Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
7 Jan 2022
Written for Hardback
The recent loss of famous entomologist and brilliant mind Edward O. Wilson shook me. In an attempt to find some solace I turned to Richard Rhodes's recent biography, published only a month before. I already had this lined up for review and was looking forward to it, but this must be the saddest possible reason to prioritise reading a book. Fortunately, I found a warm and respectfully written biography that, as the title suggests, focuses foremost on the scientific achievements of Wilson.
Rhodes opens his biography, unexpectedly, with a 25-year-old Wilson collecting ants throughout the South Pacific. The next chapter covers Wilson's itinerant childhood – with the divorce of his parents and frequent moves partially explaining the solace he found in nature. These first two chapters are easily the most private. They feature the infamous fishing accident that permanently damaged Wilson's eyesight, his father's shocking suicide, and a young man's letters to his waiting fiancée. But also his early commitment to entomology, something he was destined to do "not by any touch of idiosyncratic genius, not by foresight, but by a fortuitous constriction of physiological ability" (p. 40).
Despite Wilson's modesty, Rhodes shows this precocious young man was possessed of both genius and a serious work ethic. He completed a four-year undergraduate programme at the University of Alabama in three years and landed an assistant professorship at Harvard in 1956 before even having finished his PhD. This is also where he met his first serious challenger: James Watson. Though they would find rapprochement later in life, and Wilson always acknowledged the scale of Watson's achievements, there was much initial friction. Watson was pushing molecular biology hard and "was determined to sweep the Harvard biology department clean of field scientists" (p. 62) that he considered mere "stamp collectors". It stimulated Wilson to bring more quantitative thinking to taxonomy, which first required that he join undergraduate calculus courses.
An important theme in Scientist
is Wilson's indefatigable drive to expand his intellectual horizon. His track record of publications offers a suitable handhold by which to structure the book. Rhodes thus focuses on the work with Robert MacArthur leading to The Theory of Island Biogeography
(1967), including the remarkable fieldwork with Daniel Simberloff to experimentally test the repopulation of defaunated islands. It would later prove important to his work on the biodiversity crisis, for what is habitat fragmentation but the creation of islands of a different kind?
This was followed The Insect Societies
(1971), the first of several monographs synthesizing all available knowledge up to that point. It betrayed Wilson's interest in complex social behaviours and foreshadowed what was to come with its call for someone to write a similar book for vertebrates. Sociobiology
(1975) became that book, setting off an intellectual firestorm that rages to this day. Initially blindsided by attacks from close colleagues it ultimately led to a fresh surge of ambition and a survey of humanism literature in his 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature
. Rhodes is briefer in his later coverage of the controversy that erupted around the 2010 Nature
paper that saw Wilson reject kin selection in favour of group selection.
In several instances, Rhodes nicely traces the roots of Wilson's intellectual interests. Regarding natural selection, he writes that "what was in sharp debate in Darwin's time was not the evidence of evolution, but the mechanism" (p. 46). The rediscovery of Mendel's work and the generation-long struggle of biologists to get their ducks in a row regarding genetics, featuring "much disagreement and mutual incomprehension along the way" (p. 53), was the context in which Wilson came of age. The backdrop to the rivalry between Wilson and Watson was the emerging struggle between "classic" field-oriented biology and molecular biology. Rhodes charts the discoveries that led to DNA rather than proteins being recognized as the carrier of hereditary information, as well as some of Watson's inspiration. Finally, Rhodes explains how W.D. Hamilton's paper on kin selection was both a struggle for Wilson to understand and for Hamilton to write.
A few caveats are in place, two of them minor. First, as the title suggests, this is squarely a scientific biography. Wilson's wife makes very limited appearances. I was similarly missing input from Wilson's co-author Bert Hölldobler. Given their advanced age, both might simply have been unavailable for questions, but neither do we hear from Wilson's daughter. A second caveat is that Rhodes, understandably, draws heavily on Wilson's autobiographical writings. Readers of these books will likely recognize some of the stories here, though they are much enriched by material collected during lengthy in-person and phone interviews over two years.
A major caveat is that Scientist
is heavily weighted towards the first half of Wilson's life. By chapter 11 we are still in 1980. The focus is, deservedly, on Wilson's growing concern about the biodiversity crisis. In a few big strides, it takes in major papers and essays, and the launch of the online Encyclopedia of Life. Books such as Biophilia
only receive a paragraph, while The Diversity of Life
is merely quoted from twice. Similarly brief are mentions of The Ants
and the monograph on ants of the genus Pheidole
. All the other books are skipped over. Rhodes does not mention why. It confirms my impression that some of them have met with mixed reception and have not contributed substantial new ideas. It is, however, a far cry from the more in-depth analysis of Wilson's early work. And, given that Rhodes was the last person to speak to Wilson, it feels like a unique opportunity not fully used.
Rhodes circles back to his theme of Wilson's relentless intellectual drive by describing how he was working on a novel synthesis of ecosystems shortly before his death. Frankly, any 92-year-old who can seriously say "I'm studying the mathematics of origami [...] I think it may allow me to model how ecosystems form" (p. 221) commands respect. Indeed, when Wilson gives the gist of his argument while folding a handkerchief during one of their conversations, Rhodes calls it "the most extraordinary demonstration I've ever seen in my life" (p. 220). It is a fitting conclusion to this warm and respectful biography. I do not expect this to be the last word on Wilson – Rhodes has left fertile ground for other biographers to explore, especially regarding the intellectual legacy of his later career – but it gave me a deeper appreciation of his extraordinary genius.