Edward O. Wilson -- University Professor at Harvard, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, eloquent champion of biodiversity -- is arguably one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. His career represents both a blueprint and a challenge to those who seek to explore the frontiers of scientific understanding. Yet, until now, little has been told of his life and of the important events that have shaped his thought.In Naturalist, Wilson describes for the first time both his growth as a scientist and the evolution of the science he has helped define. He traces the trajectory of his life -- from a childhood spent exploring the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida to life as a tenured professor at Harvard -- detailing how his youthful fascination with nature blossomed into a lifelong calling. He recounts with drama and wit the adventures of his days as a student at the University of Alabama and his four decades at Harvard University, where he has achieved renown as both teacher and researcher.As the narrative of Wilson's life unfolds, the reader is treated to an inside look at the origin and development of ideas that guide today's biological research. Theories that are now widely accepted in the scientific world were once untested hypotheses emerging from one mans's broad-gauged studies. Throughout Naturalist, we see Wilson's mind and energies constantly striving to help establish many of the central principles of the field of evolutionary biology.The story of Wilson's life provides fascinating insights into the making of a scientist, and a valuable look at some of the most thought-provoking ideas of our time.
My worry arose while Wilson was talking about pheromones, those hormones that can fly through the air, among other entrancing properties. It turns out there is a “signal of the dead” pheromone produced by dead ants. Naturally, Wilson wanted to find out more.
Ants don’t really notice when another ant dies. That dead ant does its dead-level best to be dead by the side of the ant trail yet it’s still ignored by the busy creatures with jobs to do until two or three days go by and then whoa! What’s that smell? Dead ant, my friend. The nestmates pick up the corpse, take it to the refuse pile, and are done with it. Sounds simple, but here's where it gets crazy. Wilson discovers what provides the smell—it’s oleic acid or its ester—and in a great big cosmic joke he lathers up a live ant with the smell chemical and, oh boy, the live ant is carried away by his fellows to the refuse pile.
Until the live ant can somehow remove the death lather it doesn’t matter how lively he behaves or how forcefully he remonstrates with the ants who dump him in refuse. The dumpers will keep sweeping him up and carrying him away to where the dead are supposed to lay.
Imagine then, our Lilliputian zombie. I mean, he’s the epitome of the wee living dead and just busting out with oleic acid esters (assuming he’s like an ant in this respect). Those ants get ahold of him he’s going to become well acquainted with formicid funeral customs.
There’s more. Though Wilson does not discuss it, one has to wonder how the Lilliputian zombie will react after inhaling the death pheromone that he, himself, is exhaling through sheer zombiness. Wouldn’t the natural response to smelling it be for him to try to haul his own self off to the refuse pile? Picture yourself in his place. Even when ants are impeding your insatiable pursuits by throwing you in the trash, you can’t help but be impelled to hurl yourself in it too.
Hence, my concerns.
There’s much else of living interest in Wilson’s autobiography, in which he writes with authority about a guy who is a Harvard biologist and has had wonderful fun discovering things and seeing the world of nature as only a Naturalist really does. It is also about someone who doesn’t need worry about being carried off by ants. Not that there are no risks. To protest his book Sociobiology at a scientific meeting, a woman dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head, which action was accompanied by a group chanting “you’re all wet!”
It reminded me that early in his book Wilson quotes the Talmud, “we see things not as they are, but as we are.” In view of his dousing, I offer a corollary: “Their seething is not for how we are, but how they are.” That corollary can serve to describe the protesters in this instance, I think.
Naturalist is a great autobiography. Read it. It will protect you from esters of oleic acid.