Professor Edward O. Wilson was born on June 10, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up in a series of towns in Alabama and Florida as well as Washington, DC. After earning a B.S. and M.S. in biology at the University of Alabama, he joined the graduate program at the University of Tennessee for a year. He then transferred to Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1955. From 1953 to 1956, he was a Junior Fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows. During this period he commenced a series of research field trips that were to take him to many parts of the South Pacific and New World tropics. In 1956, he joined the Harvard faculty, where he is now Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology.
Early in his career, Wilson conducted work on the classification and ecology of ants in New Guinea and other Pacific islands, and in the American tropics. In 1963, his work and his conception of species equilibrium led him to the theory of island biogeography, which he developed with the late Robert H. MacArthur of Princeton University. In their theory, immigration and extinction, the determinants of biodiversity at the species level, were tied to area (distance of islands from source regions) and the basic properties of ecology and demography. The work culminated in their 1967 book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, which has been a standard reference work ever since. The theory greatly influenced the discipline of ecology and became a cornerstone of conservation biology. Applied to “habitat islands,” such as forests in a sea of agricultural land, it has influenced the planning and assessment of parks and reserves around the world. In the late 1960s Wilson, with Daniel Simberloff, conducted experiments in the Florida Keys that documented the basic principles of island biogeographic theory.
Professor Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist and deist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters. In his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, he discusses methods that have been used to unite the sciences, and might be able to unite the sciences with the humanities.
He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991). He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1969), and received the U.S. National Medal of Science (1976), the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (1984), the Crafoord Prize (1990), the International Prize for Biology (1993), the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science (2000), the Nierenberg Prize (2001), and the Addison Emery Verrill Medal from the Peabody Museum of Natural History (2007). He was named to Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in America list in 1995.