E.O. Wilson, an American naturalist dubbed the modern day Darwin whose interest in ants led him to conclusions about human nature being directed by genetics rather than culture, died on Sunday at the age of 92, his foundation said.
Alongside British naturalist David Attenborough, Wilson was considered one of the world’s leading authorities on natural history and conservation on natural history and conservation.
“E.O. Wilson was called ‘Darwin’s natural heir,’ and was known affectionately as ‘the ant man’ for his pioneering work as an entomologist,” the foundation wrote. It did not cite a cause of death but said a tribute to his life was planned for 2022.
In addition to groundbreaking work in evolution and entomology, in his later years Wilson spearheaded a campaign to unite the scientific and religious communities in an odd-couple pairing he felt presented the best chance to preserve Earth.
Wilson presented his views in over 30 books, two of which – “On Human Nature” in 1979 and “The Ants” in 1991 – won Pulitzer Prizes for non-fiction. His writing style was far more elegant than might have been expected from a scientist.
He even ventured into fiction – although he stuck to a topic he knew a lot about – in 2010 with “Anthill,” a coming-of-age novel about an Alabama boy trying to save marshlands.
Among Wilson’s most controversial works was 1975’s “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” in which he wrote that all human behavior was a product of genetic predetermination, not learned experiences. By coming out in favor of human nature over nurture, he set off a firestorm of criticism, with his harshest opponents accusing him of being racist and sexist.
One protester threw water on Wilson while he was speaking at a conference as others chanted, “Wilson, you’re all wet.” It was, Wilson said later, a matter of pride for him that he was willing to pursue scientific truth despite such attacks.
He grew up a Bible-reading Southern Baptist but fell away from the church as he studied evolution. Wilson would later describe himself as a “provisional deist” – someone who was willing “to accept the possibility that there is some kind of intelligent force beyond our current understanding”.
He managed to tie science and religion together in his 2006 book “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth,” a series of letters written to an imaginary Baptist preacher in pursuit of an ecological alliance to save the Earth.
Changes needed to manage the planet
In a 2011 commencement address at the University of North Carolina, Wilson argued that humanity needed to make changes in how it managed the planet. “We have Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology,” he said.
Wilson once said destroying a rainforest for economic gain was like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.
He won the National Medal of Science, the highest U.S. science honor, as well dozens of other awards. In 1995, Time magazine listed him among the 25 most influential Americans.
Edward Osbourne Wilson was born June 10, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama. After his parents divorced, Wilson had a nomadic childhood with his father, an alcoholic accountant who would later commit suicide, and the frequent moves made it difficult for him to form lasting friendships.
As a result, Wilson came to think of nature as his favorite companion and he spent hours prowling forests, streams and swamps, observing wildlife.
A childhood fishing accident led Wilson to myrmecology, the study of ants. A fish’s fin cut his eye, leaving his vision so impaired that he could not observe larger animals from a distance. Instead, he concentrated on smaller creatures that he could study up close.
Wilson was 13 and living in Alabama when he was credited with discovering the first colony of imported fire ants in the United States, according to the Harvard Gazette. He later made another significant discovery about ants, proving they used pheromone excretions to communicate.
Wilson graduated from the University of Alabama and earned a doctorate at Harvard University, where he taught for several decades.
In 2005, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation was established in his name to advance conservation, and in 2008 Wilson realized a dream when the Encyclopedia of Life https://eol.org went online, a Wikipedia-like website designed to document all 1.9 million living species on Earth. A documentary about his life, “Darwin’s Natural Heir,” was also made that year.
Wilson and his wife, Irene, lived in Lexington, Massachusetts. He had a daughter, Catherine.