Pioneering biologist, environmental activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson has died. He was 92.
The influential and sometimes controversial Harvard professor first made his name studying ants — he was often known as “the ant man.” But he later broadened his scope to the intersection between human behavior and genetics, creating the field of sociobiology in the process. He died on Sunday in Burlington, Mass., the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation said in an announcement on its website.
“His impact extends to every facet of society,” the foundation’s chairman, David J. Prend, said in a statement. “He was a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanize. He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human.”
Prend described Wilson as a “relentless synthesizer of ideas” whose “courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet.”
As an entomologist whose early career came at a time when scientists were gaining a deeper understanding of genetic mechanisms, such as DNA, Wilson studied how ant behavior evolved through natural selection.
He first gained wide notoriety for his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in which he expounded on evidence that human behavior was influenced by genetics.
Wilson argued that our genes guided our social behaviors — everything from warfare to altruism. That idea prompted a sharp backlash from fellow academics and activists who equated biological determinism with the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and Nazi Germany.
But his ideas outlasted the critics and eventually became widely accepted, not only in academia but among the general public.
Wilson later capitalized on his fame to take up the cause of biodiversity and environmentalism. Among other things, he advocated for setting aside half of the Earth as wilderness.
Speaking to NPR in 2016, he said the fate of the planet “is in the hands of the people, of countries, particularly our own, that have the ability to change things.”
Fellow biologist Richard Dawkins tweeted: “Sad news of death of Ed Wilson. Great entomologist, ecologist, greatest myrmecologist, invented sociobiology, pioneer of island biogeography, genial humanist & biophiliac.”
But such was his influence that musician Paul Simon also tweeted his sadness at Wilson’s passing — calling him “a great scientist” and “dear friend.”
“Ed was an intellectual giant and a gentle, humble, compassionate man,” Simon said.
Wilson authored more than 30 books and won two Pulitzer Prizes. Among his numerous scientific prizes were the U.S. National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize.
Wilson is survived by his daughter, Catherine. No cause was given for his death.