The death of a legend. Biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, sometimes referred to as “Darwin’s heir”, is dead on December 26, 2021, at the age of 92. This great ant specialist, native of Alabama, has spent most of his career at Harvard. But it was above all the launch of the sociobiology research program at the end of the 1970s that made him famous. This daring – but logical – foray of biology into the social will arouse as much praise as hatred, between trial in reductionism and (unfounded) accusations of fascism.
The American myrmecologist was also part of all the struggles in favor of biodiversity, in the thirty books he wrote and through the foundation that bears his name. Laurent Keller, professor of biology at the University of Lausanne, tells us more about the man who was his research director at Harvard and who left a lasting mark on the history of his discipline.
Heidi. news – Like EO Wilson, you are a professor of evolutionary biology and an ant specialist. Under what circumstances did you meet him?
Laurent Keller – When I finished my thesis I wanted to work on the fire ant, which he himself discovered in Louisiana in the 1950s after its introduction from South America – he was a very good naturalist. That’s how I spent two years post-doctorate at Harvard, under his direction. At the time he was working on his book “The Diversity of Life”.
He had a prodigious faculty to write, in a very engaging manner and with remarkable ease, as if he was speaking orally. He would arrive with his handwritten manuscript, almost without erasures, give it to his secretary, and a correction later, it was over! That’s how he wrote about thirty books, some of them very important, on social insects or sociobiology. He had a gigantic capacity for work.