Study Guide


by Edward O. Wilson

Naturalist Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although a scientist, Benjamin Franklin, wrote the first great American autobiography, most scientific autobiographies in the next two centuries were undistinguished, since scientists were rarely able to combine the clarity of mind, honest self-evaluation, and effective prose style that had characterized Franklin’s effort. It is therefore refreshing to encounter in Naturalist a clearly and honestly written scientific autobiography that harmonizes the rich interior world of a productive scientist and the absorbing people and events that shaped his life. With several excellent books already to Edward O. Wilson’s credit, including the Pulitzer-Prize winners On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990, with Bert Hölldobler), readers have come to expect from Wilson insightful and comprehensive biological analyses of life-forms ranging from ants to humans. In the past, however, the scientist’s objectifying approach often proved inhibitory when his personal self became the subject of his analyses. While Wilson does not always succeed in blending the describer and the described in ways that will satisfy scientists, humanists, and the general reader, he is, more often than not, able to give life and meaning to the experiences that formed him as a scientist and a man.

Wilson wrote Naturalist to understand more fully why he became a scientist, to shed light on his deep beliefs about himself and the world, and to learn why he now thinks and feels the way he does. His approach to these puzzles of his past is not strictly chronological; rather, he selects certain images cast into consciousness by his mem-ory. He builds his life story around these dominating images: for example, a child discovering strange creatures on a seashore, a young scientist climbing a mountain in New Guinea, even a demonstrator against sociobiology dousing the world’s authority on ants with cold water.

Edward O. Wilson was born in 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, and he grew up in what he calls “a beautiful environment”—the Old South. His view of this South that nurtured him is idealized and tends to emphasize its positive values (its civility in discourse) while de-emphasizing its negative values (its racism). This idealizing tendency also colors his view of science, causing him to exaggerate its power to clarify the complexities of human behavior, his own included. Sometimes he approaches the people of his life with great affection, as when he gratefully compares some of his teachers at the University of Alabama with the best in the world. At other times, however, he treats events in his life as collocations of facts, feelings, experiences, and ideas to be dissected and analyzed like a biological specimen.

Obviously believing that the child is father to the man, Wilson begins his memoir with an epiphany, a near-religious experience that transformed and gave meaning to his life. In 1936, while wading in the Gulf Coast waters of a section of Florida’s panhandle called Paradise Beach, the young Wilson saw a huge jellyfish whose opalescent pink bell contained radiating red lines and whose rim had a curtain of long tentacles. This creature incarnated for him all the mysteries of the sea, and he realized that the natural world must be populated with other beautiful, fascinating, even terrifying life-forms that were then beyond his immature imagination. From the perspective of the evolutionary biologist that he became, Wilson interprets this event as an accident in a haphazard life, similar to the countless accidents that helped shape our and other species in the ceaseless action of natural selection that constitutes the mechanism of evolution.

Another accident that helped fashion his future career occurred when Wilson was fishing on a dock and overzealously yanked a pinfish out of the water and into his face. One of the fish’s needlelike spines pierced the pupil of his right eye. His stoicism contributed to a delay in medical treatment, and he ended up with severely impaired vision. Though he lost stereoscopy, his left eye’s vision remained acute enough to see the fine hairs on the bodies of tiny insects. Unfortunately, an additional impairment surfaced in his adolescence. Because of a hereditary defect, he lost the ability to hear high-frequency sounds. Wilson chose to see these limitations as fortuitous constrictions of his physiological capacities because they eventually channeled his energies into entomology. Although he could no longer observe with acuity animals such as stingrays or hear the mating calls of most frogs, he could study insects, those little things of the world that could be lifted close to his good eye for scrutiny.

An only child, Wilson was forced to deal with these problems without much help from his parents, whose relationship was troubled from the early years of their marriage and who were divorced when Edward was nine. During the divorce proceedings, he attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy. Like one of his antediluvian animal ancestors entering a new environment, he had to struggle to survive in this Spartan setting, where no fishing and walks along the shore were allowed, but he adapted and came to respect military discipline for imbuing him with an antebellum ideal of the officer and gentleman. This experience, though brief, left him with a taste for self-discipline and orderliness as well as an admiration for those who live lives of self-sacrifice, altruism, and devotion to duty.

Besides nature and the military, a third influence on Wilson’s genesis as a scientist was religion. He was reared a Southern Baptist, and most of his ancestors and relatives on both sides of his family were Southern Baptists, but religion had little effect on him until an experience he had after his parents’ divorce. Neither his mother, who needed to work full-time as a secretary, nor his father, who was having trouble with alcoholism, was able to care for him, so this supervision was entrusted to a family friend. Searching for some meaning and stability in his life, the fifteen-year-old Wilson found a temporary answer by declaring that Jesus was his Savior and being baptized. In the years after his conversion, he drifted away from organized religion and increasingly found meaning for his life not in the Bible but in Nature. His new heroes were such scientists as Erwin Schrödinger, whose What Is Life? (1944) persuaded him that all biological phenomena could be explained by physics and chemistry. So deeply did Wilson accept his new religion of science that he believed (and continues to believe) that science is capable of explaining everything, including religion.

While these and earlier changes in his interior life were going on, he led, in his exterior life, what he calls “a gypsy’s existence.” He spent some time with his mother, who had legal custody, but lived most of the time with his father, who had remarried and had a good job as a government accountant. This job led to many relocations and resulted in a nomadic existence that provided him with few opportunities to form lasting friendships. Although Wilson found that human relationships were undependable, he believed he could count on plants and animals. Zoos and natural history museums became his homes away from home. He collected butterflies, studied captured ants, and learned to categorize and name his specimens. At twelve, he joined the Boy Scouts, an organization that stressed natural history and that taught an idealistic moral code he admired; within three years, he advanced from Tenderfoot to Eagle Scout with palm clusters.

By the time he was a senior in high school, Wilson realized that he wanted to be a scientist, but to accomplish this goal he had to go to college, something no member of his family had ever done. Ultimately, the University of Alabama provided a way, for expenses there were minimal. With financial help from his mother and father he embarked on a program that led to his becoming a professional biologist. During his studies he started separating what was new just for him from what was new for science as a whole. For example, he made some new discoveries about the rate of spread of the fire ant, a serious pest since its introduction into Mobile in the early 1940’s.

After earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Alabama in 1949, he continued his advanced education, first at Alabama, then at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and finally at Harvard, whose ant...

(The entire section is 3448 words.)