This week: conversations about the life and work of the biologist E.O. Wilson, with biographer Richard Rhodes and Wilson himself. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our site.
E.O. Wilson is known for, among other things, his foundational work in the field of sociobiology and his literary achievements as a Pulitzer-winner. At Harvard, he knew another author/naturalist: Vladimir Nabokov (Nabokov studied butterflies, Wilson ants).“We got into interesting discussions,” Wilson tells us on this week’s show, “but they were mostly discussions of adventure. And that’s what really keeps naturalists going. They live for adventure.”
This week, you’ll hear about the adventure of E.O. Wilson’s life, in conversations both with Wilson and his biographer, Richard Rhodes.
Rhodes walks us through the different scenes of Wilson’s career, including the study of ants:
It had been popularly assumed before that when ants tweedle their antenna together with each other, they were somehow sending signals that way. But animals that live underground generally don’t use eyes and ears. They use smells primarily. And in this case, the question really was: where was this odor being presented?
And Ed started investigating his favorite research animal, which is the fire ant, which has many virtues, including: easy to maintain and all of those things, but it’s very small. It’s about the size of a large crumb of bread, so working within that scale without having any elaborate technological system in hand in his laboratory to magnify this ant, but merely a very large magnifying glass, it looks from the photographs as if it weighed maybe five pounds at least—he started prising out little parts of the ant’s abdomen. He finally lit upon this tiny little gland that didn’t look like it was much of anything. And when he put a little bit of the the secretion from this gland onto a little piece of balsam and laid it in the courtyard of his ant colony on his desk at the Harvard Museum of Biology, the ants came roaring out of their colony and raced along the line he’d drawn.
How did a myrmecologist, a scientist who studies ants, become involved in sociobiology? Rhodes explains:
Let me just insert here something that I think is fascinating about Ed: how has he managed to come from being a collector of ants to a world-class scientist who’s sometimes called Darwin’s successor? He grows each new phase of his life. He expands his reach. He takes on more than he thinks he can handle. Ed got to the point where he knew something well enough that he would write a synthesis of the whole field. He did that with ants in a book that won a Pulitzer Prize. And once he’d done that I think he he wanted to look farther. And at that point, he started looking at the question of how much of human behavior — not the color of our eyes and the olor of our hair, those things—but our behavior, how of human behavior is evolved, is fixed by our evolutionary genes rather than something that we learn after we’re born.
And while zigzagging between studies of ants and studies of people, Wilson became a scientist and a humanist, a scholar of the natural world and a literary mind. Rhodes again:
He crossed that barrier that the English physicist and novelist C.P. Snow spoke of many years ago as this barrier between science and humanism. He’s found ways to connect. He’s won two Pulitzers, which, as he often points out with some amusement, are actually given for literary style, not for your science.
Read: E.O. Wilson
Here’s another monument to E.O. Wilson’s literary achievement: a Library of America collection three of his works (Biophilia, The Diversity of Life, and Naturalist). There’s an excerpt at Lit Hub of an essay by David Quammen from this edition:
“The study of every kind of organism matters,” Wilson wrote, because “nothing in the whole system makes sense until the natural history of the constituent species becomes known.” (This was an echo, probably conscious, of the Russian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous dictum: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”) That is, the science of ecology must be built by beginning from individual life histories. Wilson’s statement was hyperbolic, maybe, but hyperbole containing a truth to which he has remained committed: details count. Work from the ground up. Even the big principles of theoretical ecology — and Wilson has ever been hungry to find big principles — cannot be extracted except from the assemblage of multifarious data about how and where particular creatures live.
Read: The Inheritors
William Golding’s novel of species-drama tells a grim story of Neanderthals vs. Homo sapiens. Golding’s daughter Judy reflects that “much of the novel is permeated by a kind of species guilt. From a site devoted to Golding:
Golding considered The Inheritors his finest novel, and he wrote the first draft in an astonishing 29 days. He didn’t conduct a great deal of research into the Neanderthal people, but his vision has been proved to be remarkably astute. The biggest success of the book is the way he elicits sympathy, and empathy, from the reader, despite the fact that we are the ‘Inheritors’ — the Homo Sapiens responsible for the Neanderthals’ demise. This realisation comes towards the end and deeply shakes the reader.
Watch: WBCN and the American Revolution
We’re Reading: The Dawn of Everything
What if everything we think we know about the origins and evolution of human societies is wrong? Improbably perhaps, a 700-page book arguing just that is on the best-seller list. Jump into the pool! We’ll be talking with David Wengrow right after the holiday.
This week’s ephemeral library
Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor: “Wokeness” is not the problem. Ashish Jha: America’s booster rules are far more confusing than necessary. Maggie Doherty on The Hard Choices of Elizabeth Hardwick. Inflation or Price-Gouging?
Happy Thanksgiving Open Source fans! We’re so grateful for YOU and all your loyal support and friendship over the years. Enjoy this holiday week. You’ve earned it!
The OS Ant Colony