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Natural Wonder : At heart, Edward Wilson's an ant man. But it's his theories on human behavior that stir up trouble.

October 21, 1994|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As a boy in Alabama, Edward O. Wilson hated fistfights. But he never ran from a scrap. Beaten and bloody, he wore his scars with pride.

Lord knows he tried to ignore the bullies who taunted him. Yet the ritual of fighting to prove himself seemed to haunt him wherever he went.

"Perfect training for a scientist," quips Wilson. "It's especially good if you travel a lot in strange territories like I have. When you take on foreign tribes, there's trouble."

Today, the kid who came home black-and-blue is one of the world's premier biologists and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. More comfortable in front of a microscope than a microphone, he's been drawn into one nasty controversy after another during a 43-year career at Harvard University, much of it spent on the cutting edge of scientific thought.

Wilson is the world's leading authority on ants, yet he's gained more attention for his work in sociobiology--the genetic and evolutionary roots of animal behavior--and for his support of biodiversity in tropical rain forests. A reluctant warrior in wingtip shoes, he's a hero to many but a perennial target for critics, who call him everything from a Nazi to a knee-jerk liberal.

Long before the current debate over race, genetics and intelligence, Wilson sparked an uproar by suggesting that biology shapes human traits, ranging from the sexual division of labor and religion to love and aggression. While many of his conclusions are now mainstream, he's been blasted by colleagues, heckled by demonstrators and had water dumped on his head in a public forum.

Such loathing is hard to imagine when you first meet Wilson in his quiet campus laboratory. In one corner, a collection of Central American ants scurry back and forth, carrying leaves to a makeshift colony. Across the room, a wall of awards, photos and certificates reflect the man's achievements.

And then there's Wilson himself: A tall, retiring fellow whose long, bony fingers look like chromosomes. Dressed in an Oxford shirt, rumpled tweed sport coat and dark gray slacks, he's the scientist from Central Casting, hardly the kind to ignite controversy.

Yet appearances are deceiving.

"This man is a landmark in science, a pioneer in the areas he's explored," says Paul Ehrlich, a population biologist at Stanford University. "Ed doesn't seek out conflicts, but he's paid a price for his courage."

Wilson tells the story in "Naturalist" (Island Press), a newly published autobiography. It's an eye-opening memoir of intellectual growth, showing how he evolved from a reclusive boy hooked on bugs into a scientist who's duked it out on the world stage.

For those who shun science writing, Wilson's vivid prose can be a revelation. He's long had the knack of making complex biology seem relevant to a general audience, and students rate him one of Harvard's top lecturers. He displays the same skills in his latest book. Listen to him dissect an egotistical colleague:

"He was friendly indeed, but supremely self-possessed and theatrically condescending. On the few occasions we spoke, I could not escape the feeling that he was actually addressing an audience of hundreds seated behind me. At the height of the campus turmoil at Harvard and elsewhere (he) was the speaker of choice . . . the kind of elegant, unworldly intellectual who fires up the revolution and is the first to receive its executioner's bullet."

Academic warfare fills the book, and Wilson loves to filter it through a biological lens. Look for the roots of human behavior in the past, he says, whether you go back 50 years or 50 million years. His boyhood fights and faculty clashes may seem anecdotal, but aren't we really talking about Paleolithic man, male initiation rites and tribal warfare?

"I can't help but look at the world this way, because the past always repeats itself," Wilson says with a grin. "We all fight battles, but the roots are buried deep in our biological past . . . deep in our genetic makeup."

Think you understand sports and politics? Think again.

"If we didn't have this deep biological drive to root on warring groups, we wouldn't have million-dollar baseball players," Wilson suggests. "Or multimillion-dollar Senate races where victory parties look like V-E day."

As for O.J. Simpson, Wilson says those who have rushed to prejudge the defendant are re-enacting an evolutionary drama much older than tabloid TV.

"We find here one of the most basic conflicts in (prehistoric) society, which is ownership of the female," he ventures. "There are truly dire conflicts when the female struggles to break away or is claimed by another male."

*

A vigorous 66, Wilson has spent decades studying ants, and he was one of the first to discover that the insects communicate with each other by secreting chemical trails. His path-breaking research has also shown evolutionary links between ant behavior and mammals, including human beings.

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