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Edward O. Wilson
The Johns Hopkins University Press
2006; 719 pages
Price: $35.00 hardcover
In preparing this work, E.O. Wilson, one of the most preeminent biologists of our time, has selected 61 of his publications to highlight the diversity of his career. In doing so, the reader is treated to a historical overview of the three broad paths his career has followed. Wilson divides the book into three parts: Ants and Sociobiology, Biodiversity Studies: Systematics and Biogeography, and Conservation and the Human Condition. The book’s format consists of a brief introduction by Wilson, followed by a reprint of the original article. In the introductions to each article, Wilson provides his perspective on what he feels were important trends and events in the field at the time the article was written.
Given Wilson’s boyhood interest in ants, and the fact that he was growing up in southern Alabama and Florida in the 1940s, it is not surprising that the first article in Part I deals with the distribution and spread of “the imported fire ants…Solenopsis saevissima var. richteri.” This is also his first publication, appearing in the June 1949 issue of Alabama Conservation while he was a senior at the University of Alabama. The last article presented is an essay from Science as part of the 150th anniversary of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in 1998. This brings a fitting close to Part III, in which Wilson emphasizes the need for the integration of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities “in order to cope with issues of urgency and complexity that may otherwise be too great to manage.” Between these two articles, a story unfolds along the multiple paths that Wilson followed during nearly 60 years in science.
In Part I, Ants and Sociobiology, the reader sees Wilson’s interest in ants evolve from the early fire ant studies to work on pheromones, evolution, and the functional nature of caste systems. As you read these articles today, his application of the ideas gained while studying insect social systems to other animal societies, including our own, seems to be a very logical step. However, as he states in the introduction to Article 13, in the 1970s, these ideas “ignited a major controversy over human nature.” With the exception of the four sociobiology articles in the middle of Part I, Wilson never strays far from his interest in ants, and ends this portion of the book with a 2006 Nature article on the causes of ant plagues.
In Part II, Biodiversity Studies: Systematics and Biogeography, the reader can see how Wilson’s research on tropical ants developed into a passion for understanding causes of ant diversity. His mid-1950s studies of ant diversity on tropical islands led logically to his publication, with R.H. MacArthur, on island biogeography. The theoretical framework established in that series of articles (not all of which are included in the book) is clearly the jumping-off point for the last four articles in Part II, which address the need to increase our understanding of global biodiversity and the importance of conservation.
In Part III, Conservation and the Human Condition, Wilson repeatedly makes a case for increased funding for biodiversity studies. In Article 59, titled “Is humanity suicidal?,” he elegantly links the need to understand global biodiversity with the negative impact humans continue to have on the planet. In the introductions to the last four articles in Part II, and most of those in Part III, you can sense Wilson’s frustration over the increasingly rapid loss of biodiversity, and the apparent lack of interest on the part of governments worldwide to fund the research necessary to assess the impact of those losses.
I was fascinated by Wilson’s comments about how others reacted to his ideas. For example, in the introduction to Article 13 on sociobiology, he is obviously pleased that despite the initial controversy over this theory in the mid-1970s, by the 1990s, it had evolved into the new social science discipline of evolutionary psychology. In the introduction to Article 21 detailing Wilson’s and C.J. Lumsden’s examination in the early 1980s of the relationships between genetic evolution and cultural evolution, he is obviously discouraged that in the subsequent 25 years, very few researchers have continued with this line of study. The introduction to Article 36 was the only one that took me by surprise. In 1965, Wilson had proposed the use of cladistics, rather than phenetics, in the construction of phylogenies. In his introduction, he notes that unknown to him, and to most non-German phylogeneticists at the time, Willi Hennig had been publishing extensively in this area. When Hennig’s (1965, 1966) work became available to English-speaking researchers, it caused the major change in phylogenetic research that Wilson seems to have expected Article 21 to have triggered. Wilson concludes his introduction by saying, “Because I did not try to follow up this train of thought, and in any case likely could not have matched Hennig, I include this piece as a humbling example of failed science.” This does not strike me as an example of failed science, but rather suggests that Wilson was slightly ahead of at least the English-speaking pack. It simply required the translation of the work of Hennig, who was both thinking along the same lines and working primarily in cladistics, to show that this was in fact the direction for phylogenetics to follow.
Although reprinting each article in its original format is an interesting decision, it created the major drawback to the book. Because many of the articles were originally published in a format larger than the 6.5” x 9.5” pages of this book, reducing them has resulted in many articles having very small type. Nearly 40% of the pages of reprinted articles have type sizes 8 point or less, while only 11% have type sizes 11 point or greater. In many of the articles with 8 point or smaller type, figure and table captions and text in tables are nearly impossible to read as they are 6 point type or smaller. There also are a few technical problems that should have been corrected during editing. The text in several places is blurred or has parts of letters missing, which sometimes happens when scanning older originals. Article 8 has a formatting problem with pages 83 and 84 (pages 100 and 101 of original) printed front to back, causing the figure on odor trails and its caption to wrap around the page rather than appearing as a continuous figure on opposing pages, as in the original. In Article 11, two pages have been transposed so that page 127 contains page 402 of the original, while page 128 has page 401.
As a graduate student in the mid-1970s, I read Wilson’s publications on biogeography and habitat colonization to support my research, and The Insect Societies (Wilson 1971) as the basis of the first of many discussion courses. Over the past 30 years, I’ve read a variety of Wilson’s articles and have had the opportunity to hear him speak on several occasions. So I was pleased to be offered the opportunity to review this book. Because of its sheer volume, this is not a book you can simply sit down and read. However, for anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science, it is an important work. Readers will come away with an appreciation of the tremendous impact E.O. Wilson has had on science during the past 60 years. His choice of articles nicely demonstrates the thought processes that resulted in his becoming one of the preeminent biologists of the last century. From his early life watching insects in Alabama and Florida, he has taught us much about both ants and ourselves. Hopefully, we have heard his warnings about the importance of understanding biodiversity and its role in conservation. Nature Revealed is well worth the time.
Hennig, W. 1965.Phylogenetic systematics. Annual Review of Entomology 10: 97-116.
Hennig, W. 1966.Phylogenetic systematics. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL. (translated by D. Davis & R. Zangerl). 263 pages.
Wilson, E.O. 1971.The Insect Societies. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 548 pgs.
Joseph D. Culin
Department of Entomology, Soils, and Plant Sciences
Vol. 54, No. 1, Spring 2008