More Modern Reading, but Relevant

NaturalistNaturalist by E.O. Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his essays, the french philosopher Montaigne suggests that education be based on Plutarch’s Lives, which are biographies of historical figures. After reading Wilson’s autobiography, I can see how an argument could be made for a similar approach to education today.

Wilson’s book, while a biography of a man, is a biography of ideas and science through the twentieth century. While the book follows the chronology of Wilson’s life, he breaks out of the timeline of his life as he discusses ideas ranging from entomology to biogeography to sociobiology.

Still, readers should not let that list of lengthy words put them off from reading the book. While Wilson expects a certain level of education from his readers (and the ability to use a dictionary), he writes about these ideas in a way that makes them accessible. Throughout his book, Wilson gives credit to his collaborators and insists that he is no genius. Instead he attributes his success in the sciences to hard work, creative thinking, and the chance to work with good people.

For readers who want to dig deeper into some of the technical information, Wilson has footnotes in many of the chapters that refer not only to his works, but also the work of other scientists who both agreed and disagreed with him.

Wilson the man is as interesting as the ideas that he discusses. He describes his childhood, which included a stint in military school that he says shaped his outlook on work, a toubled homelife that included an alcoholic father who committed suicide, and time in the Boy Scouts that shows how training for future careers can come from unexpected places. He also reveals that he is ‘a bit of an arachnophobe,’ which I would have thought would be impossible for an entomologist.

He reflects on how his family history (and everyone else’s) is carried forward by individuals and how it changes and evolves. He also, perhaps unwittingly, talks about how human history and culture is carried forward and in a constant state of change. Wilson ends his book with a discussion of biodiveristy and a call to action for environmental preservation. Wilson makes a compelling argument that we need to do more to look after the planet we live on.

This is a book that has an index which includes entries for ‘newspaper routes,’ ‘population biology,’ ‘fistfights,’ and ‘molecular biology at Harvard.’ It describes how Wilson created popluation biology experiments in the Everglades by fumingating small islands, and how he dealt with accusations that he was a Nazi because of his sociobology writing. It also includes such gems as “In the natural world, beautiful usually means deadly. Beautiful plus a casual demeanor always means deadly.” I think there is a life lesson there.

I would recommend this book people interested in science, the scientific method, the history and philosophy of science, intellectual history, and for those who are interested in success but not interested in reading another “think positive!” book.

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