Edward O Wilson, naturalist known as a ‘modern-day Darwin’, dies aged 92

Edward O Wilson, a US naturalist known to some as the “modern-day Darwin”, died on Sunday at the age of 92 in Massachusetts, his foundation said in a statement.

Alongside the British naturalist David Attenborough, Wilson was considered one of the world’s leading authorities on natural history and conservation.

“EO Wilson was called ‘Darwin’s natural heir’ and was known affectionately as ‘the ant man’ for his pioneering work as an entomologist,” the foundation wrote. It did not cite a cause of death but said a tribute was planned for 2022.

In addition to groundbreaking work in evolution and entomology, in his later years Wilson spearheaded a campaign to unite scientific and religious communities in an odd-couple pairing he felt presented the best chance to preserve Earth.

Wilson presented his views in more than 30 books, two of which – On Human Nature in 1979 and The Ants in 1991 – won Pulitzer prizes. His writing style was far more elegant than might have been expected from a scientist.

He even ventured into fiction in 2010 with Anthill, a coming-of-age novel about an Alabama boy trying to save marshlands.

Among Wilson’s most controversial works was Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, from 1975, in which he wrote that all human behavior was a product of genetic predetermination, not learned experiences.

By coming out in favor of human nature over nurture, he set off a firestorm of criticism, with his harshest opponents accusing him of being racist and sexist.

One protester threw water on Wilson while he was speaking at a conference as others chanted, “Wilson, you’re all wet”. It was, Wilson said later, a matter of pride for him that he was willing to pursue scientific truth despite such attacks.

He grew up a Bible-reading Southern Baptist but fell away from the church as he studied evolution. Wilson would later describe himself as a “provisional deist” – someone willing “to accept the possibility that there is some kind of intelligent force beyond our current understanding”.

He managed to tie science and religion together in a 2006 book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, a series of letters written to an imaginary Baptist preacher in pursuit of an ecological alliance to save the Earth.

In a 2011 commencement address at the University of North Carolina, Wilson argued that humanity needed to make changes in how it managed the planet.

“We have stone age emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology,” he said.

Wilson once said destroying a rainforest for economic gain was like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.

He won the National Medal of Science, the highest US science honor, and dozens of other awards. In 1995, Time magazine listed him among the 25 most influential Americans.

He was born on 10 June 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama. After his parents divorced, he had a nomadic childhood with his father, an alcoholic accountant who would kill himself. The frequent moves made it difficult for Wilson to form lasting friendships.

Wilson came to think of nature as his favorite companion and spent hours prowling forests, streams and swamps, observing wildlife. A childhood fishing accident led Wilson to myrmecology, the study of ants. A fish’s fin cut his eye, leaving his vision so impaired that he could not observe larger animals from a distance. Instead, he concentrated on smaller creatures he could study up close.

Wilson was 13 and living in Alabama when he was credited with discovering the first colony of imported fire ants in the US, according to the Harvard Gazette. He later made another significant discovery about ants, proving they used pheromone excretions to communicate.

Wilson graduated from the University of Alabama and earned a doctorate at Harvard, where he taught for several decades.

In 2005, the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation was established in his name to advance conservation, and in 2008 Wilson realized a dream when the Encyclopedia of Life went online, a Wikipedia-like website designed to document all 1.9m living species on Earth. A documentary about his life, Darwin’s Natural Heir, was made that year.

Wilson and his wife, Irene, lived in Lexington, Massachusetts. He had a daughter, Catherine.

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