EO Wilson has always had a passion for ants

EO Wilson was an extraordinary scholar in every sense of the word. In the 1980s, Milton Stetson, chairman of the University of Delaware’s biology department, told me that a scientist who makes a fundamental contribution to his field was successful. By the time I met Edward O. Wilson in 1982, he had already made at least five of these contributions to science.

This story also appeared in The Conversation

Wilson, who died on December 26, 2021 at the age of 92, discovered the chemical ways in which ants communicate. He determined the importance of the size and position of habitat in the landscape for maintaining animal populations. And he was the first to understand the evolutionary basis of animal and human societies.

Each of his foundational contributions fundamentally changed the way scientists approached these disciplines and explained why EO – as he was affectionately known – was an academic god to many young scientists like me. This astonishing record of achievement may be due to his phenomenal ability to bring together new ideas using information gathered from disparate fields of study.

Big ideas from small topics

In 1982, I cautiously sat next to the big man during a break at a small conference on social insects. He turned, stretched out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson.” I don’t believe we have met. Then we talked until it was time to resume our business.

Three hours later, I approached him again, this time without apprehension as we were surely best friends now. He turned, stretched out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson.” I don’t believe we have met.

Wilson forgetting about me, but remaining kind and interested regardless, showed that beneath his many layers of brilliance was a real and compassionate person. I had just graduated from graduate school and I doubt anyone else at this conference would know less than I – something Wilson certainly discovered as soon as I opened my mouth. Still, he didn’t hesitate to extend to me, not once but twice.

Thirty-two years later, in 2014, we saw each other again. I had been invited to speak at a ceremony honoring his receipt of the Franklin Institute’s Benjamin Franklin Medal for Earth and Environmental Sciences. The award honored Wilson’s achievements in science, but in particular his many efforts to save life on Earth.

My work on native plants and insects, and their importance to food webs, was inspired by Wilson’s eloquent descriptions of biodiversity and how the myriad interactions between species create the conditions that make for very existence. of these species.

I spent the first decades of my career studying the evolution of insect parenting, and Wilson’s early writings provided a number of testable hypotheses that guided this research. But his 1992 book “The Diversity of Life” resonated deeply with me and became the basis of a possible turning point in my career path.

Although I am an entomologist, I didn’t realize that insects were “the little things that run the world” until Wilson explained why this is so in 1987. Like almost all scientists and non-scientists, my understanding of how biodiversity sustains humans was in an embarrassing and superficial way. . Fortunately, Wilson opened our eyes.

Throughout his career, Wilson categorically rejected the idea held by many scholars that natural history – the study of the natural world through observation rather than experimentation – was irrelevant. He proudly called himself a naturalist and communicated the urgent need to study and preserve the natural world. Decades before it was all the rage, he recognized that our refusal to recognize Earth’s limits, coupled with the unsustainability of perpetual economic growth, had put humans on the right track towards ecological oblivion.

Wilson understood that humans’ irresponsible treatment of the ecosystems that support us was not just a recipe for our own demise. It forced the biodiversity he cherished so much in the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, and the first caused by an animal: us.

A broad vision of conservation

And so, to his long-standing fascination with ants, EO Wilson added a second passion: guiding humanity to a more sustainable existence. To do this, he knew he had to go beyond the towers of the university and write for the public, and one book would not be enough. Learning requires repeated exposure, and this is what Wilson delivered in “The Diversity of Life”, “Biophilia”, “The Future of Life”, “The Creation” and his latest plea in 2016 , “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Vie.”

As Wilson grew older, desperation and urgency replaced political correctness in his writings. He boldly exposed the ecological destruction caused by fundamentalist religions and unrestricted population growth, and challenged the central dogma of conservation biology, demonstrating that conservation could only be successful if it was confined to tiny patches of habitat. isolated.

In “Half Earth,” he distilled a lifetime of ecological knowledge into one simple principle: Life as we know it can only be sustained if we keep ecosystems functioning on at least half of planet Earth.

But is it possible? Almost half of the planet is used for some form of agriculture, and 7.9 billion people and their vast network of infrastructure occupy the other half.

In my opinion, the only way to make EO’s lifelong wish come true is to learn to coexist with nature, in the same place, at the same time. It is essential to bury forever the idea that humans are here and nature is elsewhere. Providing a model for this radical cultural transformation has been my goal for the past 20 years, and I am honored that it merges with EO Wilson’s dream.

There is no time to waste in this effort. Wilson himself once said, “Conservation is a discipline with a deadline. It remains to be seen whether humans have the wisdom to meet this deadline.

Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology, University of Delaware

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