Updated: December 29, 2021 9:52:22 am
Edward Osborne Wilson, who passed away on Monday, aged 92, was often called “The Modern Day Darwin” — a sobriquet that was both a tribute to his wide-ranging accomplishments in the natural sciences as well as a signifier of the controversies his views attracted. His pioneering work on the survival traits of ants sparked a political firestorm when Wilson extended his ideas to human societies, insisting that characteristics such as aggression and altruism are genetically predetermined and not a product of social experiences. Wilson’s detractors, including his fellow Harvard biologist, the other great Darwinian of our times, Stephen Jay Gould, contended that biological determinism harkened to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, and Nazism.
It would be wrong, however, to reduce EO — as he liked to be called — to his controversial pieces of writing. His eloquent descriptions of how myriad interactions between insects and plants produce complex food webs has inspired ecologists trying to understand how biodiversity sustains human life. His work on how habitat size is important in sustaining animal populations has been a guiding principle of the contemporary conservationist movement.
In later life, Wilson admitted to “political naivete” and claimed he was misunderstood. He said he was rebelling against the orthodoxy of the time that did not think the natural world to be important, or that it played second fiddle to human societies. The EO of the last 25 years was a desperate steward of nature trying to “reverse the Sixth Extinction”. In his 2006 work, The Creation, the lapsed Christian called for an alliance between religion and science to stem the destruction of biodiversity. He wanted half the earth be set aside for reviving biodiversity but did not believe that all human activities needed to be banned, or property rights of people taken away, in such sanctuaries. Instead with proper incentives, people could resuscitate nature. He was perhaps, in part, revising his early work that saw humans and ants as organisms, governed only by genes, as well as confirming those parts that saw them as superbly resilient creatures.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 29, 2021 under the title ‘Steward of nature’.
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