Year of Honorary Fellowship, 2001
Professor Edward Osborne Wilson (June 10, 1929 – December 26, 2021) was an American biologist, naturalist, and writer. His specialty was myrmecology, the study of ants. According to David Attenborough he was the world’s leading expert. He was nicknamed the “ant man”.
Wilson has been called “the father of sociobiology” and “the father of biodiversity” for his environmental advocacy, and his secular-humanist and deist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.
In 1975, E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology, perhaps the most powerful refinement of evolutionary theory since On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory of natural selection postulated a brutal world in which individuals vied for dominance. Wilson promoted a new perspective: Social behaviours were often genetically programmed into species to help them survive, he said, with altruism—self-destructive behaviour performed for the benefit of others—bred into their bones.
In the context of Darwinian selection, such selflessness hardly made sense. If you sacrificed your life for another and extinguished your genes, wouldn’t the engine of evolution simply pass you by? Wilson resolved the paradox by drawing on the theory of kin selection. According to this way of thinking, “altruistic” individuals could emerge victorious because the genes that they share with kin would be passed on. Since the whole clan is included in the genetic victory of a few, the phenomenon of beneficial altruism came to be known as “inclusive fitness.” By the 1990s it had become a core concept of biology, sociology, even pop psychology.
Wilson was recognized as one of the most important scientists and influential people in the world by Time Magazine and the Encyclopædia Britannica. He received more than 150 awards and medals, and was an honorary member of more than 30 organizations, academies, and institutions. Several animal species have been scientifically named in his honour, mostly ant species as well as one bird and one bat species.