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The Sciences

The Man Who Found That "Genes Hold Culture on a Leash"

Edward O. Wilson looked at ants and made fundamental discoveries about humans.

By Discover StaffNovember 17, 2008 12:00 AM


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One of the century’s most influential scientists and thinkers, Edward O. Wilson first came to widespread attention with the publication of his landmark book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. In it he describes sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” The work’s most debated tenet was that all human behavior is ultimately genetically based—or, as Wilson once put it, that “genes hold culture on a leash.” Extremely influential and wildly controversial, Sociobiology changed the way animal and human behavior was researched and viewed. In fact, with this work Wilson accomplished what few scientists before him had done: He created a new paradigm of science. A recipient of the National Medal of Science and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Wilson began his scientific life as an authority on ants and later turned his attention to the welfare of the entire living world. In works such as The Diversity of Life (1992), Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), and The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006), he pleads for a union of science, religion, and the humanities to protect the biodiversity on which all earthly life depends. An appreciation of Wilson by Richard Machalek, socio­biologist, University of Wyoming: Once, on a visit to San Antonio, Texas, Ed Wilson asked me to take him to the Alamo, that iconic old mission now famous as the site of a desperate battle for independence waged by “Texians” and Tejanos against a powerful Mexican army. Upon entering the sanctum, Wilson approached and leaned over a diorama depicting the battle in miniature. After closely scrutinizing the lines drawn by the toy soldiers as if they were ants, Wilson straightened up and in sad resignation commented, “The poor devils never stood a chance.” A career devoted to close observation of miniature lives has endowed this world-class scientist with the following inclinations: His gaze is drawn routinely not to the panoramic but to the minute, in which he sees elemental structures and processes comprising the basic ingredients of life. He is never content with knowing only what the books say but rather is determined, whenever possible, to go on-site to probe the fortresses of orthodoxy so as to see what might crumble and collapse. And he has become an inveterate disturber of the intellectual peace who has shown us with crystal clarity that any effort to fathom the human condition, absent an understanding of our place in nature, is doomed. This is Ed Wilson, Lord of the Ants, who has changed forever both our understanding of human nature and the fragile biosphere in which it evolved.

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