E.O. Wilson (10 June 1929 – 26 December 2021)

December 27, 2021

Edward O. Wilson was an influencer in the true sense - someone whose ideas and ability to communicate them will be valued for decades to come.

In November I presented a lecture at the University of Winchester with the title Rethinking Nature, Rethinking Us. Winchester, which brands itself as the University for Sustainability and Social Justice, had invited me to set out some challenges for humanity as part of its programme to mark the global climate summit, or CoP26, which was under way in Glasgow at the time.

I had also been asked to refer to Gilbert White, as one of the modern era’s first ‘rethinkers’ on nature, since the University was due to announce a new partnership with Gilbert’s White House and Gardens in nearby Selborne. So I began by quoting four true influencers of the past 250 years: White, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson and Edward O. Wilson.

Edward Osborne Wilson 1929-2021

The quotations I chose seemed to summarise the evolution of western thinking about nature, and in particular the interdependence of humanity and the rest of the natural world. While the climate and biodiversity crises are now widely understood as two aspects of the same challenge, and moreover as an existential challenge to humanity, the thought-journey that brought us to this understanding was a long one. E.O. Wilson’s contribution was crucial.

One thing that united White, Darwin, Carson and Wilson was their interest in invertebrates, and their instinctive belief in the planetary importance of what in 1777 White called ‘the most insignificant insects and reptiles’. Reptile meaning, literally, ‘creepy-crawly’.

The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence on the economy of nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect…. Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost would make a lamentable chasm.

Gilbert White, letter to Daines Barrington 20 May 1777

He went on to suggest that ‘a good monography of worms would afford much entertainment and information at the same time, and open a large and new field of natural history.’  104 years later Charles Darwin obliged, when he wrote up a lifetime’s research in his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, the final words of which are:

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.

Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Actions of Earthworms 1881

In the 1930s a South American ant, Solenopsis invicta, arrived in the United States and rapidly spread across the south east, causing widespread alarm. Rachel Carson was already a successful nature writer and a respected research biologist when in 1957 the United States Department of Agriculture began an eradication programme. Their principal weapon was DDT and other pesticides sprayed from aeroplanes flown over vast tracts of land, paying little regard to the people and communities below, and none to the wildlife. As Carson compiled more and more evidence for her next book, the title she had originally chosen for a single chapter on birds was elevated to the front cover and Silent Spring became one of the foundation stones of a modern, ecologically-literate environmental movement:

Future historians could well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death to their own kind?

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring 1962

It was as a myrmecologist, or ant scientist, that Edward Osborne Wilson first rose to academic prominence, starting his post-doctoral work at Harvard in 1956. By 1990 he had popularised the concept of biodiversity as the basis for resilience in nature, and biophilia as a defining feature of the human condition. He also unashamedly stepped outside western scientific tradition with sentiments such as:

Let us not despise the lowly ants, but honour them. For a while longer at least, they will help to hold the world in balance to our liking, and they will serve as a reminder of what a wonderful place it was when we first arrived.

B.K. Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson, The Ants 1990

Indeed, it is his talent as a communicator of complex and often original ideas that places E.O. Wilson alongside his three predecessors in my 250-year timeline. In Framing Nature – conservation and culture I affectionately described Wilson as someone who ‘has built upon his academic credentials by dispensing a steady stream of aphorisms like an ecological Dalai Lama.’ His long catalogue of soundbites, many of which were undoubtedly written or spoken in order to be quoted later, are underpinned by the highest scientific authority and a profound commitment to saving the planet.

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