E. O. Wilson: Extraordinary scholar who warned of biodiversity crisis

The University of Delaware is led by Doug Tallamy.

Edward O. Wilson was in his office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. The Boston Globe has a photo of Suzanne Kreiter.

E. O. Wilson was an extraordinary scholar. The chair of the biology department at the University of Delaware told me in the 1980s that a scientist who makes a single seminal contribution to his or her field has been a success. Edward O. Wilson made at least five contributions to science by the time I met him.

Wilson, who died at the age of 92, discovered the chemical means by which ants communicate. He looked at the importance of habitat size and position within the landscape. He was the first to understand the evolutionary basis of both animal and human societies.

E.O. was an academic god for many young scientists like me because of his seminal contributions. His ability to piece together new ideas using information from different fields of study may have been the reason for his amazing record of achievement.

Insights from small subjects.

I sat next to the great man in 1982 at a small conference on social insects. He extended his hand and said he was Ed Wilson. I don't think we've met. We talked until we got back to business.

I approached him again three hours later without fear because we were now the best of friends. He extended his hand and said, "Hello, I'm Ed Wilson." I don't think we've met.

Wilson showed that he was a real person and compassionate even though he was forgetting me. I was fresh out of graduate school and didn't think another person at the conference knew as much as I did. He extended himself to me twice.

E. O. Wilson spoke about the new Enlightenment.

Thirty-two years later, we met again. I was invited to speak at the ceremony where he received the Benjamin Franklin medal. Wilson was honored with an award for his lifetime achievements in science.

Wilson's eloquent descriptions of biodiversity and how the numerous interactions among species create the conditions that enable the very existence of such species inspired my work studying native plants and insects.

I did not know that insects were the little things that run the world until Wilson explained it in 1987. My understanding of how biodiversity sustains humans was very little. Wilson opened our eyes. Wilson's early writings provided a number of testable hypotheses that guided my research into the evolution of insect parental care. His 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, became the basis for my career path after reading it.

E.O. Wilson has models of ants. Credit: Rick Friedman/Corbis

Natural history, the study of the natural world through observation rather than experimentation, was not unimportant to Wilson. He said he needed to study and preserve the natural world. He knew that our refusal to acknowledge the Earth's limits, coupled with the unsustainability of economic growth, had set humans well on their way to ecological oblivion.

Wilson understood that the reckless treatment of the ecosystems that support us was a recipe for our own demise. It was forcing the extinction of the species he loved into the first mass extinction caused by an animal.

A vision for the future.

E. O. Wilson added a second passion: guiding humanity toward a more sustainable existence. He knew that he had to write for the public, and that one book wouldn't suffice. Learning requires repeated exposure, and that is what Wilson delivered in The Diversity of Life, Biophilia, The Future of Life, The Creation, and his final plea in 2016, Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life.

desperation and urgent replaced political correctness in Wilson's writings as he aged. He challenged the central dogma of biology, showing that it could not succeed if it was restricted to small patches of habitat.

He distilled a lifetime of ecological knowledge into one simple tenet: Life as we know it can be sustained only if we preserve functioning on at least half of planet Earth.

Is this possible? Almost half of the planet is used for agriculture, while 7.9 billion people and their infrastructure occupy the other half.

The only way to realize E.O.'s lifelong wish is to coexist with nature at the same time. It's important to bury the idea that humans and nature are not the same. For the last 20 years, I have been trying to provide a blueprints for this radical cultural transformation.

There is no time to waste. Wilson once said, "Conservation is a discipline with a deadline." It's not clear whether humans have the wisdom to meet that deadline.

Doug Tallamy is a professor at the University of Delaware.

The Conversation's article is a Creative Commons licensed one. The original article can be found here.

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