Longtime Harvard biology professor, revered conservationist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson died Sunday in Burlington, Massachusetts. He was 92.
Widely known as the “father of biodiversity,” Wilson was the world’s leading myrmecologist, or ant expert, and spent much of his life advocating for protecting the planet and the species that call it home. For his dogged efforts, he earned himself a place in history among the most celebrated conservation heroes, including Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Jane Goodall.
The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation announced his death on its website.
“Ed’s holy grail was the sheer delight of the pursuit of knowledge. A relentless synthesizer of ideas, his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet,” Paula J. Ehrlich, the foundation’s CEO and president, said in a statement. “His gift was a deep belief in people and our shared human resolve to save the natural world.”
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Wilson was drawn to the natural world as a young boy. A fishing accident at age 7, however, left him blind in one eye. With a hindered ability to view and study birds and mammals, Wilson turned his focus to insects — in particular, ants.
He wrote extensively about the insects and their social habits, and was instrumental in discovering how ants use pheromones, or chemical signals, to communicate. It is from his work with ants that he developed the concept of sociobiology, the idea that social behaviors in species, including humans, are the product of evolution.
Wilson studied biology at the University of Alabama and went on to receive a doctorate from Harvard University in 1955. The following year he joined the Harvard faculty, where he remained for four decades. From his retirement to his death, Wilson continued to hold the position of professor emeritus.
In addition to hundreds of technical papers, Wilson authored more than 30 books. He was a New York Times bestseller and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction, first in 1979 for “On Human Nature” and again in 1991 for “The Ants.”
In the years leading up to his death, Wilson championed what he called “half-earth” ― the idea that human beings can save the natural world from a sixth mass extinction event by setting aside 50 percent of the planet for conservation. It is the subject of his final book, “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”
Wilson argued that unless humans act quickly to protect biodiversity, most of the species on Earth will go extinct.
“Biodiversity is the intertwined fabric of our lives,” he said in a video promoting his Half-Earth Project. “By caring for it, we’re caring for ourselves.”
Even as the world slow-walked efforts to confront the mounting climate and biodiversity crises, Wilson remained hopeful about the future.
“We’re going green,” he told HuffPost in 2017. “It’s pastel green, but it’s still green.”
Wilson is survived by his daughter, Catherine. His wife, Irene, died in August.