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Edward O. Wilson

EDWARD O. WILSON, the author of this month's cover story ("Back From Chaos"), describes himself as "a congenital synthesizer." That explains a lot -- including why Wilson, who is generally considered to be the world's leading authority on ants, is writing in these pages about intellectual history and the need to fuse the sciences and the humanities. Wilson himself embodies that fusion: he is one of this century's most influential scientists, a hands-on practitioner who believes that "biology is the key to human nature"; he is also a distinguished writer who models himself after the "very few" great science writers, like Darwin and Freud, "who can trouble and move the deeper reaches of the mind."

Based for the past four decades at Harvard University, Wilson most famously committed the act of synthesis in his book (1975), a text that proposed "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior" and, in its final chapter, asked readers to "consider man in the free spirit of natural history, as though we were zoologists from another planet." Wilson suggested that an understanding of the social behavior of animals was necessary in studying the social behavior of human beings; he also proposed that genes play a role in determining human nature. This prompted some alarmingly emotional reactions (Wilson was accused of offering scientific legitimacy to racists, sexists, and even Nazis), the most memorable of which came at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when an irate heckler approached Wilson, a guest speaker, and dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head.

That same year Wilson published in which he marshaled in his defense the combined forces of, among others, Sappho, primitive wasps, David Hume, the ammonia molecule, W. B. Yeats, and troops of chimpanzees. Two decades later much of the resistance to sociobiology has fizzled, and Wilson has gone on to research and write voluminously about ants, population biology, ecology, and human nature, in the process racking up dozens of scientific and literary awards.

Wilson is unapologetic in his belief that a conceptual unity underlies all branches of knowledge, that the close empirical study of the natural world can help us to understand this unity, and that such understanding will, quite simply, improve life. All life, that is, not just the human variety.

-- THE EDITORS


The Atlantic Monthly; March 1998; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 281, No. 3; page 4.



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