Edward O Wilson: Biography & Books

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

How do you feel about bugs and other creepy crawly critters? If you're like Edward O. Wilson, then you love them! This lesson explores the life and works of Edward O. Wilson, a world-renowned entomologist who pioneered studies on social animals.

Growing Up

When you were five years old, what did you want to be when you grew up? How about when you were ten? What about now? Many kids imagine exciting lives as firemen or athletes or pop stars, while others dream about becoming teachers or astronauts or lawyers. For young Edward Osborne Wilson, he wanted nothing more than to become an entomologist, a person who studies bugs!

Wilson was born on June 10, 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama. His dad was an accountant for the U.S. government, so his family moved around a lot when he was a kid. If you've ever moved from one place to another, you may know how challenging it can be to make new friends. Because his family relocated so often, Wilson experienced the difficulties of making new friends repeatedly. This led to his early love of nature. Being outside observing different animals was one of his favorite things to do. When he was a child, he suffered damage to his right eye during a fishing accident. This limited his ability to study birds and other animals, but it did lead him to study insects more closely.

Studying Bugs

When he was just 13 years old, Wilson discovered an unusual species of ant while living in Alabama. Realizing that these ants were bad news, he immediately reported his findings to the local government. Eventually, Wilson was asked to do a comprehensive study on the fire ants that he'd found and their damaging effects on the environment and local ecosystems. This marked the beginning of a very impressive career as a scientist and a writer.

Edward O. Wilson graduated from the University of Alabama in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science degree. Within one year, he had earned a Master of Science degree. Wilson decided to continue his education at Harvard University, where he spent five years working on a Ph.D. He graduated in 1955, and married his wife, Irene Kelley, that same year. For the next 41 years, Wilson worked as a professor at Harvard before retiring from the university in 1997.

Wilson's Books

Throughout his career, Edward O. Wilson has published numerous volumes about his research findings and theories about animal behaviors.

Books About Animal Behavior

In 1971, Wilson published The Insect Societies, which is about different species of social insects. Social insects include species like bees and ants that live and work together in large colonies to survive. In the book, Wilson explores the role of physical surroundings and how insect populations work together and respond to each other impact their survival.

In 1975, Wilson followed with his next book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Sociobiology is the study of how genetics influence the way all animals behave, including humans. Wilson applied his study of genetics and behaviors in ants to human beings. He claimed that up to ten percent of human behaviors could be traced back to genetic factors. Many members of the scientific community disputed this claim; they believed that citing genetic factors was more of an excuse (not an explanation) for negative human behaviors.

On Human Nature, published in 1978, built upon Wilson's ideas about sociobiology, this time focusing solely on the ways sociobiology applies to human beings. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.

Wilson's 1997 work, Success, Dominance, and the Superorganism: The Case of Social Insects, explains the role of genetics and altruism, or selfless actions that are done for the greater good. According to Wilson, altruism is the result of natural selection. Animals will sacrifice themselves for the greater good. While that one animal may die, there are other animals that carry similar genes (and likely similar personality traits...like altruism!). These selfless acts help preserve the gene pool, leading to a process called kin selection. In his book, Wilson also claims that social animals, like ants and humans, should be viewed as a single, large organism, or a superorganism.

Books about Ants

As an entomologist, Edward O. Wilson specialized in studying ant populations. From 1990 to 2009, he published numerous books about the species:

  • The Ants (1990)
  • The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (2009)
  • The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct (2011)
  • Kingdom of Ants: Jose Celestino Mutis and Dawn of Natural History in the New World (2011)

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