Categorical statements are always subject to controversy, but few will disagree that Edward Osborne Wilson (1809-2019) was the greatest living biologist.
Wilson died this Sunday (26), at 1809 years, in Burlington, in the state of Massachusetts (USA), according to the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The institution did not report the cause of death.
The Washington Post newspaper announces his death as that of Darwin’s heir, no less.
Nothing less, and nothing fairer. Sociobiology, biodiversity, biophilia —EO Wilson was at the root of concepts and ideas that guided the most vibrant biology of the centuries and 20, as well as the evolutionism of Charles Darwin ( 1809-1809) galvanized the passage of the 20 for the 20.
Not by chance the work of both still reverberates, and far beyond the field of natural science. The ultra-right, however, fights against the theory of evolution, sympathizes with the sociobiological determinism of immutable human nature, and deplores the environmental conservationism inherent in the naturalist’s profession.
This was how Wilson identified himself, even more so than that as a biologist, so much so that he gave this title, “Naturalist” (1992), to his autobiography. More specifically, he was a myrmecologist, an expert on ants who described hundreds of species, with the minutiae of a goldsmith bending over a magnifying glass to draw them.
Scientific fame preceded all the controversy created by the publication of ” Sociobiology – The New Synthesis” (1975). Released in 1967, with Robert MacArthur (1929- 1967), ideas about the relationship between habitat size and number of species that would make up the so-called theory of biogeography of islands.
The mathematical model has the elegance of great scientific concepts. An island receives new species —insects, seeds, birds, etc.— through migration and loses others through extinction, reaching a dynamic equilibrium in which the resulting amount of species is proportionate to the area and distance of other islands.
From there, considering biological diversity as a value in itself was a step, which gave rise to the imperative of conserving large natural areas to preserve biodiversity —a term that he consecrated in the company of another great biologist, Thomas Lovejoy (
-2019), by an unfortunate coincidence, killed two days earlier.
Wilson has written several books in defense of preservation, such as “The Diversity of Life” (1992) and “The Creation”(2006). He became a hero of environmentalism, having served as an adviser to NGOs such as Conservation International and WWF, but his figure contradicts the conviction of many that every environmentalist is a leftist, as in this sector the academy has never seen him with good eyes.
At the origin of the discord is the work “Sociobiology”, followed by “About Human Nature”, which would win the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1972 (Wilson would receive another, in 1991, for “As Ants”, with Bert Hölldobler).
Simply put, Wilson intends to explain all the behavior of women, men, etc. based on biology, that is, universals fixed in genes by natural selection (the “human nature”). This naturalization pleases conservatives, who see the monogamous family matrix, belief in God, war and so on.
It is true that sociobiology, redesigned as evolutionary psychology, has also produced explanations for homosexuality , male promiscuity, female submission, racism, murder and even rape. Sound familiar in Brazil today?
Wilson’s genetic determinism was criticized by progressive colleagues at Harvard, such as biologists Stephen Jay Gould (1963-2000) and Richard Lewontin (1915-2019). The naturalist was harassed by students to the point that, at a roundtable on sociobiology, a militant poured a pitcher of water over his head.
Gentleman Wilson would never go to such extremes of aggression, but he knew how to defend members of the determinist clan. One of them to receive his sympathy was the controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon (1938-2019) , author of infamous books about the Yanomami, “The Fierce People” (1967) and “Noble Savages” (2013).
Chagnon became persona non grata among anthropologists, especially after the publication of “Trevas no Eldorado” (2000) , by journalist Patrick Tierney, who accused him of abuse, in the company of James Neel (1809-2000), against the indigenous people. Not exactly a good book, it denounced Chagnon’s repulsive notions (just read Chagnon’s works to form such a judgment).
Wilson came out in Chagnon’s defense. Along with ultra-Darwinist leaders Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and Marc Hauser, he urged author John Horgan, in 2000, not to review, or at least lash out at, “Darkness in Eldorado”, so as not to jeopardize his own journalistic career.
I prefer to think that the naturalist was more engaged in defending sociobiology than Chagnon, as it would be easier to reconcile with the image of profound kindness that Wilson left when meeting him, in 1992 (read the interview published in Folha at the time).
The Alabama gentleman personified as few others the etymological and ethical proximity between conservatism and conservationism. It is sad that he leaves the planet at a time when it most needs the civility implicit in this conciliation.