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The World’s Top Biologist has Died - UPDATE December 27, 2021

E.O. WilsonE.O. Wilson - photo by Jim Harrison/Wikimedia CommonsProfessor Edward Osborne Wilson, died yesterday at 92. Among his long list of awards are the Crafoord Prize in biosciences, which is the highest scientific award in the field, and the National Medal of Science, the highest award in the United States. He has written over 30 books, two of which were Pulitzer prizewinners. He is the Father of Sociobiology—the author of the ground-breaking book ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’

This link tells much more. https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/edwards-wilson-ants-obituary-1.6298747

E. O. Wilson was a major help to me in graduate school, and for that I have to thank Harvard Professor Bob Trivers for connecting us. I had written a student paper on the “The social organization of female black bears in northeastern Minnesota” that won the American Society of Mammalogists’ national award for quality research by a graduate student. Bob Trivers, a biological theoretician, came into the story when he took a year of sabbatical from Harvard to teach in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology and Behavioral Biology. This super intelligent professor was also a down to earth guy who was fun to talk with. As we hung out, I gave him a copy of the paper, and a couple days later, he asked, “A buddy of mine is writing a book back at Harvard. Is it okay if I give this to him?” “Yah, sure,” I answered.

At the time, I was also having a problem. The professor who had brought me to the department and fast-tracked me into the Ph.D. program had moved on. My new advisor saw me differently. He told me that I would not likely get a Ph.D. from the U of MN because I was trying to do too much and would end up not knowing enough about anything to write a cohesive dissertation about it. I respectfully told him that I was willing to work harder than anyone would imagine and that I was trying to see how my findings about bears connected them to the world around them. I said I wanted to do a study that goes beyond the usual and have it turn into a career studying bears. He told me how unlikely that would be because there are no jobs like that. A year later, he terminated my funding, which turned out to be a blessing. It forced me to learn a new task—fundraising. I learned the names of the usual foundations that professors go to for funds, but I also learned about the powerful national conservation organizations in Washington, the biggest of which was the National Rifle Association. In those days, the NRA had a Conservation Division. I wrote to its director, telling him what I was trying to do. We eventually began talking on the telephone and became long-term friends. The initial grant I received continued my study, but things were about to get bigger. The Director invited me to Washington as a main speaker for the NRA national convention. Word spread. Other national conservation organizations began calling to ask if they, too, could become part of my project, and I continued on a bigger scale than ever. But that meant I appeared to still be doing too much.

Things turned around in 1975 when the book by Professor Trivers’ buddy came out and was the cover story on Time Magazine. Its 697 pages summarized the world’s major studies of animal behavior and ecology. To everyone’s surprise, including mine, it included the work of a grad student. On pages 502 and 504 were words that changed the course of my life.

Dr. E. O. WiIson began a major section of the book by saying:

“The species to be described in the following sections represent the best-studied paradigms of most of the carnivore social grades. Because several of the species concerned are ‘big game’ and popular zoo animals, interest in them has been more intense and field studies more careful than usual. Zoologists are consequently in a better position to consider the ecological basis of their social evolution.”

Next were words I never thought I’d see:

“The Black Bear (Ursus americanus)

“Bears have long been considered to be exclusively solitary. In an admirable field study conducted in northern Minnesota, L. L. Rogers (1974) showed that although this is approximately the case in the American black bear, individual relationships are far more intimate and prolonged than had been suspected. In brief, females depend on the exclusive occupancy of feeding territories to breed, and in this sense they are solitary. But they also permit their female offspring to share subdivisions of the territories and bequeath their rights to these offspring when they move away or die. In order to learn these facts, Rogers trapped and tagged 94 individuals over a four-year period. With the aid of radio-telemetry he was able to trace the histories of 7 female cubs from birth to maturity.”

Wilson continued the section about my bear study for the better part of page 502 and came back to the topic on page 504, saying:

“As in Lynn Rogers’ black bears, Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s elephants, and Jane van Lawick-Goodall’s chimpanzees, a new level of resolution has been attained in which free-ranging individuals were tracked from birth through socialization, parturition, and death, and their idiosyncrasies and personal alliances recorded in clinical detail.”

Wilson’s words reversed my fate as a graduate student. Professors began to ask, “How did you know to pick a topic where everything you learned would be new?” To this day, I am thankful that I was accepted into that department. I received the best education I could have. The professors were among the best in their fields. As some of them took special interest in my work, they became my mentors and in some cases my co-workers and co-authors. I hold the professors, the department, and the whole experience in high esteem.

Over the years, Wilson and I talked on the phone when I had questions. Eventually, when I was giving a talk at Harvard, we shared the stage, and I was able to meet him in person. I have followed his career and writings to this day. E. O. Wilson is one of my heroes. I’m sad that he is gone.

Thank you for all you do.
Lynn Rogers, Biologist, Wildlife Research Institute and North American Bear Center


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