Scientist coverScientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature
Richard Rhodes
read by Lincoln Hoppe
Random House Audio, November 09, 2021
$24.50 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The print, e-book, and audio versions of Scientist came out last November 9. Edward O. Wilson died the day after Christmas. Make of that what you will.

Wilson lived a long and productive life. He had a tough childhood as his parents kept shipping him off to live with others while they worked on sorting out their own marital issues. When he graduated from high school he tried to enlist in the military, but this was just after the end of World War II, when the services had reinstated tougher physical standards. The army rejected Wilson because he had only one good eye. (He had lost the sight in one eye in a fishing accident as a child.) He also had hearing loss in the higher frequencies, but these encumbrances did not stop him from constantly pressing ahead.

When the army turned him down he ended up at the University of Alabama and ultimately at Harvard where he got his PhD and became an assistant professor. An offer from Stanford prompted Harvard to give him tenure and he of course attained full professor status.

Scientist discusses all aspects of Wilson’s life. The book documents his fieldwork as an entomologist and his travels around the world collecting samples. It talks about the evolution of his work from the study of insects to the social behavior of higher animal forms. The author does not shy away from the controversy that surrounded the publication of Wilson’s book Sociobiology, which stemmed mostly from a misreading of the book’s intent and from certain political agendas. We get a good view of academic politics. James Watson (yes, that James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of the DNA molecule) became an assistant professor at Harvard the same year as Wilson. He believed researchers should conduct science in the lab and not in the field. He was furious when Wilson got tenure before he did. (The biology department at Harvard ultimately split into separate theoretical and evolutionary departments.)

Author Richard Rhodes is a capable journalist, himself the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Scientist is an authorized biography, and Rhodes spent many hours interviewing Wilson. Near the end of the book Rhodes admits his admiration of Wilson. Though not a hagiography, there is very little in the book that is critical of Wilson. Still, Rhodes paints a complete picture of Wilson the man and Wilson the scientist.

Lincoln Hoppe offers a capable and low-key reading of the book, making for enjoyable listening.

The title of the book pays tribute to Wilson’s own memoir, Naturalist. This is great material for anyone interested in such topics.

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