“Happiness is at once the best, the noblest, and the pleasantest of things.”

The claim to objectivity on the part of reviewers is, if not ill informed, precious. I make no claim to offer the one true reading of Edward O. Wilson’s autobiography. However, by my scheme of reckoning, he is one of the cultural giants of the last half of the 20th century. I hope that his autobiography will introduce him to a much larger segment of American society. If the Book of Virtues outlines in theory the best of human aspiration, Naturalist recounts the story—without self-aggrandizement—of such a life.

We live within a mass society, where individuals are relentlessly seduced by the market and precious few stand out from the crowd. The reductive vision of man as Homo economicus grows frighteningly more real. And culturally dominant. Our heroes are more and more the wrong people. Some are famous simply because they are wealthy, as if there were some correlation between economic status and human worth. Others become cultural icons because they host talk shows, excel athletically, or appear in movies or on television. Naturalist offers an intimate picture of a man who is a genuine alternative. I emphasize that Wilson does not represent himself as a cultural hero. His autobiography is modest, even self-effacing, offering a strong counterpoint to the puffery that inflates today’s public personae. Too often, when we learn the truth about the “high and the mighty,” we discover that they are concocted of nothing more than mass media smoke and mirrors. Wilson is the real thing. On balance, the book offers us the chronicle of a conservative in the best sense of the word: a man who believes in the virtue of hard work and the possibility of discovering truth, and who, through the combination of personality and determination, exemplifies the best of human potentiality.

Naturalist is comprised of two parts, the first dealing with Wilson’s life as a child through the early years in graduate school at Harvard, and the second with the years after 1954. Several things in part one strike this reader; primarily, however, it creates the overwhelming impression that the man (an internationally acclaimed biologist, creator of not one but several brilliant scientific theories, and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes) was fundamentally shaped by nature—the natural world in all its mystery, complexity, and beauty—more than by anything else.

Wilson’s success is not based on inherited wealth or on an ideal family life, yet he says unequivocally, “My childhood was blessed.” The child of a broken family (now a common circumstance, but one that was still unusual in the first half of this century) constantly on the move, seeking not economic opportunity so much as the means of survival, Wilson suggests that his unsettled life “made Nature my companion of choice, because the outdoors was one part of my world I perceived to hold rock steady. Animals and plants I could count on; human relationships were more difficult.” He avows that it was the opportunity to wander in relatively unhumanized environs, rather than the ordinary processes of socialization, that forged his temperament.

As the consumerist society, increasingly concentrated in megalopolises that destroy wilderness and mask the heavens, grows, such a childhood becomes more and more out of reach. Even during the 1930’s, a child’s life spent in close contact with nature was not the norm. Most children were caught up in the process that turned them into butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers—human beings aspiring to nothing more than lives of quiet desperation. Wilson slipped the noose, his psyche suffused with what he terms “biophilia,” the love of life. The human mind, he argues, is shaped “by relatively few decisive configurations. . . . The process is strongest in children, and to some extent it programs the trajectory of their lives.” For him, the decisive factor was wild nature. In a culture that, as Wilson opines, perches on the precipice of eco-catastrophe, one can only wonder what will happen if we do not, somehow, reintroduce all our children, rich and poor, to the natural world.

Church, school, and the Boy Scouts were also formative influences. Though Wilson is a professed materialist, I find in his work avowals that are remarkably spiritual. For one thing, he does not believe that science and religion are antagonistic. For another, his love of life, then and now, articulates itself in terms of biblical language, as in Part Two, where he expresses his reflections on the evolutionary hypothesis in terms of the fourth day of the Creation: “Let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of Heaven.” What is singularly important about this statement is the value judgment: life is good, of inherent worth, not just in terms of human schemes. “Love the organisms for themselves first.”

School, too, played a role in the young man’s life, primarily the Gulf Coast Military Academy (GCMA) and the University of Alabama (which, he remarks, “saved me”). I find a fine, if dry, humor in Wilson’s writing, as in the remark that “GCMA was a carefully planned nightmare engineered for the betterment of the untutored and undisciplined.” The lessons of GCMA took, teaching Wilson a respect for (legitimate) authority, traditional institutions, and civility. It is good for us to be reminded of the virtues of the military regimen, which taught Wilson, among other things, a regard “for altruism and devotion to duty.” Although I am an honorably discharged veteran of the Vietnam era, my own memories of the military were challenged by Wilson’s, helping to restore an intellectual balance—itself a virtue of first rank.

Finally, the Boy Scouts, a venerable institution (also one that has come under a sometimes withering fire during recent political correctness wars) that Wilson discusses in a chapter aptly titled “To Do My Duty,” played its part. Those who were Scouts will know how to finish the pledge, and can perhaps intuit the influence the Scouts had on Wilson. He observes that to this day he can recite the Scout Oath, with no more of a jog to memory than raising his right hand in the appropriate fashion. There is a marvelous photograph (among many others) of Wilson as an Eagle Scout (c. 1944), chest bedecked with merit badges, including all that were awarded in the area of natural history. Again, Wilson helps remind us of both the importance and fallibility of our institution. Judged by today’s standards, the Scouts of his time were imperfect; yet they now admit all young men, regardless of race. And perhaps more progress awaits another generation.

I shall pass quickly over the second part of Naturalist, noting only a few dominant themes. One is that of humility. I am struck by the difference between the greatness of Wilson’s achievements and his self-assessment. He has contributed cutting-edge hypotheses and research on a wide variety of scientific fronts, including island biogeography, sociobiology, and conservation biology. Yet he suggests, on more than one occasion, that he succeeded only because better thinkers, particularly those who were mathematically gifted and analytically inclined, raised a variety of ill-defined, complex problems for him to ponder. While approving of humility, I believe that those who generate hypotheses that integrate masses of confusing, seemingly unsystematic data into heuristically fruitful and explanatorily functional gestalts are at least the intellectual equals of those given to Cartesian modes of thinking. Further, some deep thinkers argue that while mathematical analysis offers unparalleled rigor, it is not an end in itself. Too much of it may, in fact, be pernicious to imaginative and original thought, the kind of cognition essential to meeting the challenge of novel circumstances.

Part two also offers the nonacademic an insider’s look at university life—at least at Harvard. You may not like what you see, particularly if you believe that professors are scientists who demurely go about the search for truth, oblivious to the concerns and immune from the foibles of the “real world.” In truth, as Wilson lets us see, universities are highly politicized, as competing ideologies struggle for supremacy, both political and economic. Again, however, Wilson’s candor lets his character shine through. He did not allow the so-called molecular wars, which attempted to make biological reductionism the one Eternal Verity and made “ecology a dirty word,” defeat him. He simply kept on with his appointed rounds, working within the frame of evolutionary biology, despite relentless attacks from his opponents who claimed that his kind of biology “was infested by stamp collectors who lacked the wit to transform their subject into a modern science.” Wilson’s account of life at Harvard also impresses me because he, despite his renown, continues to enjoy undergraduate teaching, and in fact believes in it as an obligation. Finally, part two helps the reader position Wilson, a self-professed social conservative, in the ongoing “culture wars.” The scientific “political correctness” police have descended on him more than once. He remarks, with droll wit, that “in the liberal dovecotes of Harvard University, a reactionary professor is like an atheist in a monastery.” What is remarkable is that criticism, deserved or undeserved, did not stifle Wilson’s inquiry but rather encouraged it, serving as a goad to further research and theoretical refinement.

No doubt, Wilson’s work on human nature and sociobiology has been and remains controversial, all the more so in the wake of the uproar over The Bell Curve. Wilson contends that the human genome defines a unique human nature, in a way that creates “a gravitational pull toward a fixed mean. It gathers people in all societies into the narrow statistical circle that we define as human nature.” But if this is the case, then biology, while not destiny, necessarily plays an enormous role in determining human behavior and our judgment of it. It means, contrary to the relativism that tends to dominate liberal social science, that cultures do not stand on equal moral footing, and that neither do individuals. However, Wilson continues, such a hypothesis is not a genetic justification for either a racist or sexist status quo. Indeed, the issue of gene-culture coevolution is, he contends, “the central problem of the social sciences, and moreover one of the great unexplored domains of science generally.”

The place to conclude is with Wilson’s own the beginning of his book, that he has been “a happy man in a terrible century.” The 20th century is the most remarkable in history, bearing witness to people and events both noble and ignoble, from Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa to Adolf Hitler, from Kitty Hawk to My Lai. These have been both the best and worst of times. So much has seemed to be within our collective reach, such as world peace; and so much, sadly, continues to elude us.

The possibility of an anthropogenic mass extinction of life, whatever the scientific uncertainty of the event, poses an enormous risk to civilization itself. We also have the knowledge that could lead us away from the annihilation of life toward a postindustrial condition of sustainability. World business leaders speak of “changing course.” And business men write of “the ecology of commerce,” the possibility of running industry and conducting the transactions of human life in ways that benefit us without despoiling the planet. Yet we do not change. Could it be that such conundrums are one reason why Wilson calls this a “terrible century”?

Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wilson remains positive in his belief that men and women, informed by scientific knowledge and ethical wisdom, can fashion a good society. My interest in and continuing admiration of him springs from a sense that Ed Wilson is a giver, one who lives up to his obligations, both personal and social, rather than a taker, one who exists in parasitical relation to culture. I also admire his deep and abiding love of the living earth and his sense that humans are stealing the blessings reserved for future generations. I had long ago come to consider him one of if not the most consequential conservationists of our time. His autobiography showed me more: he has conserved in his personal life much of what is esteemable in human being.


[Naturalist, by Edward O. Wilson (Washington, D.C: Island Press/Shearwater Books) 380 pp., $24.95]