Sunday, October 07, 2007

Review: Naturalist by E. O. Wilson

Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson (Island Pess, 2006).

"Most children have a bug period," Wilson writes. "I never grew out of mine."

Pulitzer Prize-winning entomologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson tells his life story in this lively autobiography, tracing his path from the small child poking in mud puddles, to becoming one of the world's experts on ant biology, to developing a new science of sociobiology and receiving several prestigious science and literary awards awards. His choice of insects as the subject of his live study, and especially ants, came about quite by accident: as a child, Wilson was fishing on a dock one day, and as he hauled in a type of fish called a pinfish, one of the spine on its aptly-named dorsal fin pierced his eye. The eye became inflamed, leaving him blind on that side. This left him able to study things he could bring close to his face. Insects filled the bill. Knowing that ants had been studied little, giving him scant competition in the field, Wilson devoted his live to the study of ants, racking up discovery after discovery, new species after new species, in some of the most remote places on earth.

Wilson's honesty and candor bring to life the world of science, from productive partnerships to ego-filled infighting in the halls of Harvard. His frank opinions of James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, give a whole new insight into the story as Watson tells it in The Double Helix. Wilson rubs shoulders with many big names in science: George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and others, yet never loses his Southern small-town charm.

I had the pleasure of attending a talk that Wilson gave at the centennial celebration of Willamette University's Biology Department last month. The talk centered on biodiversity and the importance of preserving endangered habitats, and his involvement in the ambitious Encyclopedia of Life. Wilson gave a similar, though shorter, talk when he received the TED prize. See the video here. Happily, I got my copy of Naturalist autographed!

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