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If you like Edward O. Wilson's story, you might also like:
Gary Becker,
Lee Berger,
Norman Borlaug,
Francis Collins,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Linus Pauling,
Oliver Sacks,
Richard Schultes,
John Sulston,
James Watson,
Tim White and
Tom Wolfe

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E.O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson
Profile of E.O. Wilson Biography of E.O. Wilson Interview with E.O. Wilson E.O. Wilson Photo Gallery

E.O. Wilson Interview

Father of Sociobiology

April 5, 2001
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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  E.O. Wilson

(At the time of this interview, Edward O. Wilson also sat down for a joint interview with
Dr. Ernst Mayr. Several passages from that interview have also been included here.)

In all modesty, Dr. Wilson, how would you describe your most important contributions to science?

Edward O. Wilson: I'll give it a shot. There's no point in being falsely modest. Every scientist thinks about their contributions all the time, and it isn't just vanity. It has so much to do with strategy.

Deciding when you reach the point of diminishing return in one direction and you really ought to be picking up your gear and moving over to another sector on the advancing front. So I have, in a sense, been an opportunist. The one common thread in my scientific career has been the devotion to one group of organisms, the ants, which I set out to learn thoroughly for the pleasure of it, but also developed for the richness of new material and opportunities for discovery that they could provide. Given that as a kind of anchor, and given evolution as a grand organizing theme for developing research programs, I began with the relatively simple program, actually in my teens, of studying ants and their classification and a little bit of the natural history.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I suppose the earliest discovery I made was in 1942 at the age of 13. Because I happened to be living in the middle of Mobile, near the dock area, I found the first colonies ever recorded of the imported fire ant, which has now spread all over the United States. The State of Alabama asked me to do the first survey. The ant was spreading out then from Mobile, and so my first papers were on the imported fire ant. I was able to -- on the basis of the observation I had made at 13, in 1942, and then the ones that I was making in 1949 -- piece together the arrival time and the rate of spread in the earliest expansion of what is now one of the leading insect pests in the country. So that was a rewarding experience.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Then I developed a much stronger and more abiding interest in systematics and biogeography. I was greatly stimulated, in my sophomore year at the University of Alabama, by reading Ernst Mayr's Systematics in the Origin of Species.

At the University of Alabama, I had the great good fortune of falling in with a group of students that were all returned veterans -- this was 1946 -- from different parts of the country who had come to the University, because there were so few spaces in other colleges and universities that the veterans were spreading out across the country. We all had a common interest in natural history, and we all worked together: one (was) a specialist on beetles, another on salamanders, another on snails, and I was working on ants. We took these trips all through the state and down into Florida, exploring together and doing nothing but talking natural history and talking evolution. It was a great experience.

E.O. Wilson Interview Photo
That led to serious work in systematics as I proceeded on into graduate work, and then to studies in the caste system of ants, which are all-important in understanding the evolution and diversity of ant species, of which there are about 10,000 known in the world. So at that point, beginning my graduate work, I developed the first evolutionary history of the origin of caste systems in the ants, using a combination of the differential of growth in the larvae of the ant, and of the size frequency distribution: how many big ones and little ones there are in a colony. I put all that together over a large number of species of ants to work out the first pathways of evolution that had ever been done. That was my first contribution.

Did that require museum collections?

Edward O. Wilson: Yes. That required collections of ants from all over the world, and I was able to complete it after I had come to Harvard, because we have the best ant collection in the world at Harvard, and it showed me right from the beginning, as a young graduate student, the enormous value of collections. That got me into the Harvard Society of Fellows.

It gave us three full years to do anything we wanted. So in effect, what I said when I got it -- it was a glorious opportunity, 1953, I was 24 -- I said, "Do anything! Go anywhere!" and immediately I was off to the tropics, which is where I always wanted to go, to luxuriate in the maximum diversity centers of the world, fauna and flora. Sort of like an art student, a scholar of art history, being allowed to visit the great museums for the first time. So off I went to Cuba and Mexico, and spent time working in the rainforest, becoming familiar with the biology of the fauna and flora, and particularly the ants. Then immediately afterward, after passing through Harvard and shaking some hands and collecting checks, I headed for the South Pacific.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

There, I followed in part the route followed by Ernst Mayr when he was working on birds, some 30 years before. I climbed, in one case, the same mountain range, and part of it that had never been climbed before. I worked through places like Fiji and New Caledonia and Western Australia, and went on to Sri Lanka, and for a long period of time studied ants in the field.

It's astonishing to read, in your autobiography, just how much territory you covered. You covered a vast amount of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Edward O. Wilson: It's possible to collect a superabundant group like ants, many times faster than, say, collecting mammals or birds. That's an advantage, working these abundant little creatures. You can get the database far more quickly. That's essentially what I did in the South Pacific. When I came back, I put together the theory of taxon cycling, which is not a universal process, but a cyclical process occurs when species are spreading into new parts of the world and splitting into new species and replacing other species and so on.

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