Edward O. Wilson is one of the leading myrmecologists of our time. However, he is best known as a sociobiologist which in his words is “the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization”. Sociobiology didn’t gain major recognition as a concept until 1975. That year, the publication of his book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis created a lot of rattle in public space. It quickly drew arrows from prominent scientists of their field including evolutionary biologists. In a the New York Book Review of Books August 1975 issue an opinion article titled “Against Sociobiology” bashed Wilson’s book. Wilson’s response came two months later with the title “For Sociobiology“.
He also coined the term Biophilia that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. Biophilic tendencies of humans can be quite enthusiastic and bioblitz activities are cheerful examples. The opening scene of the biography was shot during such a bioblitz in Central Park of New York City.
Together with Bert Hölldobler they compiled a whirlwind survey of behavior, ecology and evolution of ants in a Pulitzer prize winning book The Ants in 1991. Wilson’s work on ants also received a fierce criticism from another well-known myrmecologist Deborah Gordon of Stanford University. The debate is mostly around the flexibility of individual ant behavior. Wilson argues that the behavior of ants belonging to a cast is rather rigid while Gordon suggests flexible task allocation. According to Gordon individual ant behavior is context-sensitive (for example it could be influenced directly by environmental changes) and interaction with other ants (rate of interaction with other individuals) is a determinant. The debate also has other components that reflect the differences in scientific approach and is most certainly a very didactic one to follow. For example Gordon is a devoted observer of one single species of harvester ants while Wilson is a grand collector of thousands of species covering many continents. Perhaps the best summary of the debate comes from a naive 1998 DreamWorks cartoon film called AntZ.
In 2010 Wilson and his co-workers Corina Tarnita and Martin Nowak published an article in Nature with the title “The Evolution of Eusociality” and created angry reactions including one from Richard Dawkins. The cartoon video below is a quite geeky esoteric reaction to this article: