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David Nightingale: E.O.Wilson (1929 - )

Evolutionary biology is an enormous subject and I have no training in it. But to read from whence we came is of widespread interest. We may read from Darwin, or Stephen Jay Gould, or Wallace, or Dawkins, or even my old high school friend W.D.Hamilton, but this brief essay looks at the evolutionary biologist E.O.Wilson. Because of time constraints it will of course not do him justice.

Edward O. Wilson was born in 1929, and his major claim to fame is his study of ants, as well as his landmark (and rather mathematical) work on island biogeography [ref.2, p.144]. But in his beautifully written 2012 book "The Social Conquest of Earth" [ref.1]  we find things many of us have been unwilling to say. He believes, for example, that mankind is never going to emigrate from this planet [Ref.1 p.295], not ever, partly because anything even remotely habitable is light years beyond our reach, and that we would do well to accept that the only future for mankind is here on this planet -- and that it is obviously imperative that the world cooperate to this end.

Wilson knows from his lifetime work that species form and fade, and that in the last 10 years over 170 different species of frogs have disappeared. He comments that we are overpopulating, overharvesting, and that about half the species of plants and animals on earth [ref.1,p.294]  today will probably be extinct by the end of this century.

According to Wilson, all evidence -- combined from many disciplines which include geology, paleontology, anthropology, biology--  and more generally from what he calls 'consilience' -- points to a likely scenario for our history. While today we can actually see the evolution of viruses and bacteria, it is of course difficult to find real hard data over the millennia. The partial skeleton of 31/2  foot high Lucy, who walked upright in Ethiopia, dated radiometrically via the strata as from 3.2 million years ago was followed by the Australopithecus species, from just under 3 million years ago. Wilson suggests that lightning storms and dry vegetation could have allowed these upright creatures to learn about fire and cooked meat. Closer to us in time was homo Habilis (Latin, handyman) whose fossil fragments and simple tools were found together at Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania) by Louis Leakey around 1 and a half million years ago. After that, at less than about 0.2 million years ago, there is homo Neanderthal, existing for a while in parallel with us, homo sapiens, before dying out.

E.O. Wilson was born in Alabama, and lost sight in one eye while fishing as a 7yr old. His family was not well off but he could just afford to be a biology student, and gained his BS at the Univ. of Alabama, later earning his Ph.D. from Harvard. Back in 1971 his book "Insect Societies" came out, followed by "A Primer of Population Biology". He has won 2 Pulitzers, and his 1975 book "Sociobiology" had a new edition in 2000. His numerous honors include the $500,000 Crafoord prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences (the Nobel equivalent, had Alfred Nobel originallyincluded biology.)

Evolutionary biology often collides, of course, with creationism.   17th Cent Bishop Ussher, Primate of all Ireland, believed our world was created in October 4004 BC,  and Wilson believes that the chasm between religious faith and science is (quote) 'irreconcilable'.  [Ref.1, p.295].

Nevertheless, in 2008 a statement was signed by over 10,000 clergy members, which included:  [Ref.2, p.544]    ... we believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth ...We urge school board members to ... affirm the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge.

Finally, our technological evolution is now outstripping ever-faster the rest of our biology, and E.O.Wilson suggests forgetting colonization of distant planets, putting all our efforts instead into making this planet a permanent paradise for humans [ref.1,p.297] .


1.   "The Social Conquest of Earth",  Edward O.Wilson, 2012;  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 500  Fifth  Ave, New York,  NY, 10110.

2.   "Essential Reaqdings  in Evolutionary Biology", edited by Ayala & Avise, 2014;  John s Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, MD., 21218.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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