Edward Osborne Wilson

E.O. Wilson


E.O. Wilson Date of birth: June 10, 1929

Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, a government accountant, moved the family frequently, as he was reassigned from Washington, D.C. to Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Lacking steady friends, the young Edward found companionship in nature, exploring Rock Creek Park in Washington, and the wilds of the Deep South. At age seven, while fishing, the fin of a spiny fish scratched his right eye, permanently impairing his distance vision and depth perception. He enjoyed acute near-distance vision with his left eye, and used it to examine insect life at close range. By age 11, he was determined to become an entomologist. When a wartime shortage of pins interrupted his collecting of flies, he turned his attention to ants, which could be stored in jars, and set himself the task of cataloguing every species of ant to be found in Alabama.

At age 13, Wilson discovered a colony of non-native fire ants near the docks in Mobile, Alabama and reported his finding to the authorities. By the time he entered the University of Alabama, the fire ant, a potential threat to agriculture, was spreading beyond Mobile, and the State of Alabama requested that Wilson carry out a survey of the ant's progress. The resulting study, completed in 1949, was his first scientific publication. Wilson received his master's degree at the University of Alabama in 1950, and after studying briefly at the University of Tennessee, transferred to Harvard for doctoral studies.

Wilson was made a Junior Fellow of Harvard's Society of Fellows, an appointment that enabled him to pursue field research overseas. He embarked on a number of expeditions in the tropics, exhaustively collecting the ant species of Cuba and Mexico before moving on to the South Pacific. His scientific travels would take him from Australia and New Guinea to Fiji, New Caledonia and Sri Lanka. In 1955, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard and married Irene Kelley. The following year, he joined the Harvard faculty, a relationship that was to last his entire career. In the first of many contributions to our understanding of species evolution, Wilson tracked the evolution of the hierarchical caste system among ants. Comparing his observations of the ants of the South Pacific with the extensive collection in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, he then devised the theory of the "taxon cycle" to explain how ants adapt to adverse environmental conditions by colonizing new habitats and splitting into new species. The same pattern has since been observed among other insect and bird species.

By the end of the 1950s, Wilson had won recognition as the world's foremost authority on ants, but his studies in taxonomy and ecology ran contrary to prevailing fashion. The discovery of the DNA molecule by James Watson and Francis Crick had focused the biological community's attention on the molecular basis of life and away from natural history and the study of species evolution. Watson went so far as to compare natural history to stamp collecting. Wilson knew better, and deployed advances in microchemistry to inform the traditional practices of natural history. Collaborating with the mathematician William Bossert, he investigated the phenomenon of chemical communication among ants. Wilson and Bossert identified the chemical compounds, known as pheromones, that permit ants and other species to communicate by sense of smell. In the 1960s, Edward Wilson enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with mathematician and ecologist Robert MacArthur. Together, they attempted to apply the theory of species equilibrium to the contained environment of small islands. The resulting book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, is now a standard work of ecology, and informs conservation policy and the planning of nature reserves around the world. Wilson effectively demonstrated the theory through a remarkable experiment. After eliminating the existing insect population of a tiny island in the Florida Keys, Wilson observed the repopulation of the island by new species, confirming the principles of island biogeographic theory.

Wilson synthesized his enormous body of knowledge on the social insects -- ants, bees, wasps and termites -- in his masterful work, The Insect Societies, published in 1971. This work invoked the evolving concept of sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of social behavior among different organisms. In 1973, Wilson was appointed Curator of Insects at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Wilson's work on the sociobiology of insects was well-received, but his next major work ignited a firestorm of controversy.

In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), Wilson extended his analysis of animal behavior to vertebrates, including primates, and in the last chapter, humans. Wilson speculated that hierarchical social patterns among human beings may be perpetuated by inherited tendencies that originally evolved in response to specific environmental conditions. A number of Wilson's colleagues took strong exception, and others condemned Wilson's work on the grounds that it justified sexism, racism, polygamy and a host of other evils. Although Wilson adamantly denied any such intent, demonstrators picketed his lectures, and in one instance protesters doused him with water during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Through the commotion, Wilson stood his ground, and in 1978 published a highly acclaimed work, On Human Nature, in which he thoroughly examined the scientific arguments surrounding the role of biology in the evolution of human culture. Wilson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction for his graceful and lucid explanation of his ideas. By the end of the decade, the furor over sociobiology had subsided and researchers in many fields now accept Wilson's ideas as fundamental.

In the decades that followed, Edward Wilson continued to extend the domain of his interests. With collaborator Charles Lumsden, he published Genes, Mind and Culture (1981), introducing the first general theory of gene-culture coevolution. He followed this with the intriguing Promethean Fire: Reflections On the Origin of Mind (1980). Wilson explored the bond between man and nature in Biophilia, a title that introduced yet another new term to the language of science. Wilson revisited his first scholarly love in The Ants, co-written with Bert Hölldobler, a monumental work that brought Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

Over the years, Wilson has been an active participant in the international conservation movement, as a consultant to Columbia University's Earth Institute, and as a director of the American Museum of Natural History, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. In the 1990s, he continued to write and publish at a tremendous rate. His published works in this decade included The Diversity of Life (1992) and a memorable autobiography, Naturalist (1994). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) outlined his view of the essential unity of the natural and social sciences.

Edward Wilson officially retired from teaching at Harvard in 1996. He continues to hold the posts of Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology. Edward Wilson's most recent books include Creation: An Appeal to Save Life On Earth; and Nature Revealed: Selected Writings, 1949-2006. He and his wife Irene still make their home in Lexington, Massachusetts.


Wilson has described 418 new species in more than 58 documents.


Baroni Urbani, C.; Wilson, E. O. 1987. The fossil members of the ant tribe Leptomyrmecini (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Psyche (Camb.) 94: 1-8

Brown, W. L., Jr.; Wilson, E. O. 1957a. Dacetinops, a new ant genus from New Guinea. Breviora 77: 1-7

Brown, W. L., Jr.; Wilson, E. O. 1957b. A new parasitic ant of the genus Monomorium from Alabama, with a consideration of the status of genus Epixenus Emery. Entomol. News 68: 239-246

Brown, W. L., Jr.; Wilson, E. O. 1959b. The evolution of the dacetine ants. Q. Rev. Biol. 34: 278-294

Eisner, T.; Wilson, E. O. 1952. The morphology of the proventriculus of a formicine ant. Psyche (Camb.) 59: 47-60

Hölldobler, B.; Wilson, E. O. 1971 [1970]. Recruitment trails in the harvester ant Pogonomyrmex badius. Psyche (Camb.) 77: 385-399

Hölldobler, B.; Wilson, E. O. 1978. The multiple recruitment systems of the African Weaver ant Oecophylla longinoda (Latreille) (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 3: 19-60

Hölldobler, B.; Wilson, E. O. 1986a. Soil-binding pilosity and camouflage in ants of the tribes Basicerotini and Stegomyrmecini (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Zoomorphology (Berl.) 106: 12-20

Hölldobler, B.; Wilson, E. O. 1986b. Ecology and behavior of the primitive cryptobiotic ant Prionopelta amabilis (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Insectes Soc. 33: 45-58

Hölldobler, B.; Wilson, E. O. 1990. The ants. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, xii + 732 pp.

Hölldobler, B.; Wilson, E. O. 1992. Pheidole nasutoides, a new species of Costa Rican ant that apparently mimics termites. Psyche (Camb.) 99: 15-22

Regnier, F. E.; Wilson, E. O. 1968. The alarm-defense system of the ant Acanthomyops claviger. J. Insect Physiol. 14: 955-970

Taylor, R. W.; Wilson, E. O. 1962 [1961]. Ants from three remote oceanic islands. Psyche (Camb.) 68: 137-144

Wilson, E. O. 1951b [1950]. A new Leptothorax from Alabama (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Psyche (Camb.) 57: 128-130

Wilson, E. O. 1952b. O complexo Solenopsis saevissima na America do Sul (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Mem. Inst. Oswaldo Cruz Rio J. 50: 49-59

Wilson, E. O. 1954a [1953]. The ecology of some North American dacetine ants. Ann. Entomol. Soc. Am. 46: 479-495

Wilson, E. O. 1955a. A monographic revision of the ant genus Lasius. Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 113: 1-201

Wilson, E. O. 1955b. Ecology and behavior of the ant Belonopelta deletrix Mann (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Psyche (Camb.) 62: 82-87

Wilson, E. O. 1955d. The status of the ant genus Microbolbos Donisthorpe. Psyche (Camb.) 62: 136

Wilson, E. O. 1957a. The discovery of cerapachyine ants on New Caledonia, with the description of new species of Phyracaces and Sphinctomyrmex. Breviora 74: 1-9

Wilson, E. O. 1957b. The tenuis and selenophora groups of the ant genus Ponera (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 116: 355-386

Wilson, E. O. 1958c. Studies on the ant fauna of Melanesia. I. The tribe Leptogenyini. II. The tribes Amblyoponini and Platythyreini. Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 118: 101-153

Wilson, E. O. 1958d [1957]. The organization of a nuptial flight of the ant Pheidole sitarches Wheeler. Psyche (Camb.) 64: 46-50

Wilson, E. O. 1958e [1957]. Sympatry of the ants Conomyrma bicolor (Wheeler) and C. pyramica (Roger). Psyche (Camb.) 64: 76

Wilson, E. O. 1958g. Studies on the ant fauna of Melanesia III. Rhytidoponera in western Melanesia and the Moluccas. IV. The tribe Ponerini. Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 119: 303-371

Wilson, E. O. 1959c. Studies on the ant fauna of Melanesia V. The tribe Odontomachini. Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 120: 483-510

Wilson, E. O. 1959d. Studies on the ant fauna of Melanesia. VI. The tribe Cerapachyini. Pac. Insects 1: 39-57

Wilson, E. O. 1959e. Some ecological characteristics of ants in New Guinea rain forests. Ecology 40: 437-447

Wilson, E. O. 1962a. The Trinidad cave ant Erebomyrma (=Spelaeomyrmex) urichi (Wheeler), with a comment on cavernicolous ants in general. Psyche (Camb.) 69: 62-72

Wilson, E. O. 1962b. Behavior of Daceton armigerum (Latreille), with a classification of self-grooming movements in ants. Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 127: 403-421

Wilson, E. O. 1962c. The ants of Rennell and Bellona Islands. Nat. Hist. Rennell Isl. Br. Solomon Isl. 4: 13-23

Wilson, E. O. 1964a. The true army ants of the Indo-Australian area (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Dorylinae). Pac. Insects 6: 427-483

Wilson, E. O. 1964b. The ants of the Florida Keys. Breviora 210: 1-14

Wilson, E. O. 1974a. The soldier of the ant, Camponotus (Colobopsis) fraxinicola, as a trophic caste. Psyche (Camb.) 81: 182-188

Wilson, E. O. 1975b. Leptothorax duloticus and the beginnings of slavery in ants. Evolution 29: 108-119

Wilson, E. O. 1976a. The organization of colony defense in the ant Pheidole dentata Mayr (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 1: 63-81

Wilson, E. O. 1976b. A social ethogram of the Neotropical arboreal ant Zacryptocerus varians (Fr. Smith). Anim. Behav. 24: 354-363

Wilson, E. O. 1977b [1976]. The first workerless parasite in the ant genus Formica (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Psyche (Camb.) 83: 277-281

Wilson, E. O. 1984b. Tropical social parasites in the ant genus Pheidole, with an analysis of the anatomical parasitic syndrome (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Insectes Soc. 31: 316-334

Wilson, E. O. 1985a. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 1. Two new myrmicine genera and an aberrant Pheidole. Psyche (Camb.) 92: 1-9

Wilson, E. O. 1985b. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 2. The first fossil army ants. Psyche (Camb.) 92: 11-16

Wilson, E. O. 1985c. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 3. The subfamily Dolichoderinae. Psyche (Camb.) 92: 17-37

Wilson, E. O. 1985f. Ants from the Cretaceous and Eocene amber of North America. Psyche (Camb.) 92: 205-216

Wilson, E. O. 1986b. Caste and division of labor in Erebomyrma, a genus of dimorphic ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Myrmicinae). Insectes Soc. 33: 59-69

Wilson, E. O. 1987b. The earliest known ants: an analysis of the Cretaceous species and an inference concerning their social organization. Paleobiol. 13: 44-53

Wilson, E. O. 1989. Chimaeridris, a new genus of hook-mandibled myrmicine ants from tropical Asia (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Insectes Soc. 36: 62-69

Wilson, E. O. 2003. Pheidole in the New World: A dominant, hyperdiverse ant genus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, [ix] + 794 pp.: 794pp

Wilson, E. O.; Brown, W. L., Jr. 1955. Revisionary notes on the sanguinea and neogagates groups of the ant genus Formica. Psyche (Camb.) 62: 108-129

Wilson, E. O.; Brown, W. L., Jr. 1956. New parasitic ants of the genus Kyidris, with notes on ecology and behavior. Insectes Soc. 3: 439-454

Wilson, E. O.; Brown, W. L., Jr. 1958a. The worker caste of the parasitic ant Monomorium metoecus Brown and Wilson, with notes on behavior. Entomol. News 69: 33-38

Wilson, E. O.; Brown, W. L., Jr. 1958b. Recent changes in the introduced population of the fire ant Solenopsis saevissima (Fr. Smith). Evolution 12: 211-218

Wilson, E. O.; Brown, W. L., Jr. 1985 [1984]. Behavior of the cryptobiotic predaceous ant Eurhopalothrix heliscata, n. sp. (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Basicerotini). Insectes Soc. 31: 408-428

Wilson, E. O.; Carpenter, F. M.; Brown, W. L., Jr. 1967a. The first Mesozoic ants, with the description of a new subfamily. Psyche (Camb.) 74: 1-19

Wilson, E. O.; Eisner, T.; Wheeler, G. C.; Wheeler, J. 1956. Aneuretus simoni Emery, a major link in ant evolution. Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. 115: 81-99

Wilson, E. O.; Hölldobler, B. 1986. Ecology and behavior of the Neotropical cryptobiotic ant Basiceros manni (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Basicerotini). Insectes Soc. 33: 70-84

Wilson, E. O.; Taylor, R. W. 1964. A fossil ant colony: new evidence of social antiquity. Psyche (Camb.) 71: 93-103

Wilson, E. O.; Taylor, R. W. 1967b. The ants of Polynesia (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Pac. Insects Monogr. 14: 1-109


Bolton B, Alpert G, Ward PS, Naskrecki P. 2007. [CD-ROM] Bolton's Catalogue of the Ants of the World. Harvard University Press.