Scientists love to introduce new terms. Often in the world of science, the occasion to christen something means that a new and exciting phenomenon or organism has been discovered and naturally needs to be named. Some (perhaps slightly narcissistic) scientists opt to attach their names to these new discoveries rather than affixing a descriptive label (compare the “Stroop effect” to the “outgroup homogeneity effect”) in a weak grasp at scientific fame.
Most scientists, though, will never have to consider the merits of descriptive versus egoistic labelling, as the opportunity to describe completely new phenomena won’t arise in their career. If it does, it may happen once, and even then is unlikely to take root in the lexicon of the general population.
Harvard biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson, on the other hand, frequently invents and re-invents phrases that describe new theories, ideas and scientific findings. He has pioneered several different fields of study and made discoveries that have revolutionized other fields. For instance, Wilson’s discovery of chemical communication via pheromone use in ants laid the foundation for the emerging field of “chemical ecology.” Together with another Harvard colleague (William Bossert), he was the first to describe the general properties of chemical communication. Thanks to Wilson and Bossert’s theory which laid the foundation for the emerging field, we now know that pheromones constitute the primary vocabulary in the language of many insects and other animals. Most scientists would be thrilled to have made this type of contribution to their field, but for Wilson it almost seems like revolutionary discoveries and theoretical contributions are all in a day’s work.
His work is widely acclaimed among academics in a variety of fields, and has been recognized with prestigious awards, including two Pulitzer prizes for non-fiction, and the Crafoord prize in ecology.
In addition to his academic acclaim, Wilson has made himself a known presence in the consciousness of the general public by generating both widely accepted concepts (such as the importance of biodiversity), and extremely controversial ones (such as socio-biology).
What follows is a brief description of a few of the terms Wilson has introduced into the lexicon, which serve as a starting point for understanding his impact on modern science and culture.
Of all of Wilson’s words, this is likely the most well-known and commonly used. Biodiversity is defined, broadly, as the variety of all forms of life. This is often taken to refer to genetic, species and ecosystem variation. A Google news search reveals 2,711 stories on biodiversity (most of them seem admittedly depressing, dealing with the loss of species), while Google scholar comes up with 719,000. Though Wilson was not the first to use this contraction of “biological diversity,” he was responsible for its popularization and current usage. The volume BioDiversity — a collection of works based on a scientific symposium on the subject — was edited by Wilson and published in 1988. This text is thought to be singly responsible for entering the term “biodiversity” into common parlance, and for introducing the importance of protecting biodiversity into the general consciousness. At the time of the book’s publication, a search of Biological Abstracts (a database that retrieves scientific publications in biology) produced no hits for the term “biodiversity.” Today there are over 5,000, many with the aim of developing ways to preserve biodiversity. Scientists now agree that, among other things, biodiversity is a crucial factor in the stability of an ecosystem, and therefore serves to prevent species extinction and environmental destruction in the face of extreme conditions.
In his 1984 book Biophilia, Wilson argued that humans have an innate fondness for the natural world which results from our evolutionary history. He points out that humans have spent most of their history living in close proximity to the natural environment (unlike in current society), and proposes that this, combined with the necessity of protecting nature for human survival, has caused us to develop a strong affinity for nature and propensity to protect it. “Our existence depends on this propensity,” he writes, adding poetically “hopes rise on its currents.” While the existence of such an innate human tendency is still very controversial, it is clear that Wilson possesses it. His love of nature was evident to those around him since the time of his youth and continues to permeate his scientific and popular work.
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in 1975, initially sparked the onset of immense scientific controversy that is still ongoing (though not to the same extent today as when the book was published). In it, Wilson argued for the application of evolutionary principles to social behaviour, meaning that social behaviours must have (or had at one time) some adaptive benefit.
For example, dominant male lions sometimes kill cubs that they did not father. The sociobiological explanation for this is that the killing of non-related cubs provides a genetic advantage by reducing competition for resources with the dominant male’s own offspring. Most of the controversy of this theory comes about when applying it to human behaviour, which Wilson did in his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning book On Human Nature. Here he attempted to show that many aspects of human behaviour can be explained by a natural selection for traits reflected by pressures faced during human evolution. Wilson’s critics argue that he erroneously devalued the influence of the social and cultural environment on behaviour.
As one example, his book explains human altruistic behaviour as an adaptive strategy. He posits that humans look after and help out their relatives in order to help secure their own genetic legacy. Those who engaged in such altruistic behaviour had more success in passing on their genes (via their kin) than those who did not. Therefore, altruism is the result of natural selection. This description is vastly over simplified and this theory has caused a lot of ink to be spilled arguing its finer points and applications.
Though Wilson was not the first to contemplate how evolution might have shaped social behaviour, his book pioneered the application of evolutionary pressures to human social behaviour and greatly increased the amount scientific work on the subject. The field of evolutionary psychology was partially borne out of this work.
Though known to philosophers, the term “conscilience” remained obscure until Wilson’s 1998 book Conscilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Here he argued that the merging of the humanities and sciences was the best way to understand the natural world, and that a unity or bridging between diverse fields should be attempted to better comprehend and appreciate nature. This idea of a unified undertaking was popular during the Age of Enlightenment — people with diverse backgrounds were often referred to as “Renaissance men,” but gradually science became fragmented and specialized, and scientific reductionism gained a foothold. Wilson points out that the sciences and humanities are both interested in common goals, which involve providing an explanation for the phenomena we encounter in the world, and that working together to achieve these goals is likely to have more success than working independently. Given that Wilson has had so much success in outlining natural principles and concepts, perhaps we should trust his judgment on how to best accomplish this in the future.
There is much to say about E.O. Wilson’s life and work which simply impossible in the limited space here. One could write volumes. This minimal scratching of the surface, however, should provide some clue as to the depth of material beneath.