Wilson, Edward O.

Wilson, Edward O. (Osborne)

(1929–  ) entomologist, sociobiologist; born in Birmingham, Ala. He was a biologist with the Alabama State Department of Conservation (1949), then moved to Harvard (1953), becoming Mellon Professor of Science (1990). In the 1950s, he combined evolutionary theory with classification methods to revise the ant genus Lasius. He found that ants communicate via chemical substances known as pheromones, and discovered that these insects have a social caste system (1953). With colleague William L. Brown, he coined the phrase "character displacement" (1956) to explain the evolutionary divergence and adaptation occurring when two closely related species first come into contact. In 1967 he described a fossil ant of the Mesozoic Age. He specialized in ants and other social insects until he published his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), which propounded the controversial theory that biology determines basic social behavior in humans and other animals. His later writings, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature (1978) and Promethean Fire: Reflection on the Origin of the Mind (1983, with physicist Charles J. Lumsden), expanded his theory that many human cultural traits, such as the incest taboo, can be explained by genetic factors and evolutionary theory.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.