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...
(The entire section is 3,448 words.)