'Interested in Everything'
E.O. Wilson, who died last month, changed the field of biology. He also had close ties to East Tennessee.
by jesse fox mayshark • January 14, 2022
E.O. Wilson, left, with Daniel Simberloff at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Simberloff)
When the prominent biologist E.O. Wilson died last month, the day after Christmas, the scientific world mourned a giant.
A scientist who could extrapolate the world from its smallest details.
The New York Times called him a pioneer and a visionary. His former Harvard colleague Stephen Pinker said he was “a great scientist and a lovely man.” Environmentally active celebrities like Paul Simon and Leonardo DiCaprio also paid tribute, with DiCaprio calling Wilson “a true hero for the planet.”
For Daniel Simberloff, the loss was more personal. Wilson was a mentor, a colleague, and a friend — someone he knew as just Ed.
“Ed was a very courtly person,” said Simberloff, a prominent biologist himself who is the Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Tennessee. “Some of the writing about him mentions this, but they don’t quite capture it. He was unfailingly polite. He was remarkably attentive to people's feelings, and he never ignored people.”
That attentiveness was of a piece with Wilson’s scientific outlook, which drew on deep knowledge of biological minutia — and of ants, in particular — to build grand ideas about life, evolution and society. His 1975 book Sociobiology, now considered a classic, made waves inside and outside of biology with its assertions of evolutionary factors in social behavior — including among humans.
“He studied biology in great detail, and he extrapolated from the specifics of what he was looking at to larger issues, both biological and in some cases societal,” Simberloff said. “That was his modus operandi.”
From Knoxville to Harvard
And he had some significant ties to UT and East Tennessee. A native of Birmingham, Ala., Wilson actually started his doctoral work at UT in 1950 after earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Alabama. But he didn’t stay here long.
In an interview in 2014, Wilson explained, “I had a wonderful professor of botany (at UT) named Jack Sharp. He was known nationally for his research on plants. In late 1950 or early 1951, he wrote from Knoxville to his friend Frank Carpenter, who was chairman of the Biology Department (at Harvard University) and professor of entomology, and said, ‘This kid does not belong here, he belongs at Harvard.’ He did me a tremendous service with that letter.”
Harvard was where Simberloff met Wilson, about 13 years later. Simberloff had just completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Harvard but had developed an interest in biology along the way. Seeking a way to apply his math knowledge to the field, he also consulted with Carpenter — who recommended him to Wilson, by that time a Harvard faculty member.
“(Wilson) had not had much training in math at all,” Simberloff said. “And he had come to recognize over the previous six or seven years that math was very important to some aspects of biology that he was really interested in, both ecology and evolution.”
So Wilson took on Simberloff as a graduate student, and the two worked together for the next four years. Simberloff helped Wilson design and carry out studies on small mangrove islands off the Florida Keys, which tested a theory that the number of species in a given ecosystem stays constant even as new ones arrive and others go extinct.
The work informed Wilson’s first major book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, which he wrote with ecologist Robert MacArthur. After completing his doctorate under Wilson, Simberloff joined the faculty at Florida State University in 1968, and came to UT in 1997. He has racked up many accolades of his own, including winning the international Ramon Margalef Award for Ecology in 2012, and being elected to the National Academy of Sciences the same year.
He stayed in touch with Wilson throughout, watching with sympathy as the publication of Sociobiology set off a storm of protest that Wilson had not fully anticipated. Scholars in other disciplines like anthropology protested against the incursion of biology into their realm of human studies, and some laypeople — misunderstanding Wilson’s arguments about how evolution could select for certain behaviors — accused him of biological determinism and racism. At one lecture, a protester dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head.
“He was not expecting universal approbation of his ideas,” Simberloff said. “What shocked him was the violence and the nature of the response — pillorying him in public, calling him names, shouting at him.”
Wilson was not intimidated, however, and Simberloff said that the basic concepts of sociobiology are now broadly accepted across many disciplines. “Some of the specific things he said in the book didn’t pan out, but others did,” he said. “And it’s no longer really controversial for some people to say they’re sociobiologists.”
A Friend of the Smokies
Wilson was also a pioneer in promoting the concept of biodiversity, which considers the totality of life — from the gene level up to individual organisms — within an ecosystem, and its webs of interdependence and competition for resources. He believed that preserving biodiversity is crucial to the health of both individual species and the planet as a whole. He created the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation in Durham, N.C., to further that work.
That commitment brought Wilson another East Tennessee connection. He was part of the founding scientific advisory board for Discover Life in America, the nonprofit organization that is conducting a long-term inventory of all the species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Todd Witcher, DLIA’s executive director, said Wilson was enthusiastic about the project. He came to speak at a conference DLIA organized, and visited a few times.
“He was down to earth, a great person, a lot different than you would expect from someone of his stature in science and intelligence,” Witcher said. “I think mostly because he was a Southerner, he understood people and personalities and how to talk to people.”
On exploratory hikes, Witcher experienced Wilson’s depth of knowledge and excitement about the natural world up close.
“He knew everything we saw, he turned over every leaf and every rock,” Witcher said. “He knew everything and was interested in everything and wanted to capture everything we saw as we walked along.”
Wilson also told Witcher about one organism in particular he was interested in — small, tree bark-dwelling bugs known as Zoraptera, or angel insects. Wilson had found and identified them in the Smokies during hikes while he was at UT in 1950. Witcher’s project has yet to find any, although he believes they are there.
“He always asked me about that when I talked to him — ‘Have you found that yet?’” Witcher said.
Wilson’s last visit to Knoxville came in 2014, when UT awarded him an honorary degree in lieu of the doctorate he had once pursued there.
“Even though he had dozens of honorary degrees, he was very pleased to get this one — very pleased,” Simberloff said. “He had a warm spot in his heart for Tennessee, both because there are a lot of insects here and the richness of species that DLIA is dealing with, and because of his time here.”
Simberloff said that even though some of Wilson's work has been either overwritten or augmented by later research, his place in the biology pantheon is secure. He was included in an Encyclopedia Britannica list in 2008 of the 100 most influential scientists of all time — alongside Aristotle, Galileo and Charles Darwin.
“I think when the history of conservation biology is written 50 or 100 years from now, he will be extremely prominent in it,” Simberloff said. “Not only as a leading social figure, like for example Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, but also as a scientific figure.”