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Pioneering biologist Edward O Wilson who redefined human behaviour dies at 92

The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author first gained widespread attention for his 1975 book which linked human behaviour to genetics.

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Edward O Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for a book he co-authored on ants (AP Photo)

Edward O Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for a book he co-authored on ants (AP Photo)

Edward O Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for a book he co-authored on ants (AP Photo)

Edward O Wilson, the pioneering Harvard biologist who argued for a new vision of human nature in “Sociobiology” and warned against the decline of ecosystems, has died. He was 92.

Wilson died on December 26 in Burlington, Massachusetts, according to an announcement posted Monday on the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s website.

“It would be hard to understate Ed’s scientific achievements, but his impact extends to every facet of society.

“He was a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanise. He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human,” David J Prend, chairman of the board of EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, said in a statement.

The professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author first gained widespread attention for his 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which he spelled out the evidence suggesting a link between human behaviour and genetics.

The work created a storm of controversy among activists and fellow academics who equated sociobiology’s ground-breaking theories with sexism, racism and Nazism.

More recently, Wilson has championed the importance of preserving diverse species and ecosystems.

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“The diversity of life on Earth is far greater than even most biologists recognise,” he said in 1993.

Less than 10% of the Earth’s species have scientific names, he said, making it “a still mostly unexplored planet”.

In 1979, On Human Nature, the third volume in a series including The Insect Societies and Sociobiology, earned Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize.

His second Pulitzer came in 1991 with The Ants, which Wilson co-wrote with his Harvard colleague, Bert Holldobler.

Among his other honours was the 1990 Crafoord Prize in biosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the highest scientific award in the field. Time magazine named him one of America’s 25 most influential people in 1996.

Wilson’s sociobiology theories transformed the field of biology and reignited the nature versus nurture debate among scientists.

Based on data about many species, Wilson argued that social behaviours from warfare to altruism had a genetic basis, an idea that contradicted the prevailing view that cultural and environmental factors determined human behaviour.

Critics argued that such a theory bolstered social injustice, including discrimination against women, by saying that the inequality is written in human genes.

Fifteen Boston-area scholars joined in a letter denouncing it and, in one case, protesters dumped a pitcher of ice water on Wilson’s head while he was speaking at a scientific meeting in 1978.

He did not think genes determine all human behaviour, but “in rough terms, maybe 10 percent” of it.


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