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Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson


by Edward O. Wilson

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651822,759 (4.14)24
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.… (more)
  1. 00
    In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind by Eric R. Kandel (GabrielF)
    GabrielF: Wilson and Kandel work in completely different areas of biology but they both write inspiring and honest biographies that explain their process, their results and its significance.

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After reading Edward O. Wilson’s Naturalist, I can’t help worrying about the welfare of Lilliputian zombies. All right, I know you are rolling your eyes, but listen, this is a real concern. I’ll explain.

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. ( )
  dypaloh | Nov 19, 2018 |
I found the first~1/4 of the book interesting and the last chapter. I found the bulk of the book bit tedious. The book is a memoir of Wilson's entire life. I had expected Tge book to make the reader more aware of the wonders of nature, which Wilson does touch upon, but the book gets bogged down in the detailing of his place in academia. ( )
  Cricket856 | Jan 25, 2016 |
top 3 biographies/autobiographies I have ever read

Big Ship

read 1995 ( )
  bigship | Jan 5, 2016 |
I've had this book for ages, seem to have picked it up while browsing in the discount section of B&N, but never got around to reading it. I recently read Anthill, and though I wasn't wild about the book as a whole, the embedded section about ants made it worthwhile, and I was curious how much of the story came from the Wilson's life. The answer is a fair amount -- it's set in the Alabama / Florida region of his childhood and in universities he's familiar with, he too was involved in the Boy Scouts, and then there are the ants. Naturalist however, is more detailed and less contrived -- there is no need to manufacture a dramatic story, because reality is quite interesting enough. This is a person who is infinitely curious and interactive. He describes how, as a kid, he learned to catch different types of animals by observing their behavior -- lizards, poisonous snakes, flies. ("My most memorable accomplishment in my freshman year (of high school) was to capture twenty houseflies during one hour of class, a personal record, and lay them in rows for the next student to find. The teacher found these trophies instead, and had the grace to compliment me on my feat next day in front of the class. I had developed a new technique for catching flies, and I now pass it on to you." A half page of instruction and explanation follows.) He describes the process of removing ant organs using needles and watchmaker tools, crushing and smearing each into a chemical trail, in order to understand how ants communicate the location of food. When Wilson decided to become a world expert on ants in the 1940s, biology was focused on organisms (botany, entomology, zoology). By 1960, it had changed, "sliced crosswise, according to levels of biological organization" (molecule, cell, organism, population, ecosystem). In the mid 1950s, James Watson arrived at Harvard, and a battle for the future ensued. ("When he was a young man, in the 1950s and 1960s, I found him the most unpleasant human being I had ever met. ... Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology. He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness.") Watson and Wilson were on opposite ends of the spectrum, and Watson was not one to suppose that other people too might be doing necessary and important work. This episode occupies a mere chapter, so may pervade the book far less than it did the dozen years in the Harvard biology department. A controversy that gets more attention is sociobiology. I only vaguely recall the uproar at the time, the mid to late 1970s, and I'm now interested in reading Wilson's book Sociobiology, which I suspect will seem more dated than disturbing. As he describes it here, his error was to speculatively extend his observations and theories about the evolution of animal social systems into a single chapter on humans, oblivious to political implications, which evoked strenuous opposition from Stephen Jay Gould among others. There's not much about his personal life. He was an only child, his parents divorced when he was in elementary school and he was shuffled around as they reconstructed their lives, and about as much as he says about his immediate family is that he promised his wife to avoid airplanes until their daughter was grown, so on his frequent trips from MA to FL he took the train instead. I'm not doing justice to the tone of the book, which is more gracious than my excerpts suggest, and much more about nature and experiments and people he has collaborated with and admires. Highly recommended.

(read 23 May 2011)
1 vote qebo | Jul 16, 2011 |
One of the most interesting autobiographies ever: To me, it looks as if Wilson turned to be a great scientist against all odds. He did not come from the academic royalty, but from a broken family in Alabama. With strong intuition, lot of hard work and endless enthusiasm, he became one of the great scientists of the 20th century. A well written book, that would probably change the course of my life have I read it at the right age...
  iayork | Aug 9, 2009 |
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What happened, what we think happened in distant memory, is built around a small collection of dominating images. In one of my own from the age of seven, I stand in the shallows off Paradise Beach, staring down at a huge jellyfish in water so still and clear that its every detail is revealed as though it were trapped in glass.
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