An exploration of the life and work of Edward Osborne Wilson, who, at 91, may be the most eminent American scientist in any field. Wilson's 1975 book Sociobiology created an intellectual firestorm with its contention that all animal behavior, including that of humans, is governed by the laws of evolution and genetics. Subsequently Wilson has become a leading voice on the crucial importance to all life of biodiversity and has worked tirelessly to synthesize the fields of science and the humanities in a fruitful way.
Mr. Rhodes...adds much useful context and detail to Mr. Wilson’s narrative [in his autobiography], even if he isn’t always able to match his subject’s boundless energy and charm ... Scientist offers a chronological guide to Mr. Wilson’s proliferating research interests, providing succinct, nuanced summaries of some of his major insights, enriched by frequent forays into the history of modern biology. Among the most delightful sections in Scientist is Mr. Rhodes’s reconstruction of the battle between Mr. Wilson and his Harvard colleague James Watson ... But there’s just such a mass of material that Mr. Rhodes’s list remains partial at best ... Granted, Mr. Wilson is a tough subject, as elusive as one of his rare ant species ... Readers will be grateful, though, for the many illuminating details Mr. Rhodes includes[.]
As fascinating as this material is, it’s all been conveyed to much better effect in Wilson’s 1994 autobiography, Naturalist. In fact, Rhodes relies almost entirely on quotations from that book, supplemented by letters Wilson wrote to his sweetheart and eventual wife, Irene Kelley. Oddly enough, Wilson’s lively, vivid prose, at the heart of every chapter, consistently outshines that of the professional writer ... Rhodes implicitly sides with Wilson, arguing that the scientist’s effort to root all animal behavior, including that of humans, in genetics was misunderstood. But it seems to me that Wilson’s theorizing in this classic nature-nurture debate clearly weights the scales toward something close to genetic determinism. Likewise, the author fails to subject Wilson’s On Human Nature, in which the biologist explores the connections between genetic and cultural evolution, to tough-minded scrutiny ... The autobiographer has trumped the biographer. Naturalist was a pleasure, Scientist a disappointment.
It’s through these quotes that the reader comes the closest to Wilson as a person. Though Rhodes met Wilson and interviewed him, he includes little about Wilson’s later private life. We meet the naturalist, the scientist and later the activist, but not the husband, father and friend ... Alongside the story of Wilson’s professional career, Rhodes provides a useful broader scientific context ... the telling is sometimes a little flat. In his analysis of Wilson’s books, for example, Rhodes relies heavily on long quotes from said publications, which makes the text clunky. Given that E. O. Wilson himself is such a great writer, it feels somehow wrong that his life isn’t told in all its kaleidoscopic and colorful nuances ... Rhodes clearly admires Wilson but, sadly, this short biography only scratches the surface of a remarkable life.