Yes, he was a scientist whose influence extended far beyond the purely scientific sphere. And no, he wasn’t a scientist whose work always met with unanimous approval. But he was a figure of the utmost importance. His signature style was that of a thinker who combined the analysis of complex animal communities with reflections on the biological basis of social behaviour (and it’s no coincidence that the initial subject of his research was ants).
Today, the legacy of Edward Osborne Wilson prompts us to reflect on the space that humanity is willing to give to nature on this planet. This starts with accepting that humans are very much part of the nature that they need to give space to (and perhaps this will help to convince our species of this viewpoint!).
From insects to sociobiology
Edward Osborne Wilson died on 26 December 2021 at the age of 92. He developed an interest in the insect world at a very early age, becoming a researcher at Harvard, where he focused on the criteria for classifying different species and the differentiations between similar animals to help them adapt to different environments. Far from confining him to a mere descriptive analysis, this field of study led him to reflect on the social interaction of insects and their adaptive capabilities in groups, resulting in the publication in 1975 of perhaps his most famous work, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The basis of sociobiological theory is that social behaviour in animals is the result of genetic inheritance in accordance with the laws of evolution.
While this theory led to him being dubbed a “modern-day Darwin” (Wilson himself declared that this was “...an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin” ), it also attracted sharp criticism from colleagues at his own university .
Despite the controversy, the impact of this work brought Wilson considerable fame, cemented a few years later with the publication of his book On Human Nature , which earned him the Pulitzer Prize.
Wilson’s list of accomplishments was remarkable, as was his track record of controversies. In 1995, he was named one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine, and in 2000, one of the century’s 100 leading environmentalists by both Time and Audubon magazine. In 2005, Foreign Policy named him one of the world’s 100 leading intellectuals .
His more recent work continued to build on this long line of successes, once again underlining E. O. Wilson’s ability to contribute radical theories and proposals to the public debate while also having the wherewithal to argue his points beyond mere provocation. His book Half-Earth, released in 2016, immediately garnered widespread media coverage, as its argument was based on a powerful and – as always – very clear political proposal: to allocate half the planet to nature, giving it the space needed to sustain itself and regenerate. The book was accompanied by a project that seeks to put the idea into practice: https://www.half-earthproject.org/. Once again, however, Wilson’s proposal did not escape criticism, some of which was undoubtedly well founded. To give you an example, I’ve chosen a passage from the review of the book in Kirkus magazine.
“Though unquestionably well-versed in the nature of the problem (and it has to be said here that the book makes a very timely argument about the rate of extinction of animal species inflicted on the planet by humanity [Ed.]), the author is fuzzy on the solution. In the final pages, he skirts the issue of how we’re to set aside 50 percent of the planet, instead making speculations about technological innovation and intensive economic growth intrinsically altering the behavior of individuals and changing the world.”
The legacy of E. O. Wilson
Just a few days before E. O. Wilson’s death, a team of 16 scientists from universities in the USA, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and the UK took up Wilson’s idea and tried to interpret it in a way that could make a significant contribution to steering the debate towards new horizons, including possible practices and policies. The paper was published on 18 November 2021 in Frontiers in Conservation Science , and its title alone is a clear statement of intent: “Protecting Half the Planet and Transforming Human Systems Are Complementary Goals” .
I’ll summarise its main points, but I encourage you to read it in full.
- The notion that E. O. Wilson intended to convey with “Half-Nature” has often been repackaged as the expression “nature needs half [the planet]”, which implies that humanity and nature should be seen as two conflicting elements. This is not the case. Humanity must think of itself as part of nature. Protecting biodiversity and the well-being of human beings are one and the same thing.
- To protect nature, it’s crucial to involve indigenous communities. I quote: “Environmental conservation policies must be planned and implemented in collaboration with indigenous peoples and local communities”.
- The world’s population is growing at a rate that poses a serious challenge to the Earth’s resources and to our coexistence with other species. However, if our goal is indeed to reduce this population growth rate, we have no alternative but to improve the situation of women and to broaden and strengthen women’s rights.
- L’obiettivo è quello di un mondo più equilibrato. Un mondo più giusto. Capace di ribilanciare gli squilibri che l’umanità sta imponendo al pianeta e, di fatto, a se stessa.
A greener world is a fairer world
A greener world is a fairer world was the tagline for the campaign that Treedom launched on World Environment Day 2021, and it’s a concept that underpins the Manifesto we published this year to bring our commitment into focus and give it a broader meaning. We wrote:
“...at Treedom we tried to [...] build a campaign that would give our interpretation of World Environment Day, starting from an assumption: we are the environment.
The vision that framed the human being on one side and ‘nature’ on the other has now been replaced by one that sees humans as actors responsible for the environment they inhabit. Their needs and aspirations are not denied, but they must be ‘sustainable’. In other words, they must be compatible with the prospect of a world full of life for years and generations to come.”
The death of Edward Osborne Wilson has deprived the world of a voice that stimulated, suggested, analysed, provoked and challenged. Keeping alive that legacy – which somehow feels like ours too – means remaining committed to that challenge.
-  https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/discover-interview-eo-wilson
-  https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1975/11/13/against-sociobiology/
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Human_Nature
-  https://www.repubblica.it/green-and-blue/2021/12/27/news/e_morto_edward_o_wilson_a_lui_si_deve_il_termine_biodiversita_-331806524/
-  https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edward-o-wilson/half-earth/
-  https://www.frontiersin.org/about/about-frontiers
-  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcosc.2021.761292/full
Cover photo by Jim Harrison - PLoS, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4146822