Edward O. Wilson

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EO Wilson (2003)

Edward Osborne Wilson , known as EO Wilson (born June 10, 1929 in Birmingham , Alabama , † December 26, 2021 in Burlington , Massachusetts ), was an American entomologist and biologist who was best known for his contributions to the theory of evolution and sociobiology . Wilson's original specialty was ants , especially their communication using pheromones .


Wilson, the son of Edward and Inez Wilson, grew up with his father and stepmother after his parents' divorce in 1936, moving between Washington, DC and Mobile . As a seven-year-old boy, Wilson injured his right eye in a fishing accident. Since he could only see in the left eye and was thus able to focus best on details at close range, he specialized his natural history interest in the collection and investigation of insects. Even before he graduated from high school in 1946, Wilson was committed to studying ants, and in fact, three years later, he published his first scientific study on fire ants at the University of Alabama .

In 1955 he received his doctorate from Harvard University in biology and was finally at Harvard professor of zoology (1964-1976). His field research also made him an expert in the field of biogeography .

In collaboration with Robert H. MacArthur , Wilson developed an essay in 1963 and in 1967 in The Theory of Island Biogeography (see Inselbiogeographie ) the first theory that described the balance of species in nature. In 1971 he published The Insect Societies, a comprehensive overview of social insects. In 1975 he coined the term sociobiology in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis . In 1977 he was elected a member of the Leopoldina . In 1996 the news magazine TIME named him one of the 25 most influential people in North America.

In 1959 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1969 to the National Academy of Sciences . Edward O. Wilson is one of only two people to have received both the highest American honor for scientists (the National Medal of Science , 1976) and, twice, the most prestigious literary award in his country, the Pulitzer Prize , for the non-fiction books On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991). The American Philosophical Society , into which he was admitted in 1976, awarded him the Benjamin Franklin Medal in 1998 . In 2007 he received the Addison Emery Verrill Medal , the highest award of the Peabody Museum for Natural History at Yale University , and in 2010 the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award . In 2012 Wilson received the International Cosmos Prize. The social conquest of the earth received the 2013 Knowledge Book of the Year award . From 1990 he was an external member of the Finnish Academy of Sciences . In 2014 he received an honorary doctorate from the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg . Wilson died in December 2021 at the age of 92.

Research topics

Wilson's research interests lay primarily in the evolutionary causes of social behavior, especially in social insects . He became known not primarily because of his own empirical research results and his scientific contributions, but through numerous, often highly controversial, non-fiction books on his research topics.

His work The Insect Societies , published in 1971, was the fundamental standard work for the study of social insects, especially the highly organized insect states , for decades. Wilson was particularly interested in the ants . Together with Bert Hölldobler , he published The Ants in 1990 , to this day the standard work on this group of animals, which in addition to its scientific influence as a non-fiction book won the renowned Pulitzer Prize . In his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis , he expanded his own account from The Insect Societies by adding the results of other vertebrate researchers. The term “ sociobiology ” popularized by the work was then adopted for the entire research area.

Edward O. Wilson receives the
Addison Emery Verrill Medal together with Peter Hamilton Raven

His theses on the interplay between evolution and social behavior in animals and humans were both influential and controversial. The last chapter in particular, in which he applied his considerations to people and their behavior, has led to persistent and intense criticism. This was even more true of the 1978 non-fiction book On Human Nature , in which Wilson applied his theses specifically to human behavior. According to Wilson's very controversial interpretation, the term “ eusocial ” behavior, used by colleagues primarily for social arthropods and as the only vertebrate in the naked mole rat, can also be applied in a figurative form to humans.

As early as The Insect Societies , Wilson argued that evolution should focus on genes, not individuals. This topic was detailed and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene . However, Dawkins did not refer to Wilson and did not use the term sociobiology coined by him.

Another area of ​​work of Wilson was the mass extinction of many species in the history of the earth . In Diversity of Life he argued that humanity is currently ushering in a sixth mass extinction through the destruction of the environment. He strongly opposed the idea that protecting some areas would be enough to preserve the network of interdependent species. For his ideas and contributions in this area, he has also been called the "father of biodiversity ".

The biophilia hypothesis he formulated in 1984 provides the basis for an anthropocentric environmental and nature conservation ethic that aims to preserve biological diversity out of human self-interest. Wilson is considered to be the founder of the term biodiversity. WG Rosen used the term in 1985 on behalf of a National Research Council (NRC) conference entitled National Forum on Biological Diversity (held in 1986). In 1988 Wilson picked up the term and used it as the title of his book Biodiversity . It laid the theoretical foundations for today's research into biological diversity.

In 2007 he was one of the initiators of the Encyclopedia of Life , an Internet encyclopedia in which information about 1.8 million living beings is to be stored.

Wilson shook the professional world in later years by, after an increasingly controversial scientific as well as public debate on sociobiology, in a spectacular step distanced himself from sociobiology and partially revoked his earlier writings on it. Together with his namesake David Sloan Wilson , he brought into play the so-called “multilevel selection”, a model that rehabilitated the group selection model, which was previously often viewed as fundamentally discredited, instead of the relatives selection, which is often regarded as fundamental in sociobiology . With the renowned biomathematists Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, he brought a new model of group selection into play. Although many researchers followed him in his fundamental criticism, which was also represented by others at the same time, the new mathematical model was rejected by his specialist colleagues, including well-known critics of sociobiology, overwhelmingly and with rare unanimity.


Due to the sociobiological notion that human behavior should be seen in the context of human evolution, critics from the academic left (particularly Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin ) accused Wilson of being close to racism , sexism and social Darwinism since the 1970s . However, Wilson did not support such ideas, nor can they be derived from his 1975 work on sociobiology. His theory does not make any ethical claims, which his critics criticize in particular. Wilson himself was of the opinion that "moral thinking on every level can be scientifically explained."

The political right in the USA also positioned itself against Wilson because he had "hysterically" warned of species loss and environmental degradation.

Dedication names

Andre Moncrieff and his colleagues named the blue- banded ant bird ( Myrmoderus eowilsoni ) after Wilson in 2018 . Ara Monadjem and his colleagues named the bat species Miniopterus wilsoni in honor of Edward O. Wilson in 2020 .

Fonts (selection)

scientific publications

  • with Robert H. MacArthur : The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1967, most recently Princeton University Press, Princeton 2001, ISBN 978-069108836-5 .
  • Insect Societies. 1971
  • Sociobiology. The New Synthesis. Cambridge 1975.
  • On Human Nature. 1978 (awarded the Pulitzer Prize); Revised edition: Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-674-01638-5 .
    • Biology as fate. The sociobiological foundations of human behavior. Ullstein, Munich 1980, ISBN 3-550-07684-3 .
  • with Charles J. Lumsden: Genes, Mind and Culture. Cambridge 1981.
  • Promethean Fire. 1983
    • The fire of Prometheus. How human thought came about. With a foreword by Wolfgang Wickler. (From the American by Hans Jürgen Baron von Koskull. Ill. By Whitney Powell). Piper, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-492-02870-5 .
  • Biophilia. 1984
  • with Frances M. Peter (Ed.): Biodiversity. National Academy Press, 1988, ISBN 0-309-03783-2 , ISBN 0-309-03739-5 (pbk.)
  • with Bert Hölldobler : The Ants. 1990 (awarded the Pulitzer Prize)
  • with Bert Hölldobler: Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration. Harvard University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-674-48525-4
  • The Diversity of Life. Harvard University Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-674-21298-5
  • In search of nature. 1996
  • Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. 1998
  • The future of life. 2002
  • The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. 2006
  • with Bert Hölldobler: The superorganism. The success of ants, bees, wasps and termites . Springer-Verlag, Berlin / Heidelberg 2010, ISBN 978-3-540-93766-1
  • The Social Conquest of Earth. WW Norton & Company, 2012, ISBN 978-0-87140-413-8
  • Letters to a Young Scientist. WW Norton & Company, 2013, ISBN 978-0-87140-377-3
  • The Social Conquest of the Earth: A Biological History of Man. CH Beck, 2013, ISBN 978-3-406-64530-3
  • The meaning of human life. CH Beck, Munich 2015, ISBN 978-3-406-68170-7
  • Half-Earth. Our Planet's Fight for Life . Liveright Publishing Cooperation. 2016
    • Half of the earth. A planet is fighting for its life . Translated from the English by Elsbeth Ranke. CH Beck, Munich 2016, ISBN 978-3-406-69785-2


  • Naturalist. 1995.
    • The fullness of life. A declaration of love to the wonders of nature. Claassen, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-546-00159-1 .
  • In the Queendom of the Ants: A Brief Autobiography. In: Donald A. Dewsbury: Studying Animal Behavior. Autobiographies of the Founders. Chicago University Press, Chicago and London 1985, ISBN 978-0-226-14410-8 , pp. 464-484.



Web links

Commons : Edward O. Wilson  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Carl Zimmer: EO Wilson, a Pioneer of Evolutionary Biology, Dies at 92. In: The New York Times . December 27, 2021, accessed December 27, 2021 .
  2. ^ A b Reiner Klingholz: Edward O. Wilson. The gentle provocateur . In: Geo-Magazin , October 1998. pp. 90-96.
  3. Member entry of Edward O. Wilson at the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina , accessed on July 20, 2016.
  4. ^ Member History: Edward O. Wilson. American Philosophical Society, accessed December 11, 2018 (with biographical notes).
  5. Cosmos Prize: The Prizewinner 2012. At: expo-cosmos.or.jp , accessed on September 25, 2015.
  6. ^ Edward O. Wilson & Frances M. Peter (Eds.): Biodiversity. National Academy Press, 1988, ISBN 0-309-03783-2 ; ISBN 0-309-03739-5 (paperback).
  7. ^ David Sloan Wilson & Edward O. Wilson (2007): Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. Quarterly Review of Biology 82 (4): 327-348.
  8. ^ Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita & Edward O. Wilson (2010): The evolution of eusociality. Nature 466, pp. 1057-1162, with 2 supplements.
  9. Patrick Abbot et al. (2011): Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality. Nature 471, pp. E1-E10.
  10. Ed Douglas: The Guardian Profile: Edward O. Wilson . In: The Guardian . February 17, 2001.
  11. Edward O. Wilson: The Unity of Knowledge. Siedler, Berlin 1998, pp. 317-332 ( online ).
  12. Andre E. Moncrieff, Oscar Johnson, Daniel F. Lane, Josh R. Beck, Fernando Angulo, Jesse Fagan: A new species of antbird (Passeriformes: Thamnophilidae) from the Cordillera Azul, San Martin, Peru . Auk. 135 (1), 2018, pp. 114–26. doi : 10.1642 / AUK-17-97.1
  13. Ara Monadjem, Jen Guyton, Piotr Naskrecki, Leigh R. Richards, Anna S. Kropff and Desire L. Dalton: Cryptic diversity in the genus Miniopterus with the Description of A New Species from southern Africa. Acta Chiropterologica. 22 (1), 2020; 1-19. doi : 10.3161 / 15081109ACC2020.22.1.001