoverished childhood and into the halls of Harvard, where he is University Professor, curator in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and one of America’s most distinguished biologists.
In Naturalist, Wilson puts his own life under a microscope, examining in clear, candid prose his formative years, his rapid rise as an evolutionary biologist, and his later battles as the controversial prophet of sociobiology. Wilson’s career has been central enough for his autobiography to entail a discussion of many of the major scientific issues of our age—while also telling the story of a boy’s outdoor education that has the mythic American appeal of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Wilson begins his memoir in 1936 with an image of himself at age seven, alone on Paradise Beach, Florida, where he was spending the summer with a family he did not know while his parents (he was an only child) worked out their divorce back in Pensacola. Despite the loneliness and emotional dislocation associated with that period, Paradise Beach remains for Wilson what its name implies, a place of early wonder where he discovered the mysteries of the natural world. It was to be his salvation.
He has, as he admits, almost no recollection of the names or faces of the people he stayed with. He scarcely understood what was happening with his parents. But the jellyfish he found one day in the sand, the giant stingray he caught a glimpse of as he sat alone on a pier watching the water for hours, still excite him with the thrill of discovery. Abandoned to nature, Wilson discovered his calling.
That same summer, fishing alone, the young Wilson jerked a needlefish out of the water too forcefully. One of the spines that gives the fish its name pierced the pupil of his right eye. He was not taken for medical treatment, and by the time he rejoined his parents he had lost the vision in that eye. Wilson tells us all this in the matter-of-fact manner of a scientist explaining the evolution of an organism, blaming neither his parents for abandoning him nor the family he stayed with for ignoring his injury. The operation he later underwent was, he recalls, “a terrifying 19th-century ordeal.”
There was more. In adolescence, Wilson lost most of his hearing in the upper registers, possibly from a hereditary illness; this made it difficult or impossible to hear bird or frog calls at a time when birds were his passion. The impairment, however, merely shifted his focus. Birds were out, bugs were in: “I would thereafter celebrate the little things of the world, the animals that can be picked up between thumb and forefinger and brought close for inspection.”
He was, by his own admission, a teenage workaholic, rising at 3 A.M. to deliver 420 newspapers, returning home by 7:30 for breakfast, devoting after-school hours to bug-hunting and the Boy Scouts (he became an Eagle Scout in three years). He attributes his disciplined habits to the military academy he was sent to while his parents continued to work out their separation. At seven—the same age at which he was wounded by the needlefish—he was the youngest cadet at the Gulf Coast Military Academy, but he writes with deep affection concerning what was clearly a very lonely year, claiming he “can still summon easily the images of a perfect orderliness and lofty purpose” that fit so well his later quest as a naturalist. Wilson’s admiration for military heroism—he finds the Congressional Medal of Honor “more mysterious and exalting than the Nobel Prize”—seems to have reinforced his stoicism.
Certainly there was plenty he might have complained about. After one year at the Academy, Wilson wound up with his father, an alcoholic who seldom kept a job or an address for more than a few years at a time and who committed suicide when Wilson was eighteen. In the space of eleven years, Wilson recalls, he attended fourteen different public schools. Wandering through the Depression South, often living in rooming houses, he found order only in nature. After school, he would head for the woods and swamps, his butterfly net and collecting jar in tow.
Ants became Wilson’s specialty. He knew enough about them by the time he was a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at the University of Alabama to be invited by the state Department of Conservation to study the spread of “fire ants,” an invading South American species. Wilson happened to have been the first person to discover the presence of the species in North America—in 1942, when he was thirteen years old. And of course he went on to make major contributions to our understanding of these humble insects, including cracking the riddle of how they communicate (by laying complex chemical trails).
The theme of redemption through science and, in particular, through the natural world, runs thoughout Wilson’s story. Faced with scientific challenges in later life, he would often respond by heading for the field. One such challenge came in the 1950′s and 60′s, when, already an established professor at Harvard, Wilson suffered the arrival of James Watson—“the Caligula of biology”—whose discovery of the genetic code with Francis Crick shifted the focus away from field studies and to the laboratory.
Wilson’s belief that collecting and classifying were a necessary basis for larger understandings, and his growing interest in the bastard field of ecology, were ridiculed by the arrogant young Turks of molecular biology for whom answers lay exclusively under a microscope. He restored himself with a series of population studies on tiny islands in the Florida Keys. Depopulating the islands and then counting the insect species as they returned, Wilson helped chart a new direction for biogeography and reaffirmed for himself the importance of old-fashioned outdoor study, with its physical hardships and its requirement of encyclopedic knowledge of individual species.
This is not to say that Wilson was not ambitious for a grand synthesis. His most controversial work remains his summation of sociobiology, the discipline that seeks to discover the biological basis of social behavior. In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1974), Wilson added to his own expertise in insects a vast amount of research on the rest of the animal kingdom—including man.
While most scientists applauded the bulk of the book’s findings, the chapter on human behavior touched off a storm of protest. It is worth quoting Wilson on his findings:
Human beings inherit a propensity to acquire behavior and social structures, a propensity that is shared by enough people to be called human nature. The defining traits include division of labor between the sexes, bonding between parents and children, heightened altruism toward closest kin, incest avoidance, other forms of ethical behavior, suspicion of strangers, tribalism, dominance orders within groups, male dominance overall, and territorial aggression over limiting resources. Although people have free will and the choice to turn in many directions, the channels of their psychological development are nevertheless—however much we might wish otherwise—cut more deeply by the genes in certain directions than in others.
It was sentiments like these that provoked a spate of attacks following the book’s publication, including one occasion at which Wilson, invited to speak on sociobiology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was doused with a pitcher of ice water by protesters accusing him of racism and sexism. Students at Harvard called for his resignation, and a group of Wilson’s Harvard colleagues—including Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin—published a letter in the New York Review of Books denouncing his book as dangerous. The letter, Wilson notes, was intended not to foster scientific debate but “to destroy credibility.” He did not learn about it until the journal was on the newsstands.
For Wilson this marked the final phase of his transformation from unworldly rube to scientific sophisticate. With the help of Daniel Bell, the Harvard sociologist, and Eugene D. Genovese, the Marxist historian, he gave himself a crash course in the relevant areas of political theory. “Neither of them cared very much for sociobiology,” Wilson writes of his instructors, “but they disliked even more” the tactics that had been used against him. The result of Wilson’s new research led to a book, On Human Nature (1979), which furthered his exploration of the relationship between biology and the qualities that make us human.
On Human Nature received the Pulitzer Prize, as did another book, The Ants (1991), written with Bert Holldobler, an encyclopedic account of Wilson’s first love. Wilson now devotes a fair amount of time to writing about the threat to species diversity that comes with the destruction of ecosystems. He is a reluctant warrior who came to political activism late, but his conservationist efforts are an expression of a true conservatism, growing out of allegiance to the world that produced him as a scientist, and beyond that to the world that produced us as a species.
It would be hard to imagine a more persuasive argument for the place of man in nature, or for the place of nature in the life of a man, than Edward Wilson’s eloquent examination of his own life.