Pioneer biologist EO Wilson had close ties to Alabama

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EO Wilson, who died on Boxing Day at the age of 92, is perhaps the University of Alabama’s most distinguished alumnus.

The father of “sociobiology,” Wilson graduated from Capstone in 1950 with two degrees in biology and went on to earn his doctorate. at Harvard University, where he joined the faculty and served for 40 years, from 1956 to 1996. Following his retirement, Wilson remained Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator of Entomology.

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He is the author of over 40 books – including a novel about ants – and has won two Pulitzer Prizes, including “” On Human Nature “in 1979 and” The Ants “in 1991.

Sociobiology, a theory he invented and which remains somewhat controversial to this day, postulates that certain social traits are embedded in evolution.

“Insect expert Dr. Wilson has studied the evolution of behavior, exploring how natural selection and other forces can produce something as extraordinarily complex as an ant colony,” The New York Times explained in his obituary. “He then championed this type of research as a way to make sense of all behavior, including ours.”

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson speaks with a student following a symposium on his work at the University of Alabama in this file photo.

I had the privilege of recording a video interview with Wilson upon his return to Tuscaloosa in 2010. Wilson was on a book tour to promote his newly published novel, set in Alabama, about the contrasting efforts of a biologist to save a wilderness from the developers with a simultaneous civil war between two rival ant colonies struggling to dominate the ground below.

We settled into two comfortable chairs in the lobby of what is now the Capstone Hotel (I believe it was a Sheraton at the time) with the cameraman back to the entrance.

The slim, almost mischievous Wilson was a delightful interview, full of gracious good humor. An intelligent discussion of sociobiology was obviously over my head, so I steered the discussion towards Wilson’s biography.

He told me how he was born in Birmingham, but partly raised in the Mobile area, where he became fascinated by nature. When he was 7 years old, he blinded himself in one eye in a fishing accident. He said the accident had forced him to focus his interest on “the little things”, hence his long-standing fascination with ants, on which he has become the world’s foremost expert.

Wilson, whose parents divorced the same year he partially lost his sight, quickly moved to the Washington, DC area, where Rock Creek Park became his playground. It was there that he collected butterflies with nets made from brooms, hangers and stamens.

At the age of 18, he was determined to become an entomologist. He began collecting flies, an effort that was derailed by the shortage of insect pins caused by World War II. This prompted him to switch to the ant collection, which could be kept in readily available glass vials.

With the encouragement of a scientist from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, Wilson returned to Alabama where he began an investigation of all the ants in the state. This led to his discovery of the first fire ants in the United States, near the port of Mobile.

Soon after, he entered the University of Alabama and the rest, as they say, is history.

Wilson called his theological position “provisional deism” and rejected the charge of atheism, preferring the label “agnostic”.

After the camera was off, I asked him what he thought about religion.

“Stories that we tell each other,” he said with a smirk.

Tommy Stevenson is retired associate editor of The Tuscaloosa News. Contact him at [email protected] or 205-292-2236.

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