A Conversation with E.O. Wilson, Part 1
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a conversation between Edward O. Wilson and Barry X. Kuhle. Kuhle requested the interview for the “Pioneers of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES)” series that he organized with Catherine Salmon, which has been featured on TVOL [see interviews below]. Wilson took the opportunity to recollect the entire arc of his career, from his boyhood in Alabama to the series of scientific disciplines that he helped to form.
This installment takes us from Wilson’s boyhood in Alabama—where earning Boy Scout merit badges provided better preparation for his future career than his schooling—to his first achievements establishing whole fields of study. We learn that part of his ambition came from realizing during the 1950’s that evolutionary biology would need to modernize to keep pace with molecular biology. Wilson defined fields of study as a scientist in the same way that he earned merit badges as a boy scout. He is evolutionary biology’s Eagle Scout.
–David Sloan Wilson
The interview took place in E.O. Wilson’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, January 7th, 2014. .
BK: It’s a true pleasure to be with you. It is well known, but could you briefly give us your academic background?
EOW: It’s a real pleasure and an honor. For me, this meeting is an opportunity to talk a little bit about the background that I have had in the subjects that are relevant to HBES. I realized when I got the letter from you that I was at the original meeting. In fact in my memoir, Naturalist, is a photograph labeled “founders of sociobiology” that was taken at that meeting. At any rate, I am a southerner, I was born in Birmingham Alabama. I grew up mostly in Alabama. My forbearers are mostly from that state and I have strong connections with the state to this day, although I have been at Harvard University for 62 years. I’m trying to set some kind of a record. I have been active on the faculty and now on the retired faculty, but still very active. I went to the University of Alabama, the first of my family to ever attend college, and there I got the big break that I needed to go into a life in science. However, I came to the University of Alabama well prepared in some aspects of science, thanks to the Boy Scouts of America. The schools in Alabama when I was coming through—the public schools in that state during the late depression and into the war years—were not very good. But I got a pretty good education by moving through the ranks of the Boy Scouts of America and earning merit badges right and left. I was made a nature counselor at the camp outside Mobile when I was only 14. So I had a lot of encouragement, building confidence that I could make a life in science and natural history if I went on to college.
Actually, I wasn’t ambitious. I wanted to be either a naturalist—looking back I think that would be a fine thing to achieve—or an economic entomologist, the kind of person who rides around in green trucks and advises farmers how to eliminate their corn borers. But when I got to the University of Alabama the world really opened up to me because at that time I learned from books like Ernst Mayr’s Systematics and the Origin of Species. I realized that what I most wanted to be, one way or another, was a scientist. And that was a wonderful revelation. It meant that I could go to the University of Alabama and become a scientist by taking the courses, doing the research, and the like.
By this time it began to dawn on me that there are two kinds of people. There are those who go into science in order to make a living and those make a living one way or another to be in science. I was certainly of the latter kind. Therefore I was able to follow a professional pathway that made this possible for me to be in science. After taking two degrees at the University of Alabama, I moved on to the University of Tennessee. That was as far north as I ever wanted to be. It was way up there in Knoxville. But while I was there, the first year, a very kind professor contacted Harvard, specifically the Society of Fellows, an elite group of fellows who are given three years to do anything they wish, and said in effect “this kid does not belong here, he belongs at Harvard. I got an invitation to apply and I was admitted the next year with a scholarship. So that was the kind of break I wish was open to all young scholars. That really got me going.
I had a lot of adjusting to do. I had my roommate—maybe it was done on purpose—a Nigerian who was, as it turned out, head leader of a local Nigerian revolutionary movement. Frequently, in the room where I was studying, a group of Africans would meet—I almost thought I should join them— all plotting the overthrow of Great Britain from Nigeria, which in effect did occur. So I had many experiences of this kind and adapted to Harvard, and I believe made full use of its resources. I acquired tenure at a fairly young age. After I had been junior professor only three years I got a tenure offer from Stanford and I was headed out the door, joyously, when they [Harvard] stopped me and said “give us a chance to keep you here”. Which they did, and I was thus promoted—I think I was 28. That’s another story that I don’t want to go into, but it’s interesting to mention that the other assistant professor–we were the only ones here in the department of biology (all the rest were middle age and older)–was Jim Watson. I can’t say Jim and I were friends because I was the only younger professor in what came to be known as evolutionary biology—a term I invented, incidentally—as I started here in Harvard, and it was Jim Watson’s wish that I and other old fashioned biologists not leave the university but find a place elsewhere than the biological laboratories. So we were not on friendly terms. He was a very difficult person to deal with, and unfortunately, by a clerical error or oversight by the president’s office, I was given tenure before Watson, who was then furious and would not speak to me for years. We are now close friends and have been together on the Charlie Rose show and things like this together. One of the reasons for this was the principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Because Watson was even more furious later in the 70’s when Richard Lewontin and Steve Gould and other Bio-Marxist stars on the Harvard faculty not only set out to destroy Sociobiology and any heresy of this kind, but also managed through the student protesters and by appealing to the Cambridge City Council to have DNA recombinant studies prohibited in the city of Cambridge on the grounds that it would be dangerous and bad for humanity. That was in the early days of DNA. That’s a kind of craziness we had, but that was later to come.
At Harvard I had wonderful opportunities to do what I wanted to do. I was elected to the Society of Fellows, which enabled me to spend three years mainly in the field. At that time I at long last realized a dream I had ever since I wandered around the swamps of Alabama and Northern Florida, to go to what I later called the Big Tropics; that is, Central America, the West Indies, and finally the South Pacific, where I spent ten years working my way through places like Vanuatu, New Caledonia, New Queensland, and New Guinea, coming back fully prepared to obtain what I did obtain, which was the Assistant Professorship at Harvard. I was also primed to do basic work in biogeography. So that was how I got in the field. Natural history. The foundation subject. Scientific natural history. It was true then. It is true today for the development of fields such as sociobiology, island biogeography, and even realms of psychology.
BK: What about Sociobiology? We’re here because of your 1975 book and in large part all these books (gesturing at a bookshelf) because of your 1975 book.
EOW: Thank you for that. I did want tell you about that because I think that no living person—unfortunately we have lost a lot [of pioneers]…
BK: That’s why we are doing this project.
EOW:…including folks that were at the HBES first meeting. It boggles me to think that that much time has past and how many people have past.
BK: 25 years ago, Hamilton, John Maynard Smith…
EOW: As we would say, bless my soul. I feel lucky to make it here. I’ll be 85 in June and I’ll be bringing out two books with a third forthcoming. So I’ve been lucky to keep going. I think of ourselves, as an age cohort particularly in the development of fields, as an old fashioned line of charging cavalrymen or infantrymen across a field into fire. Who will drop? Who will be wounded and have to slow down? And who will continue walking is totally random. I am happy to have been lucky enough to keep walking forward…more slowly…at a great place like Harvard.
Now I am going to tell you just how sociobiology got started and from it, with less intimacy and accuracy, how evolutionary psychology got started. We have to go back to the 1950’s. In the 1950’s, the molecular revolution had begun. It was clear that the golden age of modern biology was going to be molecular and would endure a long time. In fact it did occupy the second half of the 20th century and beyond. We felt here at Harvard immediately the pressure to start giving up positions to molecular biology. The Dean of the faculty and the President at that time were entirely in accord. We found—I say we, the organismic and evolutionary biologists here, comparative anatomists, comparative zoologists and so on–realized that we would not to be given much additional space any more, that we probably would not get many if any new positions for a long time. They would be reserved to build up Harvard’s strength in molecular and cellular biology. What this did was have a tremendous impact on me personally because I realized, as an enormous admirer of the Watson/Crick achievement… I should have know from Darwin that so simple an idea would have such enormous implications and that like striking gold, it could sometimes be discovered in unexpected ways. We had believed, incidentally, at that time, prior to 1953, that the search for the genetic code would go well into the 21st century. We believed that—I mean most of us did—graduate students, people in seminars—because we assumed that there was going to be a complex protein code. It turned out to be DNA, which many thought was just to stiffen the protein. It was a total surprise. I realized that those of us, my generation of what we came to call evolutionary biologists and organismic biologists, were not going to get anywhere by complaining by any means but we were going to have to—and we should be tremendously excited to plan this—develop an equivalent to molecular biology on our own. So I organized, with the help of Robert MacArthur, who was then at Pennsylvania about to go to Princeton—who was the young avatar about my age in ecology. He trained under Evelyn Hutchinson at Yale. A brilliant evolutionary ecologist who in fact founded the field and didn’t get nearly enough credit. One of the modern synthesizers, along with Dobzhansky, Simpson, Mayr and others. At any rate, MacArthur was an inspirational figure there at Yale, when he was beginning a series of really outstanding papers on basic simplified theory applied to complex ecological and community ecological databases. MacArthur and I—by this time I had already discovered the first pheromones and pheromone sources in ants, so I guess what was to become my notion of sociobiology was beginning to form in the back of my mind. We got together. Then we added Larry Slobodkin, who also trained at Yale and was at the University of Michigan at that time, and two or three others. That included Richard Lewontin, who under Dobzhansky’s guidance at Columbia had been the first to utilize electrophoresis to count alleles in Drosophila and to find that the number of alleles was more than had been expected. This was in accord with what Dobzhansky believed, his professor, in a dispute with H.J. Muller, who had won a Nobel prize for discovering that radiation causes mutations. Lewontin at that point had made the discovery that Dobzhansky was correct, which exemplified the principle that one way to advance in academia is to prove the thesis of your professor in a new and clever way (laughs). In any case, this group decided to get together to figure out how to move ecology and evolutionary biology (it didn’t have that name then) and the ologies, the disciplines focused on different groups of organisms—entomologists, algologists, bacteriologists, herpetologists and so on—this was the population of people and expertise that we wanted to see some movement in . Much of it at that time was dominated by aging men. They were the champions of the modern synthesis still alive, still in dominant positions, but we would be the young generation, Late 20’s, early 30’s, who would move out and find a whole new direction and that’s exactly what we set out to do. Slobodkin soon fell to the side. He had a dispute over some darned thing or another with MacArthur, and Lewontin also lost interest early. This left MacArthur and me plotting. We said to one another, what is the subject that could be radically modified, wrested away from the aging aristocracy, and modified into something that might rival in rigor and excitement, at least part of molecular biology? So we began meeting and developing a whole new theory of what we came to call Island Biogeography. We were able to do this because we combined MarArthur’s passion and abilities in natural history—he was an ardent student of birds, and his model-building abilities. He was steeped in a tradition of trying out models top down in ecology and he had made important contributions. He was looked on as an avatar of ecology. The guy who was going to do something really good. Unfortunately, Robert died of cancer at 42 in 1970 or thereabouts and we lost a really brilliant light. In any rate, he was to combine those abilities with what I knew about the distribution of animals. That was my field. I was steeped in that. I had just returned from a deliberate trip along the Melanesian Archipelago, from New Guinea to Fiji to New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) to New Caledonia. Down the whole line of archipelagos with the explicit purpose of working out what the principles were of the distribution and evolution of the ants. And I did succeed, in a paper early in the 60’s, at about the time that I was starting with MacArthur, called the Taxon Cycle. I discovered it—on the cycle of evolution that species go through as they make it across the water gaps of the archipelagos. I am happy to say that it has been pretty well verified in other groups, in birds and so on. So I had that, and I had this notion that there was something going on concerning the colonization of islands and what we called at first the saturation of island faunas and floras. MacArthur and I set out to put that together. In 1963 we published the first paper that put together the theory of island biogeography. Four years later, since that was thoroughly ignored—in science you must remember that unless you have a paper on the order of the first photographs of Martians, you know, or the discovery of a new genetic code, your paper is not going to be read except by a small group of specialists. If you want to have impact, even if you have a fundamental paper, you’re not likely to get impact until you write a book. I knew that, so we got together and wrote a book called the Theory of Island Biogeography. That came out in 1967. In the course of writing a book we formed a wonderful exercise which was to see how the notion of the process of island biogeography, could apply to broader principles of ecology—competition, resource limitation, density dependent natural selection, and we soon found that we were talking about a broad realm of ecology and we also began to pick up on the idea that maybe there ought to be something called Conservation Biology that would have an underpinning. So the book was a major success.
Next: Chemical Ecology, The Insect Societies, and Sociobiology.