E.O. Wilson

updated 10/11/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/11/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MUCH OF THE HUMAN RACE, IT'S SAFE to say, is anti-ant—an attitude Ed Wilson finds woefully, even dangerously, misinformed. Wilson, the world's leading myrmecologist—ant expert, to you—regards the ubiquitous insect not as a picnic pest but as an essential element of the earth's ecology. "Ants are some of the most abundant and diverse of the earth's 1.4 million species. They're among the little creatures that run the earth. If ants and other small animals were to disappear, the earth would rot. Fish, reptiles, birds—and humans—would crash to extinction."

Though the earth is not yet close to this dire scenario, the alarming rate of species extinction has prompted Edward . Wilson, 64, legendary biologist, ecologist and two-time Pulitzer prizewinner, to undertake what may be the most challenging mission of his career: convincing a recalcitrant U.S. Congress that the Endangered Species Act, due for reauthorization this year, must be extended and expanded to protect ecosystems as well. "The destruction of an ecosystem results not only in the loss of hundreds or thousands of species, but even in local climatic changes," he says. Wilson does not underestimate the resistance to job-threatening legislation. During a recent visit to the office of Montana's Sen. Max Baucus, for example, Wilson was greeted first a large buffalo skin adorning a wall and then by a challenge. "Tell me, Dr. Wilson," said the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, whose constituent ranchers, farmers and loggers are famously unsympathetic to owls and gnatcatchers, "when voters in Montana ask me why the hell we should save the spotted owl, what should I tell them?"

Wilson, who once compared the destruction of forests to "burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal," didn't miss a beat: "Tell them, Senator, about the rosy periwinkle, a small plant discovered in Madagascar that provided successful treatments for Hodgkin's disease and acute lymphocytic leukemia. Tell them about the obscure Norwegian fungus that yielded cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant now used every day in organ transplants. And ask them how many species of fungi exist in the old stand forests of the Pacific Northwest that we haven't even classified yet, much less learned the benefits of."

In his rumpled tweed jacket and scuffed shoes, Wilson hardly looks like a man on a mission, but that is what he is. In his recently published hook, The Diversity of Life, Wilson warns that man, through habitat destruction such as deforestation and the damming of rivers, has instigated an extinction crisis greater than any since the dinosaurs died off 65 million years ago. He ticks off just a few: "Half the different kinds of freshwater fishes of peninsular Malaysia, half the 41 species of Hawaiian tree snails, 44 of the 68 shallow water mussel species of the Tennessee River shoals, 200 plant species in the U.S." His belief that humanity is moving toward an environmental abyss has led him to interrupt his duties as Frank B. Baud Professor of Science at Harvard and curator in entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology to sound the alarm.

Wilson's ominous conviction is rooted in a prodigious knowledge of the natural world. Born in Birmingham. Ala., in 1929, Edward. an only child, lived with his father after his parents divorced when he was 7 Edward Sr.. an accountant for government agencies, frequently moved from one Southern town to another, and Edward Jr., who attended 16 different schools, discovered a constant in the woods where he would go to collect insects. "I found a surrogate companionship in organisms whose qualities studied as intently as the faces and personalities of boyhood friends," he once wrote.

His future career as an entomologist was strangely influenced by a freak fishing accident when he was 7. He had hooked a pinfish and was yanking it from the water when its fin punctured his right eye, nearly blinding it. But the sight in his left eye was exceptionally acute. "I'm the last to spot a hawk sitting in a tree," he says, "but I can examine the hairs and contours of an insect's body without the aid of a magnifying glass."

It was while exploring the National Zoo and nearly Rock Creek Park in Washington when he was 10 that, Wilson says, he became irrevocably dedicated to the "magic world" of insects. Especially fascinating to him were ants. At 13 he made his first publishable discovery, a species of fire ants in Mobile, Ala., that subsequently spread throughout the South. "A lot of Southern literature is based on eccentrics like me," he says. "If I had staved there, I'd have become a hardware-store manager with a zoo of snakes and frogs."

Instead, Wilson earned his B.S. and master's degrees in biology at the University of Alabama. His writings on the little-known habits of dacetine ants prompted a young Harvard entomologist to urge Wilson to transfer to Harvard, home to the world's largest ant collection. At 24. while earning his Ph.D. at Harvard. Wilson won a fellowship to travel to Cuba, Mexico and the South Pacific, where he collected more than 100 species new to science, several of which were later named in his honor.

Returning to teach at Harvard. Wilson delved deeper into the social behavior of ants, which he demonstrated was tied to chemical signals. One day in 1959. he removed the tiny Dufour's gland from the abdomen of a fire ant, crushed it and smeared it across a glass plate. As he watched transfixed, the crushed ant's fellow workers rushed from the nest, following the smear to its end, where they milled around looking for food. Wilson had pinpointed the source of a pheromone, one of a group of chemical substances secreted by ants to signal food, danger—even death. "That night, I was too excited to sleep," he recalls.

Wilson's research for his 1971 book, The Insect Societies, led him to the belief that human behavior—-aggression, altruism, promiscuity, even division of labor between the sexes—might result from genetic evolution, rather than from cultural forces or learning alone. In 1975 he included his ideas in a book called Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Its publication provoked a firestorm of controversy. Wilson was accused of fascism, racism, sexism and biological determinism. His classes were picketed. When Wilson rose to deliver a paper on sociobiology at a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, several protesters stormed the stage. Screaming "You're all wet!" they dumped a pitcher water over his head. "I thought my views were self-evident, but the) weren't acceptable in the '70s," says Wilson.

Wounded, Wilson resolved to answer his critics. In his next hook, On Human Nature, he argued that most domains of human behavior—from child care to sexual bonding—are the result of deep biological predispositions consistent with genetic evolution. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Wilson happily returned to his consuming interest, co-authoring a definitive; 732-page book, The Ants, that won him a second Pulitzer in 1991.

Throughout his career, Wilson has found refuge at home with his wife, Irene, and their daughter, Catherine, now 30. In part because of his public battles, Wilson guards his privacy fiercely. Few friends or colleagues have ever visited his home in Lexington, Mass. Of his recreational activities, Wilson admits to a weakness for the mysteries of John D. MacDonald and Thomas Harris.

Only the urgency of species loss, says Wilson. could haw lured him back into the public arena. He warns that "humanity is entering a bottleneck of overpopulation and environmental degradation unique in history. We need to carry every species through the bottleneck," he says. "Along with culture itself, they will be the most precious gift we can give future generations."

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