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Alabama native E.O. Wilson, internationally recognized biologist and author, dead at 92

E.O. Wilson, a Birmingham native and former Harvard University biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner whose study of ants and human behavior made him one of the world’s most influential scientists and prompted his calls for action to protect millions of species on the planet, has died. He was 92.

Wilson, a University of Alabama (UA) graduate who spent a formative part of his childhood in south Alabama, died Sunday in Burlington, Massachusetts, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation said on its website. No cause was given. Wilson was a resident of nearby Lexington, Massachusetts.

“Through a relentless pursuit of new knowledge, our friend E.O. Wilson taught us to view the natural world in fresh and inspiring ways,” said UA President Stuart R. Bell. “His legendary work will continue to encourage future generations of students who are passionate about science and innovation.”

Alabama Legacy Moment: E.O. Wilson from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Widely recognized as the leading authority on ants, Wilson advocated the protection of what he called “the little things that run the world,” the million trillion insects that help preserve the Earth’s biosphere. He warned that half of all animal and plant species are in danger of extinction by the end of the century if human interference with the environment continues unabated, and that humans would disappear within a few months if insects were wiped out.

“We will destroy these ecosystems, and the species composing them, at the peril of our own existence, and unfortunately we are destroying them with ingenuity and ceaseless energy,” he said in a TED Conference speech in 2007.

Wilson applied his study of ants to other organisms, including people, to develop a science known as sociobiology. His notion that genetics and evolution play a role in social behavior was challenged by those who claimed his ideas justified some forms of discrimination. Wilson’s 1978 book “On Human Nature,” which won a Pulitzer, addressed his critics by elaborating on the link between biology and human behavior in areas such as morality, sex and aggression.

After joining Harvard’s faculty in the mid-1950s, Wilson embarked on a study of ants and found they communicate with each other through chemical substances known as pheromones, and that they form new related species when confronted with adverse conditions. Initially proposing the concept of sociobiology in ants and other tiny creatures in “The Insect Societies” (1971), Wilson returned to his primary field of expertise two decades later to produce “The Ants,” co-written with Bert Hoelldobler, which won a Pulitzer in 1991.

He claimed that ants — as well as humans — become “superorganisms” by acting in groups, and demonstrate altruism and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the species. His views were challenged by some academics, including Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins, who rejected Wilson’s “group selection” model of evolution and argued that “survival of the fittest” applies to only a single gene.

‘Sixth extinction’

The “father of biodiversity,” as Wilson was also known, attempted to unify the natural sciences with the humanities and said there was still time to reverse a “sixth extinction” of most species on the planet if environmental degradation was halted. Mass extinctions typically take place every 100 million years; the last one was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs disappeared, he said in a 2010 interview.

Edward Osborne Wilson was born on June 10, 1929, in Birmingham to Edward O. Wilson and the former Inez Freeman. His father, a government accountant, moved his family frequently for work assignments in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, according to the American Academy of Achievement. Wilson’s parents divorced when he was about 7, he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, titled “Naturalist.”

An only child, Wilson developed a fascination with the natural world while exploring Rock Creek Park in Washington and during a summer beach vacation near Pensacola, Florida.

His destiny as an ant enthusiast was sealed on the same trip when he permanently damaged his right eye while fishing. Losing his distance vision, he was unable to pursue his interest in bird watching, and a congenital hearing disability prevented him from choosing frogs as an alternative subject to study.

“I would thereafter celebrate the little things of the world, the animals that can be picked up between the thumb and forefinger and brought close for inspection,” he wrote in his autobiography.

As a 13-year-old living in Mobile, Wilson discovered the first colonies of non-native fire ants. Local authorities commissioned him to survey the insects, which threatened agriculture in the state, while he was in college, according to the American Academy of Achievement’s website. He received a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1949 and a master’s degree in the subject, both from UA, the following year. He earned a doctorate in biology at Harvard in 1955. He was a frequent return visitor to his native state as a speaker and resident scholar, and was inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.

Harvard connection

As a member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, Wilson conducted research on ant species in Cuba, Mexico and the South Pacific for three years, starting in 1953. He joined the university’s faculty in 1956 and remained there for almost 60 years.

Wilson wrote more than two dozen books, including “The Theory of Island Biogeography” (1967), with Robert MacArthur; “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” (1975); “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge” (1998); and “The Social Conquest of Earth” (2012). He was a director of the American Museum of Natural History, the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1976, the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1990 and the International Prize for Biology in 1993. In 1995, he was listed as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans.

His wife, the former Irene Kelley, preceded him in death, according to the Wilson foundation. They had a daughter, Catherine.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)