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On the death of the biologist Edward O. Wilson

VMany people who are as passionate about nature as Edward O. Wilson in order to learn something about life from it have probably had their ant phase at one point or another. It never stopped with him. And neither does learning about us humans.

Joachim Müller-Jung

Editor in the features section, responsible for the “Nature and Science” section.

At the beginning of the 2000s, when the whole world was bending over the human genome in order to learn something from it for human life and its deepest evolutionary secrets, we met this ant researcher in the zoological museum of Harvard University, as he was completely unmoved by the genetic revolutions rested in himself and his passion for ants. He playfully pestered the guards of a New World ant colony with a stick, which he kept in a plastic container and which should become part of a taxonomic overview of all 625 species of this genus. The “super soldier” that Wilson bullied and audibly admired was tiny, but with his oversized head shield he looked like a powerful cinema super villain. If he wanted, he could find a piece of human culture in every ant. And that is exactly what he did more and more devotedly in the course of his life: discovering people in animals.

Pulitzer Prize for a collaborative effort

The super soldier was Wilson’s latest scientific discovery. One of thousands. Many can be found in the standard work “The Ants”, which is still unattainable today, for which he and the Würzburg behavioral scientist Bert Hölldobler received the Pulitzer Prize in the 1990s – the second already. As long as he was concerned with ants, from his early childhood in the US state of Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s to the end of his Harvard professorship, which lasted for almost half a century, it was both scientifically and narrative well-rounded. Only Wilson, like Konrad Lorenz before him, never thought of considering his intimate empirical knowledge of the social behavior of animals in an evolutionarily isolated manner.

After studying communication in insect colonies from the 1950s to the 1970s and quickly becoming famous as a biogeographer because of his island theory on the distribution of species, which he developed together with Robert MacArthur in New Guinea, he demanded two works in the 1970s Sociobiology emerged from the humanities like no other. The book “Biologie als Schicksal. The sociobiological foundations of human behavior “was seen by many as a scientistic attempt by biologists – and was underlined by advances by other protagonists in the field – to reduce human nature to its biological characteristics alone. The molecular age that has just dawned has only widened this gap. Wilson was attacked on the open stage, humiliated and once poured a bucket of ice water over his home university.

Distancing yourself from the application

He later distanced himself from the far-reaching interpretations of his theses, which, like social Darwinism before it, had come close to racism and which he therefore saw as scientifically abused and disqualified. But not from his social-evolutionary worldview – from the fact that humans are part of natural history, with all the advances and malevolences that prevail again and again. From then on he concentrated on two main areas of work in various non-fiction books: With the first, his main scientific and evolutionary thesis, he tried to prove that in many organisms, and especially in humans, genes (the “selfish gene”) are by no means the engine of development, but social selection – highly organized, networked units are proving to be a superior business model of evolution. Wilson never stopped holding biologists up against humans.

With his second area of ​​responsibility, he finally wanted to give all of this, the organismic achievements of natural history, a future at all. Wilson’s ultimate mission over the past few decades has been to save biodiversity. As a pioneer of the term “biodiversity”, he has tried several times to catalog the richness of species on the planet, a company that he has continued in his foundation work and that will likely take generations to come.

Many of these species will hardly be found by posterity if Wilson’s derived goal of preserving biodiversity ultimately fails. The idea he formulated a few years ago to unceremoniously put half of the earth under protection as reserves for this purpose has since been talked to death in terms of environmental policy. Unfortunately, Wilson’s ark is not yet seaworthy. On Boxing Day, its founder and Crafoord awardee, EO Wilson, died at the age of 92.


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