A Scientist Recalls His Life's Passion

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

NATURALIST

By Edward O. Wilson

Island Press

Recommended: Five places we might find life in our own solar system

380 pp., $24.95

THE latter half of the 20th century has seen an explosion in scientific knowledge accompanied by profound and sometimes wrenching debates over the direction that knowledge is taking mankind. At the center of this excitement and much of the controversy has been biologist and Harvard University professor Edward O. Wilson. A key figure connecting the arcane world of specialized research to general understanding, Professor Wilson has also been a leading proponent of the scientific basis for environmental protection. As a member of what he jokingly calls the ``rain forest mafia,'' Wilson champions biological diversity. This memoir, ``Naturalist,'' tracks his life and development.

The author already has proven himself as a writer, having won two Pulitzer prizes for general nonfiction. He has garnered numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science and International Prize for Biology. He is one of only 15 faculty members in Harvard's 358-year history to be named ``University Professor'' for work that crosses traditional intellectual boundaries.

Yet this story of a life filled with high achievement is marked by extraordinary humility and grace: and also a sense of innocence and pure wonder that must surely have been key factors in those professional accomplishments as a scientist.

Wilson was raised in the South. An only child, he bounced back and forth between separated parents, relatives and friends, often living in boarding houses and attending 14 public schools. ``A nomadic existence made nature my companion of choice, because the outdoors was the one part of my world I perceived to hold rock steady,'' he writes. ``Animals and plants I could count on; human relationships were more difficult.''

And yet as he has consistently done over the years, Wilson uncovered opportunity where others might only have seen adversity. Lacking a stable home life, he found stimulation and companionship in the Boy Scouts and support and encouragement through a series of mentors, teachers, and other kindly adult men who nurtured his growing interest in nature.

As a student and later a professor, Wilson pushed his scientific discipline into new areas of evolutionary biology, including sociobiology (``the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior and of the organization of complex societies'').

In the 1950s and `60s, this led to clashes with those advocating molecular biology. In the 1970s, Wilson came under professional and sometimes political attack for his pioneering work linking genetics with species evolution and human behavior.

The author's accounts of these mighty clashes of ego and intellect involving such well-known figures as James D. Watson, George Wald, and Stephen Jay Gould are fascinating. His descriptions of friends, colleagues, and professional acquaintances are crisp, colorful, and marked by a generosity of spirit.

Even his adversaries are treated with respect and kindness: ``Without a trace of irony I can say I have been blessed with brilliant enemies ... I owe them a great debt, because they redoubled my energies and drove me in new directions.''

For the lay reader, ``Naturalist'' is an informative and entertaining look into the rarefied world of high-level science. But more than that, it is the portrait of a man whose enthusiasm for his subject is contagious and whose joy in hard work is inspiring.

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