Edward O. Wilson is one of those prodigious intellects who have sprung from humble origins. No one in this biologist’s family had gone to college. There were few books in his home. His father, who often had custody of this only child after a divorce, was an alcoholic who jumped from job to job, forcing his son to attend 14 different mediocre schools all over the South before completing high school.
Despite these limitations, young Ed’s fascination with ants and butterflies and snakes early in boyhood, coupled with a tireless work ethic, set him on his way. He would end up a professor at Harvard and one of the most celebrated, if controversial, biologists in the world.
“Scientist,” Richard Rhodes’s biography of Wilson, born in 1929, however, does not begin with those formative years. Instead, it depicts him on his hands and knees collecting and classifying ants, many previously unknown to science, in the jungles of New Guinea. Despite the oppressive heat and mosquitoes, he’s an elated Indiana Jones of insect hunters.
As fascinating as this material is, it’s all been conveyed to much better effect in Wilson’s 1994 autobiography, “Naturalist.” In fact, Rhodes relies almost entirely on quotations from that book, supplemented by letters Wilson wrote to his sweetheart and eventual wife, Irene Kelley. Oddly enough, Wilson’s lively, vivid prose, at the heart of every chapter, consistently outshines that of the professional writer, whose best-known work is the prize-winning “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.”
Except for his bio-nerd leanings, Wilson led a typical Southern boyhood. He briefly attended a military school. At 14, he was “born again” at First Baptist Church of Pensacola, though a bit later he decided his faith lay more in science than Christianity. He loved to fish, at least until an accident with a pinfish left him blind in the right eye. Though skinny and underweight, he managed a brief flirtation with football.
In Wilson’s autobiography, he claimed that perennial football power the University of Alabama had “saved” him. The truth is, this whiz-kid saved himself. When he first arrived on campus, he knocked on the biology department chair’s door and showed him his large insect collection. He was given lab space and became a sort of departmental mascot.
Wilson would make Harvard, possessor of the largest ant collection in the world, his professional home. As a young assistant professor, he was almost lured away to Stanford — by a visit from its dean and president! — until Harvard matched the poachers’ offer and granted him tenure. In this first phase of his career, he concentrated on linking insect field work and classification to evolutionary theory. Looming on the horizon, though, lay a challenge from the hot new field of molecular biology. To his credit, Rhodes conveys useful background information on what Wilson termed the “molecular wars.”
When James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, joined the Harvard faculty, the battle was on. Wilson remembers this brilliant but arrogant and rude man as “the most unpleasant human being I have ever met.” Watson, a Nobel Prize winner, harrumphed that Wilson was nothing but an old-fashioned “stamp collector?” (Ironically, Wilson previously had helped persuade the department to hire this adversary, despite his abrasive personality.) Eventually, in a win-win decision, evolutionary biology and molecular biology split into separate departments.
Wilson’s focus on evolution, however, would prove troublesome in the wider public arena. His previous work on insect social behavior had been lauded, but his 1975 book, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” provoked a firestorm. He was accused of giving a green light to eugenics, racism, and the socio-economic status quo. This time, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin led the charge. At a scientific conference in Washington, protesters doused him with ice water, chanting “Wilson, you’re all wet!”
Rhodes implicitly sides with Wilson, arguing that the scientist’s effort to root all animal behavior, including that of humans, in genetics was misunderstood. But it seems to me that Wilson’s theorizing in this classic nature-nurture debate clearly weights the scales toward something close to genetic determinism. Likewise, the author fails to subject Wilson’s “On Human Nature,” in which the biologist explores the connections between genetic and cultural evolution, to tough-minded scrutiny.
An unabashed Wilson enthusiast, Rhodes reveals that he was the primary advocate for Wilson on the Pulitzer jury that recommended the general nonfiction prize go to “The Ants,” a comprehensive tome intended for scientists. (Wilson had won previously in the same category for “On Human Nature” — his two awards an astonishing triumph for a scientist.)
Toward the end of the century, Wilson achieved renown in the newly ascendant field of ecology. He pleaded for conservation efforts to preserve wildlife habitats and halt the extinction of species. Millions upon millions of species, he warned, remained unidentified yet potentially lost forever. In “Half-Earth” he recommended setting aside half the world’s land to assure survival of our yet undiscovered genetic treasures.
In this effort, citizens were more likely to garland him with roses rather than drench him in cold water. Indiana Jones had become the Grand Old Man of ecological advocacy.
Researching this book, Rhodes conducted numerous interviews with Wilson, now in his 90s living outside Boston. Yet the effort hasn’t yielded much, a few details but no major insights. The autobiographer has trumped the biographer. “Naturalist” was a pleasure, “Scientist” a disappointment.
Dan Cryer is author of the biography “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church” and the memoir “Forgetting My Mother: A Blues from the Heartland.”
Scientist: E.O. Wilson: A Life in Nature
Doubleday, 288, $30