Matthew sent me a tweet this morning saying that Edward O. Wilson, known to all of us as “Ed”, died yesterday at at 92. He died at the same age as my mentor—Ed’s nemesis Dick Lewontin—as both were born in 1929. There’s a short obituary by Carl Zimmer that you can read at the NYT link below (click on screenshot); there will be a longer one for sure as Carl fleshes it out.
As usual, I’ll leave the details of his career and accomplishments to the formal obituaries and to Wikipedia (look at his list of books!), except to say that Ed was a polymath who was a Harvard professor for 46 years before retiring. And he was working tirelessly up to his death, just like his colleague Ernst Mayr (who died at 100).
Ed’s lab occupied the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) Laboratories at Harvard, while Lewontin’s lab, where I worked, was one floor below. But they might as well have been light years apart, for Lewontin intensely disliked Ed, and the feeling was mutual. (Ed had less rancor, he was more or less blindsided when Lewontin and Steve Gould—who worked in the adjacent main MCZ—began attacking him as a reactionary biological determinist after Ed published his landmark book, Sociobiology.)In fact, Ed originally helped recruit Dick to Harvard from the University of Chicago; but that didn’t make Lewontin temper his reaction when the Great Sociobiology Wars began.
But I did not share Dick’s dislike of Ed. If you knew Ed as a person—and I knew him as an acquaintance—you simply could not dislike him. (Dick and Steve’s animus was based purely on politics.). Ed was mild-mannered, gentle, and helpful: I’ve written before about how he got me into Harvard as a graduate student in a single day, an act of generosity I’ll never forget. I also taught two semesters of Bio 1 (introductory biology) under Ed, and was great friends with some of the people in his lab. The result was that I spent a fair amount of time on the fourth floor, but never in my six years at Harvard did I see Ed on the third floor—our floor.
Only one time I know of was he even near Lewontin. That’s when I was waiting with Dick for the elevator to the third floor, and Ed strode into the building and joined us in the elevator. The tension immediately became thick and palpable. It was a silent and uncomfortable ride up three floors; not a word was exchanged between the two Harvard professors, not even “hello”.
In his later years, Ed became wedded to the idea of group selection, and wrote several books and papers touting it as an explanation for eusociality in insects like ants and bees (communal living with a queen and sterile workers), as well as for many traits in humans. This was unfortunate, as this view was almost surely wrong, but Ed clung to it tenaciously. It was, I think, his only big misstep in a sterling career. Sadly, I had to review one of his books on group selection and panned it.
When I interviewed Dick a few years ago about his own career, he had nothing nice to say about Wilson; in fact, that was the one time he made me turn the tape off, and you can imagine what he said during the hiatus, though I’m not at liberty to divulge it. But Dick also mourned the loss of the great evolutionary biologists who reigned when he was a student: people like Ernst Mayr, Al Roemer, G. G. Simpson, and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dick said, “There are no great ones left. Where are the great ones?”
He was wrong. Ed was one of the great ones. Evolutionary biology, ant biology, and conservation biology will be poorer for his absence. And he was a terrific guy—rare for someone who was so famous. Just ask people who knew him.
Here are two photos I took of Ed at a lunch at Naomi Pierce’s and Andrew Berry’s house in Cambridge on October 5, 2007. This was during was a symposium at Harvard, though I don’t remember what it was about.
Talking to Patty Gowaty.