E. O. Wilson

American biologist, naturalist, and writer (1929–2021)
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Edward Osborne Wilson (10 June 192926 December 2021) was an American entomologist and biologist known for his work on ecology, evolution, and sociobiology. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Wilson is also known for his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanism ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.


  • [Biology has] become the paramount science, exceeding other disciplines, including physics and chemistry at least, in the creative tumult of its disciplines and disputations. [...] I'll also be so bold at this point to suggest that we are now at the edge of establishing the two fundamental laws of biology: The first law is that all of the phenomena of biology, the entities and the processes, are ultimately obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. Not immediately reducible to them, but ultimately consistent and in consilience with them, by a cause and effect explanation. The second law is that all biological phenomena, these entities and processes that define life itself, have arisen by evolution through natural selection.
    • Talk at the 50th anniversary of New Scientist magazine (2006).
  • Will we solve the crises of next hundred years? asked Krulwich. “Yes, if we are honest and smart,” said Wilson. “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” Until we understand ourselves, concluded the Pulitzer-prize winning author of On Human Nature, “until we answer those huge questions of philosophy that the philosophers abandoned a couple of generations ago—Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?—rationally,” we’re on very thin ground.
    • Quoted in Harvard Magazine from a public discussion between Wilson and James Watson moderated by NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich, September 10, 2009.
  • The pattern of human population growth in the 20th century was more bacterial than primate. When Homo sapiens passed the six billion mark we had already exceeded by perhaps as much as 100 times the biomass of any large animal species that had ever existed on the land. We and the rest of life cannot afford another 100 years like that.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975
  • In the process of natural selection, then. any device that can insert a higher proportion of certain genes into subsequent generations will come to characterize the species.
    • p. 3
  • Samuel Butler's famous aphorism that the chicken is only an egg's way of making another egg has been modernized: the organism is only DNA's way of making more DNA.
    • p. 4
  • The key to the sociobiology of mammals is milk.
    • p. 456
  • Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of philosophers and biologized.
    • p. 562
  • God remains a viable hypothesis as the prime mover, however undefinable and untestable that conception may be.
  • We are not compelled to believe in biological uniformity in order to affirm human freedom and dignity.
  • The genius of human society is in fact the ease with which alliances are formed, broken, and reconstituted, always with strong emotional appeals to rules believed to be absolute.

Ch.3 Development

  • Genetic determinism... On its interpretation depends the entire relation between biology and the social sciences.
  • The mosquito is an automaton. It can afford to be nothing else.
  • The channels of human mental development... are circuitous and variable. Rather than specify a single trait, human genes prescribe the capacity to develop a certain array of traits.
  • The borderline between normal and schizophrenic people is broad and nearly imperceptible.
  • The three extreme kinds of schizophrenia are unmistakable: the haunted paranoid surrounded by his imaginary community of spies and assassins, the clownish, sometimes incontinent hebephrenic, and the frozen catatonic.
  • Although the capacity to become schizophrenic may well be within all of us, there is no question that certain persons have distinctive genes predisposing them to the condition.
  • Evidence has... been adduced that schizophrenia is widespread in other kinds of human societies. ...and they form a substantial fraction of the clientele of the tribal shamans and healers.
  • There is no such thing as a typically "schizophrenogenic" (schizophrenia-producing) family arrangement, one most likely to produce a mentally ill adult from a child with the potential for the disease.
  • The central idea of the philosophy of behaviorism, that behavior and the mind have an entirely materialist basis subject to experimental analysis, is fundamentally sound.
  • Piaget, who was originally trained as a biologist, views intellectual development as an interaction of an inherited genetic program with the environment. It is no coincidence that he calls this conception "genetic epistemology," in effect the study of the hereditary unfolding of understanding.
  • The rules followed are tight enough to produce a broad overlap in the decisions taken by all individuals and hence a convergence powerful enough to be labelled human nature.
  • Because the brain can be guided by rational calculation only in a limited degree, it must fall back on the nuances of pleasure and pain mediated by the limbic system and other lower centers of the brain.
  • We can search among the unconscious, emotion-laden learning rules for the kind of behavior most directly influenced by genetic evolution.
  • In early history phobias might have provided the extra margin needed to insure survival...
  • We seem to be able to be fully comfortable only when the remainder of humanity can be labeled as members versus nonmembers.

Ch.4 Emergence

  • Because of mathematical indeterminancy and the uncertainty principle, it may be a law of nature that no nervous system is capable of acquiring enough knowledge to significantly predict the future of any other intelligent system in detail. Nor can intelligent minds gain enough self-knowledge to know their own future, capture fate, and in this sense eliminate free will.
  • A schema is a configuration within the brain, either inborn or learned, against which the input of the nerve cells is compared. ...the conscious mind ...can fill in details that are missing from the actual sensory input and create a pattern in the mind which is not necessarily present in reality. In this way, the gestalt of objects—the impression...—is aided by the taxonomic powers of the schemata.
  • Cultural change is the statistical product of the separate behavioral responses of large numbers of human beings who cope as best they can with social existence.
  • Cultural evolution is Lamarckian and very fast, whereas biological evolution is Darwinian and usually very slow.
  • Because it is... far slower than Lamarckian evolution, biological evolution is always quickly outrun by cultural change.
  • Intertribal aggression, escalating in some cultures to limited warfare, is common enough to be regarded as a general characteristic of hunter-gatherer social behavior.
  • The only other mammalian carnivores that take outsized prey are lions, hyenas, wolves, and African wild dogs. Each... has an exceptionally advanced social life, prominently featuring the pursuit of prey in coordinated packs.
  • Primitive men are ecological analogs of lions, wolves, and hyenas... they have adopted pack hunting in the pursuit of big game. ...habitually slaughtering surplus prey, storing food, feeding solid food to their young, dividing labor, practicing cannibalism, and interacting aggressively with competing species. ...this way of life persisted for millions of years or longer and was abandoned in most societies only during the last few thousand years.
  • The selection pressures of hunter-gatherer existence have persisted for over 99 percent of human evolution.
  • The increase in brain size and refinement of stone artifacts point to an unbroken advance in mental ability over the last two or three million years. ...No organ in the history of life has grown faster.
  • The theory of population genetics and experiments on other organisms show that substantial changes can occur in the span of less than 100 generations, which for man reaches back to the time of the Roman Empire.
  • The emergence of civilization has everywhere followed a definable sequence.
  • At the apogee of the state's evolution, architecture was monumental, and the ruling class were exalted as a pseudospecies. The sacred rites of statehood became the central focus of religion.
  • Nationalism and racism, to take two examples, are the culturally nurtured outgrowths of simple tribalism.
  • Daily life is a compromised blend of posturing for the sake of role-playing and of varying degrees of self-revelation. Under stressful conditions even the "true" self cannot be precisely defined, as Erving Goffman observes. ...Little wonder that the identity crisis is a major source of modern neuroticism, and that the urban middle class aches for a return to a simpler existence.
    • Wilson cites Goffman's Frame Analysis (1974) as a reference here.
  • Early human beings... filled a special ecological niche: they were carnivorous primates of the African plains. ...When agriculture permitted the increase of population density, game was no longer abundant... carnivorism remained a basic dietary impulse, with cultural aftereffects that varied according to the special conditions of the environment in which the society evolved.
  • Ancient Mexico, like most forest-invested New World tropics, was deficient in the kind of large game that flourished on the plains of Africa and Asia. ...The situation was partially relieved by cannibalizing the victims of human sacrifice. ...The [ Aztec ] priesthood... sanctified it... immediately after their hearts had been cut out, the victims were systematically butchered like animals and their parts distributed and eaten.
  • I interpret contemporary human social behavior to comprise hypertrophic outgrowths of the simpler features of human nature joined together into an irregular mosaic.
  • The fraction of Americans working in occupations concerned primarily with information has increased from 20 to nearly 50 percent of the work force.
  • Pure knowledge is the ultimate emancipator. It equalizes people and sovereign states, erodes the archaic barriers of superstition and promises to lift the trajectory of cultural evolution. But I do not believe that it can change the ground rules of human behavior or alter the main course of history's predictable trajectory.
  • Self-knowledge will reveal the elements of biological human nature from which modern social life proliferated in all its strange forms.

Ch.5 Aggression

  • Are human beings innately aggressive? ...The answer to it is yes. ...Only by redefining the words "innateness" and "aggression" to the point of uselessness might we correctly say that human aggressiveness is not innate.
  • The most peaceable tribes of today were often ravagers of yesteryear and will probably again produce soldiers and murderers in the future.
  • Most kinds of aggressive behavior among members of the same species are responsive to crowding in the environment.
  • Animals use aggression as a technique for gaining control over necessities... that are scarce or are likely to become so... They intensify their threats and attack with increasing frequency as the population around them grow. As a result the behavior itself induces members of the population to spread out in space, raises the death rate, and lowers the birth rate. In such cases aggression is said to be a "density-dependent factor" in controlling population growth.
  • If we were to vanish today, the land environment would return to the fertile balance that existed before the human population explosion. Only a dozen or so species, among which are the crab louse and a mite that lives in the oil glands of our foreheads, depend on us entirely. But if ants were to disappear, tens of thousands of other plant and animal species would perish also, simplifying and weakening land ecosystems almost everywhere.
  • We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.
    • p. 294.
  • True character arises from a deeper well than religion. It is the internalization of moral principles of a society, augmented by those tenets personally chosen by the individual, strong enough to endure through trials of solitude and adversity. The principles are fitted together into what we call integrity, literally the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true. Character is in turn the enduring source of virtue. It stands by itself and excites admiration in others. It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.
  • The most dangerous of devotions, in my opinion, is the one endemic to Christianity: I was not born to be of this world. With a second life waiting, suffering can be endured- especially in other people. The natural environment can be used up. Enemies of the faith can be savaged and suicidal martyrdom praised.
    • p. 245.
  • Old beliefs die hard even when demonstrably false.
    • p. 256.
  • If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth.
    • p. 262.
  • The essence of humanity's spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another.
    • p. 264.
  • Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself. No one wished it so, but we are the first species to become a geophysical force, altering Earth's climate, a role previously reserved for tectonics, sun flares, and glacial cycles. We are also the greatest destroyer of life since the ten-kilometer-wide meteorite that landed near Yucatan and ended the Age of Reptiles sixty-five million years ago. Through overpopulation we have put ourselves in danger of running out of food and water. So a very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic.
    • p. 277-278.
  • Nothing fundamental separates the course of human history from the course of physical history.

The Diversity of Life

  • Stable climates with muted seasons allow more kinds of organisms to specialize on narrower pieces of the environment, to outcompete the generalists around them, and so persist for longer periods of time. Species are packed more tightly. No niche, it seems goes unfilled. Specialization is likely to be pushed to bizarre, beautiful extremes.

Gaia Atlas of Planet Management

  • The worst thing that can happen during the 1980s is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendents are least likely to forgive us.

Biophilia (1984)

  • The naturalist is a civilized hunter. He goes alone into the field or woodland and closes his mind to everything but that time and place, so that life around him presses in on all the senses and small details grow in significance. He begins the scanning search for which cognition was engineered. His mind becomes unfocused, it focuses on everything, no longer directed toward any ordinary task or social pleasantry.

Letters to a Young Scientist (2013)

  • To know how scientists engage in visual imagery is to understand how they think creatively.
    • chapter 5, "The Creative Process", page 69.
  • Be prepared mentally for some amount of chaos and failure. Waste and frustration often attend the earliest stages.
    • chapter 5, "The Creative Process", page 69.
  • Much of good science — and perhaps all of great science — has its roots in fantasy.
    • chapter 5, "The Creative Process", page 69.
  • The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper.
    • chapter 5, "The Creative Process", page 74.
  • To search for unasked questions, plus questions to put to already acquired but unsought answers, it is vital to give full play to the imagination. That is the way to create truly original science.
    • chapter 16, "Searching for New Worlds on Earth", page 177.

Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life (2016)

  • For the first time in history a conviction has developed among those who can actually think more than a decade ahead that we are playing a global endgame. Humanity's grasp on the planet is not strong. It is growing weaker. Our population is too large for safety and comfort. Fresh water is growing short, the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on the land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish and fungi. For many species it is already fatal.
  • If we choose the path of destruction, the planet will continue to descend irreversibly into the Anthropocene Epoch, the biologically final age in which the planet exists almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves.
  • The biology of extinction is not a pleasant subject. The death of a species is especially disheartening to the scientists who study endangered and newly extinct species. Together these vanishing remnants of Earth's biodiversity test the reach and quality of human morality. Species brought low by our hand now deserve our constant attention and care.

Quotes about Wilson

Sorted alphabetically by author or source
  • Protected areas provide hope that the creatures of Ed Wilson's dream of an encyclopedia of life, or the census of marine life, will live not just as a list, a photograph, or a paragraph.
  • His critics accuse him of a reductionist and mechanistic view of culture and morality, with dangerous eugenic and racist overtones, while his admirers claim that his work is Darwinian in scope and that... he is the target of philistines who object to his conclusions on ethical and emotional, rather than scientific, grounds.
    • Robert Finch, John Elder, Nature Writing: The Tradition in English (2002).
  • Religion, Wilson theorizes, is so prevalent because it provided a definite evolutionary advantage for those early humans who adopted it. ...when our apelike ancestors gradually became more intelligent, individuals could rationally begin to question the power of their leader. ...a dangerous, dissipative force on the tribe. ...Thus, according to Wilson, a selective pressure was placed on intelligent apes to suspend reason and blindly obey the leader and his myths...
    • Michio Kaku, Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension (1995).
  • You see, if E. O. Wilson says that Indian scientists should do taxonomy, now of course, someone will say that you are preventing them from doing the sort of high science that is done elsewhere. So it should not come from there, it should come from us. I think that we must recognize where we have the advantages and where we have the disadvantages.
  • Recently, E.O. Wilson's sociobiology has offered the traditionalist view on gender in an argument which applies Darwinian ideas of natural selection to human behavior. Wilson and his followers reason that human behaviors which are "adaptive" for group survival become encoded in the genes, and they include in these behavjors such complex traits as altruism, loyalty, and maternalism. They not only reason that groups practicing a sex-based division of labor in which women function as child-rearers and nurturers have an evolutionary advantage, but they claim such behavior somehow becomes part of our genetic heritage, in that the necessary psychological and physical propensities for such societal arrangements are selectively developed and genetically selected. Mothering is not only a socially assigned role but one fitting women's physical and psychological needs. Here, once again, biological determinism becomes prescriptive, in fact a political defense of the status quo in scientific language. Feminist critics have revealed the circular reasoning, absence of evidence and unscientific assumptions of Wilsonian sociobiology. From the point of view of the nonscientist, the most obvious fallacy of sociobiologists is their ahistoricity in disregarding the fact that modern men and women do not live in a state of nature. The history of civilization describes the process by which humans have distanced themselves from nature by inventing and perfecting culture. Traditionalists ignore technological changes, which have made it possible to bottle-feed infants safely and raise them to adulthood with caretakers other than their own mothers. They ignore the implications of changing life spans and changing life cycles. Until communal hygiene and modern medical knowledge cut infant mortality to a level where parents could reasonably expect each child born to them to live to adulthood, women did indeed have to bear many children in order for a few of them to survive. Similarly, longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality altered the life cycles of both men and women. These developments were connected with industrialization and occurred in Western civilization (for whites) toward the end of the nineteenth century, occurring later for the poor and for minorities due to the uneven distribution of health and social services. Whereas up to 1870 child-rearing and marriage were co-terminus-that is, one or both parents could expect to die before the youngest child reached adulthood-in modern American society husbands and wives can expect to live together for twelve years after their youngest child has reached adulthood, and women can expect to outlive their husbands by seven years." Nevertheless, traditionalists expect women to follow the same roles and occupations that were functional and species-essential in the Neolithic.
  • Specifically, sociobiology entails using explanatory principles and empirical findings derived from evolutionary biology to describe and explain social behavior among animals, including humans. It also draws on and incorporates thinking and research in ecology, especially behavioral ecology. The contributions of biologists such as R. A. Fisher, W. D. Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and George Williams were foundational for the development and emergence of sociobiology, and that emergence culminated with the publication of Sociobiology: The Modern Synthesis by Edward O. Wilson in 1975. This chapter explores the impact of sociobiology on theory and research in sociology during the nearly four decades since the publication of Wilson’s opus. Wilson’s book is a tome, stretching to twenty-seven chapters and 697 pages of text. Had it not been for the fact that the title and subject of Chapter 27 was “Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology,” it might have been recorded in the annals of science as a magisterial synthesis of much of what was then known about the evolution of social behavior in animals, but its influence may not have extended much beyond a few other fields such as biological anthropology or comparative psychology. But by expanding the scope of his analysis to include humans, Wilson provoked one of the great intellectual and scientific debates of the late twentieth century and helped stimulate the development of entirely new programs of research in the social and behavioral sciences.
    • Richard Machalek and Michael W. Martin, "Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Theory and Sociology: Throwing New Light On an Old Path", published in Handbook on Evolution and Society (2015) edited by Jonathan H. Turner, Richard Machalek, Alexandra Maryanski
  • Wilson clearly laid down a radical biosociological research programme, claiming that sociology should be reduced to biology. This idea has profoundly influenced sociobiology and its reception in the larger public. Because of his claims to 'biologicize' culture and even ethics and the changes in evolutionary biology, which he at least co-provoked, sociobiology was soon singled out for criticism. But this challenge to other subject areas also inspired interesting new theories for instance in psychology or in philosophy.
    • Momme von Sydow, From Darwinian Metaphysics Towards Understanding the Evolution of Evolutionary Mechanisms (2012).
  • Since 1978, when a pail of water was dumped over my Harvard friend E. O. Wilson for saying that genes influence human behaviour, the assault against human behavioural genetics by wishful thinking has remained vigorous.
    But irrationality must soon recede. It will soon be possible to read individual genetic messages at costs which will not bankrupt our health systems. In so doing, I hope we see whether changes in DNA sequence, not environmental influences, result in behaviour differences. Finally, we should be able to establish the relative importance of nature as opposed to nurture.
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