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If you like Edward O. Wilson's story, you might also like:
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Lee Berger,
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Jane Goodall,
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E.O. Wilson
 
E.O. Wilson
Profile of E.O. Wilson Biography of E.O. Wilson Interview with E.O. Wilson E.O. Wilson Photo Gallery

E.O. Wilson Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Father of Sociobiology

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  E.O. Wilson

Was the taxon cycling your first big theory?

Edward O. Wilson: No. Actually, the first big theory was the evolution of the caste systems of ants. This was the second synthesis. It was an original theory based directly on my field observations through the South Pacific and then the systematics work I was doing at Harvard with the ant collection.


At that time, I became absorbed in the idea of the equilibrium of species. That was so obvious, that a species spread into an area -- say Asia and New Guinea -- other species, old species, were retreating, becoming rarer and rarer, but it seemed that there was some kind of a balance. That was very much in the air, anyway. There were a number of authors -- Simpson was one of them, Mayr had mentioned something along these lines -- who were talking about faunas coming into balance, and one assemblage of species maybe replacing another.


E.O. Wilson Interview Photo
Philip Darlington, here at Harvard University, had gone farther in this direction I think than anyone, and he was the entomology curator. I interacted with him. It was very much on my mind. Then, in 1959, I met Robert MacArthur, a brilliant young ecologist who was then at the University of Pennsylvania; he went to Princeton afterward. We formed a friendship and a close collaboration. We put together my notions of equilibrium, the relation between species -- the data came from many authors -- and then talked about an equilibrium model. MacArthur, being a mathematician and ecologist, was the one who first conceived the crossed immigration and extinction model of reaching an equilibrium in the species, which seems so simple today, but it was a real new idea.

Was that exciting for you, that sense of discovery?

Edward O. Wilson: It was. It was actually Newtonian. MacArthur and I went on, and we had long conversations and just went into the book.


We went on with connecting up what we could think of and discover about immigration into islands and extinction of species, connecting it up, what was known with ecology, which was then emerging into a new phase based upon demography, the life and death of organisms. So here we were, for the first time, able to start at the level of individual organisms and individual species -- living, reproducing, dying at a certain rate, interacting with one another as species that aggregate, and then dispersing -- as a result of having actually produced models that were predictive about what the outcome would be, in terms of diversity on islands. It was crude. It was very crude, and it's been largely replaced by more sophisticated models, but that, in essence, was the theory of island biogeography.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


Those insights, and the ability to compose models like that, must have given you enormous confidence to take on even broader, more complex problems, which has become a hallmark of your career.

Edward O. Wilson: Well, that's exactly what happened.


I am by nature a lateral thinker and an imperialist. I'll admit it. That is to say that if something is working at one level or one area, I like to say, "Well, maybe it will work at a broader area or across a larger span of time or biological organization." So (I was) encouraged by that success, it's true, and it was very successful. It really had an impact on ecology, and also on the study of biodiversity, and ultimately on conservation biology, because obviously, the processes of immigration of new species and extinction of resident species is fundamental in understanding the preservation of biodiversity in reserves and in the world generally.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


Is that the part of this work that's had the greatest practical application?

Edward O. Wilson: That's right. Oddly, MacArthur and I didn't think of that at all. We hadn't really touched on it when he died of cancer in 1972. He was 42 years old. A great loss, but I soldiered on. In the late '60s, I decided that the time had come to design an experiment.


I wanted to make evolutionary biology experimental, and no one had thought of making biogeography experimental. How could you make biogeography experimental? And it dawned on me -- because I was doing all this field work, more from the experience of natural history -- that we weren't going to be able to experiment with New Guinea or Fiji, or even a small island in the West Indies. Because what I had in mind was to eliminate all the species in a place where they could be eliminated without any real damage to the total fauna, and then study the return of those, and see how that accorded with the basic patterns predicted by the theory of island biogeography. And it dawned on me that whereas you have to have an island the size of Cuba, say, for a real population of woodpeckers or small mammals, that a very small island, like a mangrove island in the Florida Keys, would be an island for tiny insects where thousands of a species could live.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


I arrived at the Florida Keys by looking at maps, detailed maps. I went up and down the East Coast, looking at different islands -- rocky islands and sandbars and so on, and then I finally came to the Florida Keys where I had done field work before -- and it dawned on me. There are these thousands of little mangrove islands in Florida Bay.


In fact, there is an area called the Ten Thousand Islands, and my idea first, which I started in 1965, was to go down to the Dry Tortugas and survey and map every plant and animal on those little sandy islands off Key West and then wait for a hurricane to wipe them clean -- because we know every time that a hurricane passed through there, they were wiped clean of life -- and then I would go back and study them. We actually got that started. We even had a couple of hurricanes conveniently occur that season, but I realized that that wasn't going to do it. So I had to figure out a way of eliminating all these little arthropods.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


Weren't the hurricanes efficient enough?

Edward O. Wilson: We didn't get them frequently enough, and you couldn't control it. We couldn't have controlled experiences. We had to do better than that. We had to find a way of eliminating all the arthropods, essentially all animal life, from a small key, maybe 50 to 75 feet across. About this time, I had the great good fortune of being joined by Dan Simberloff, who had been trained in math. He had just become a naturalist at this point, in order to do this experiment. Dan and I plotted how to set this experiment up. Without going into too much detail, it was quite an adventure, our mishaps, our false starts, lining up an exterminator, getting the right technique.


We pulled it off. We actually followed the recolonization of an empty island, in fact a whole series of them, with controls, and that was the first experiment in island biogeography. And although the data had certain limitations -- we couldn't really figure out the turnover rate exactly -- we did affirm the main conclusions of the theory of island biogeography. The closer the island is and the smaller it is, the more quickly it fills up. The farther away it is, the larger it is, the more slowly it fills up. We learned a lot about the colonization of our islands in that experiment. It was very satisfying.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


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