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E.O. Wilson’s lifelong passion for ants helped him teach humans about how to live sustainably with nature

E.O. Wilson’s lifelong passion for ants helped him teach humans about how to live sustainably with nature

E. O. Wilson was an extraordinary scholar in every sense of the word. Back in the 1980s, Milton Stetson, the chair of the biology department at the University of Delaware, told me that a scientist who makes a single seminal contribution to his or her field has been a success. By the time I met Edward O. Wilson in 1982, he had already made at least five such contributions to science.

Wilson, who died Dec. 26, 2021 at the age of 92, discovered the chemical means by which ants communicate. He worked out the importance of habitat size and position within the landscape in sustaining animal populations. And he was the first to understand the evolutionary basis of both animal and human societies.

Each of his seminal contributions fundamentally changed the way scientists approached these disciplines, and explained why E.O. – as he was fondly known – was an academic god for many young scientists like me. This astonishing record of achievement may have been due to his phenomenal ability to piece together new ideas using information garnered from disparate fields of study.

Big insights from small subjects

In 1982 I cautiously sat down next to the great man during a break at a small conference on social insects. He turned, extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson. I don’t believe we’ve met.” Then we talked until it was time to get back to business.

Three hours later I approached him again, this time without trepidation because surely now we were the best of friends. He turned, extended his hand, and said “Hi, I’m Ed Wilson. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

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