E. O. Wilson died

December 27, 2021 • 6:06 am

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.

35 thoughts on “E. O. Wilson died

  1. A major loss to the world how sad. I’ll never forget the time he came to the small liberal arts college where I was studying, shortly after the publication of Sociobiology. It was a very hot topic and, unusually for a science lecture, the large auditorium where he was to speak was packed, standing room only, with many people even sitting on the stairs. There was palpable tension in the air, as many students (especially from the humanities) were ready to pounce on him. But he appeared on stage, un assuming and nice man, and proceeded to surprise everyone by spending the entire hour talking about nothing but ants. And everyone was fascinated!

  2. I met Ed Wilson when he was part of a lecture held at the church in Harvard square. It was after he retired. He was an impressive, gentile man who went astray.

  3. Sad news.

    I found Wilson’s writing captivating in my youth, and his personality is absorbing – very important and strong elements for the general audience to begin on the journey to scientific literacy and beyond, and for that I am grateful for Wilson.

  4. RIP the great E.O. Wilson. I met him briefly once. I went to hear him speak but unfortunately the room was filled and the audio speakers set up outside to convey his speech were inadequate. Fortunately his stamina lasted afterwards through a long line of book-inscription seekers (including myself). He was kindly and agreed to a handshake. I had emailed him years before to inquire about him coming to speak at my master’s institution but he politely referred me to his agent. A great biologist, and few have contributed to our understanding as much as he.

    Here’s a recent interview:


  5. This is sad. I’ve benefited from reading many of his books. Thank-you Professor Wilson.

    The attacks on him seem to have been an early form of Wokeism, in which, whether something is in line with the “correct” politics takes precedence over the truth of the matter.

      1. It comes from the Woke attitude that their political opinion is so obviously correct, and so obviously morally correct, that anyone who disagrees with them must be a bad person, and must know that they are a bad person who is continuing to persist in their wickedness. Hence, condemnation and ostracisation is not only the appropriate response, but also the morally mandated response.

        Hence attitudes towards a long succession from E.O Wilson to J.K. Rowling.

  6. I interviewed Ed Wilson for Harvard Magazine years ago, and I share your opinion that he was a kind, gentle soul , with a mind sharp as a razor. I knew him through one of his PhD students, Roger Swain, who taught a Harvard Extension course called “Writing About Science, which started me down that particular path.Some of you may remember Roger as the host of The Victory Garden, on channel 2 Boston.

    As I left the interview, I jokingly asked Ed if I should get an ant farm. He seriously considered my question, paused, and said it would be ok, as long as it came with a queen.

  7. “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.” – sincere condolences.

  8. Really sorry to hear that he is no longer with us. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when he visited the UK. He was indeed a very pleasant person with a very sharp mind.

  9. I first learned about Ed O. Wilson with his beautiful book Biodiversity, only later I read his others books. I definitely consider him one of the Greats. And I’m pleased to hear he was such a gracious character too. And all that with one eye..

  10. I can only echo what Dr. Coyne says of Dr. Wilson’s magnanimity. He didn’t have to talk to me, just another faceless grad student, but he always did, and his recommendation helped secure a job upon graduation. He was the kindest of men.

  11. I was in graduate school (Anthro/Archaeology) when I read his book Sociobiology. It caused me to take a seminar over in the Biology department on the subject. It was a bit of a stroll, so to speak, away from my own field but the book had a strong influence on how I came to view the world. I’m indebted to Wilson for this. I always though the left-wing assault on him was completely unwarranted.

    1. From the Guardian’s obit:

      Among Wilson’s most controversial works was Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, from 1975, in which he wrote that all human behavior was a product of genetic predetermination, …

      All? Really? I bet he didn’t say “all”.

  12. Reading S.J. Gould’s essays are what first got me interested in biology. Eventually I discovered Ed Wilson’s books, and found them much more accessible and interesting, especially compared to Gould’s pompous writing style. It wasn’t until I neared the end of my college days that I learned about the deep animosity between Wilson, Gould, and Lewontin, and never really understood it, other than to conclude Gould and Lewontin were blinded by their political sympathies. Such a pity. Wilson always seemed most gracious and generous, in addition to being an intellectual giant and advocate for conservation. He will be missed.

  13. I was taken aback by his late in life antipathy to kin selection, although his advocacy for other processes like group selection has more merit than detractors think. The man was never completely wrong about anything. However, I was always expecting him to tilt at a different scientific windmill. As a postdoc in his lab in the late 80’s, there were always lunches with Ed on Tuesdays (when he wasn’t entertaining some important visitor like Gorbachev’s science advisor). At my first lunch, he turned to me and asked, “What has Game Theory ever accomplished, except to make simple ideas complex?” I guess I always expected him to take on Maynard Smith rather than Hamilton!

  14. I second what others have said about Wilson’s kindness and perspicacity. Even if he went off kilter in some of his later views, his earlier writings on social insects and evolution were remarkably insightful and inspiring. They were profoundly influential to me and many of my ant-loving colleagues. We’ll be forever in debt to this great man.

  15. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned much about Wilson was his devotion to teaching. His introductory biology classes, which took place in the large lecture hall in Harvard’s Science Center, usually ended with applause from the undergraduates, and the last lecture of the year with a standing ovation.

    When students were given tests, the results were gone over with each student and their teaching assistant. Students who had done poorly could take a second or even third version of the test to be sure they really understood the material.

  16. His books had a big impact on my scientific development. I also greatly admired the man for having the courage to speak out about the incompatibility of science and religion (though not as forcefully as our esteemed host), a rarity for such a prominent scientist. Here are a few of my favorite Ed Wilson quotes on the topic:

    “We have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. As I have tried to show, sociobiology can account for the very origin of mythology by the principle of natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structure of the brain. If this interpretation is correct, the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific materialism will come from the capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.” On Human Nature (1978)

    “The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure.” Consilience (1998)

    “We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles.” The Meaning of Human Existence (2014)

    And on Christian thinkers: “Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battling on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C.S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there must be Something Out There. They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.” The Meaning of Human Existence (2014)

  17. Thanks to all the comments that explains to us who aren’t too familiar with the described sides of biology what a loss this was!

  18. Carl Zimmer’s obituary includes a sour anecdote about Wilson based on Wilson’s professional disagreement with the ant ecologist Deborah Gordon (now at Stanford). She is quoted as claiming that Wilson tried to sabotage Gordon’s career when she was a postdoc at Harvard. It’s a damning accusation if true, but kinda slanderous if not (IANAL so maybe slander is the wrong word). Gordon is the only source quoted for that story.

    I get the interest in spicing up the obituary with stories about Wilson as a person, and the desire by Carl Zimmer to not write a hagiography. But this seems petty and self-interested on Gordon’s part. It’s hard to understand why Zimmer chose to include this.

    OTOH, if that’s the worst dirt that could be dug up on Wilson as a person, then he really does seem like a gem of a man (whatever one thinks of his group selectionism).

      1. I guess the anecdote was added to the ~1:30 PM update. I see it was updated again at 4:38 PM.

        Zimmer doesn’t link to a source for those Gordon quotes esp. her claim that Wilson tried to sabotage her career. IDK if we should believe her, or ignore her claims as petty professional jealousy. Zimmer doesn’t help us decide.

  19. Yes he was one of the Great ones. He definitely belongs on Lewontin’s list.
    I was at the AAA meeting at the height of the Sociobiology wars when a student poured water on him and somehow even under those terrible circumstances he managed to remain gracious

  20. An amazing career with major contributions both to general ecological/evolutionary theory and to the study of ants. On top of that he was an excellent writer and populariser of science. If not all of his ideas were sound or correct, the balance of his contribution to science is surely overwhelmingly positive.

  21. I’m sorry but Lewontin was a fanatic and just jealous of being outmatched by an eminent scientist like Wilson. If he was honest, he would have recognized Wilson among the greatest, if he is not the greatest.

    1. I”m sorry but you have no idea what you’re talking about. I knew the man very well and was near him every day for six years, and kept in touch with him for decades late. I never saw a single sign of jealousy. You are just psycholozgizing without knowledge. The difference was due to politics, not jealousy.

      Are for Wilson being “the greatest”, I don’t know the greatest what? Of biologists? No, Darwin was greater, as were several others; But you will post here no more because you yourself have written a fantatic and intemperate post. BYE!

  22. Dear All,

    How sad it is to learn that the eminent scientist Edward O Wilson has passed away on Boxing Day! Had he lived for another ten years, perhaps another two or three books could have materialized. Of all the scientists who have passed away in my lifetime, his departure is of the most profound loss for me.

    My latest post entitled “😱 We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology 🏰🛰” is a special tribute to Wilson. The direct link is:


    Wishing all of you a Happy New Year!

    Take care and prosper!

    Yours sincerely,

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