Today, a gentle entomologist raises some knobby
questions. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Edward O. Wilson, a leading
entomologist, is also a fine writer. In his recent
autobiography, Naturalist, he joins a
parade of Southern writers who were shaped by tough
He reminds me of Walker Percy or Pat Conroy. He
tells about his early years: a broken home, a
loving but alcohol-damaged father. Wilson became a
self-sufficient introvert. He's lyrical in telling
his love of the outdoors he escaped into -- the
swamps and forests of the coastal South. That world
nurtured him and made him a scientist --that world
of ants, jellyfish and lizards.
Adults [he says] forget the depths of languor
into which the adolescent mind descends with ease.
They are prone to undervalue the mental growth that
occurs during daydreaming.
As a child, fishing on a dock, he yanked
a spiny fish from the water. It landed in his right
eye and blinded it. His left eye was very good. But
without depth perception, he couldn't spot moving
animals. He was a lousy bird watcher but very good at
studying insects close up. So he took up entomology.
He tells of his student days and his mentoring. His
undergraduate study at the University of Alabama
served him as well as Harvard could have, he says.
An education depends on the student. Alabama simply
gave him moral support and freedom.
He tells of his career at Harvard. He leads us
through his work on ants. Wilson became the world's
leading student of ants. At length he coathored
such a beautiful study of those highly organized
little creatures that it won a Pulitzer Prize.
Wilson has had an uncanny talent for taxonomy --
for classifying species. That talent expanded his
perspective. By the 1970s he was organizing not
just insect species but studies of the relation
between biology and society. His first Pulitzer
Prize was for his 1979 book, On Human
Nature. By organizing the field of
sociobiology, he opened a huge can of worms. The
field suggests that heredity may be more important
than most of us want it to be. Wilson realized, too
late, what he'd done. He says,
Mine was an exceptionally strong hereditarian
position for the 1970's. It helped to revive the
long-standing nature-nurture debate at a time when
nurture had seemingly won.
He'd refueled an old ideological war. If culture
and ability have genetic origins, that becomes a
weapon in the wrong hands.
He was accused of pushing a racist agenda. He
suffered verbal and physical abuse. His surprising
and gentle response was to study opponents'
arguments and modify his position where it needed
modifying. For Wilson remains the curious child,
sorting out life in a Southern swamp. And, in the
end, that honest curiosity is what will save us
from political agendas.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wilson, E.O., Naturalist, Washington,
D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1994.
Wilson, E.O., Sociobiology, Cambridge,
MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
Holldobler, B., and Wilson, E.O., The
Ants, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 1990.
Wilson, E.O., On Human Nature,
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Gould, S.J., An Urchin in the Storm: Essays
about Books and Ideas, New York: W.W. Norton
& Co., Inc., 1987. Gould is critical of
sociobiology, and of Wilson as its apostle, in
Chapters 2 (Cardboard Darwinism) and 7 (Genes on
For more on a later book by Wilson, see the website
I am very grateful to Professor Blaine Cole, UH
entomologist, for his extensive and helpful counsel
on this episode.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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