Steve Connor: A true heir of Darwin – minus the beard

Science Notebook: Few people who have read Wilson's books can fail to be inspired by the natural wonders that he helps you to discover
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The Independent Online

A handful of scientists can lay claim to be "Darwin's heir" but there is only one in my mind who has the true qualifications. His name is Edward O. Wilson, emeritus professor and former curator of entomology at Harvard University. He was due to deliver a British Council lecture today at the Royal Institution in London. Unfortunately his doctors have advised him against travelling from his home in Massachusetts – he was 80 this year – so the lecture has been pre-recorded and will be presented as a video.

E.O. Wilson, as he is always known, fulfils the Darwin inheritance in several respects. First, he is a brilliant scientist (and winner of the Crafoord Prize, the Nobels for subjects the Nobels don't cover). Secondly, he is a supreme naturalist in the true sense of the word – a fine observer of nature, just like Darwin; not an easy task when you lost an eye as a boy while fishing.

Thirdly, he is a brilliantly clear writer and few people who have read his books can fail to be inspired by the natural wonders that he helps you to discover, often in the undergrowth rather than the forest canopies. Not many Crafoord Prize winners have also received Pulitzers. And fourthly, I can add from personal experience, he is an utterly nice man, befitting someone with the easy charm of a southern, Alabama gentleman. Put all these qualities together and you have a modern-day equivalent of Charles Darwin, minus the beard.

Schools of science

Wilson was once goaded by a famous physics-trained scientist who suggested that his work on ants and other social insects was nothing much more than "stamp collecting". But in his lecture today, Wilson suggests that the "age of reduction" in biology, as epitomised by the study of DNA rather than living organisms, has largely passed. There are two powerful ideas driving biology in the light of Darwin's theory. One is how living things do what they do, working within the confines of the laws of physics and chemistry, and the other is why they do them in the light of natural selection and evolution. The former is the preserve of problem solvers (reductionists), while the latter is for the naturalists, Wilson believes.

"The procedure of the naturalist is to adopt a group of species, such as conifers, diatoms, or orb-weaving spiders, and fall in love with it, and learn as much about it as possible across all levels of biological organisation, from its genes to its place in ecosystems," Wilson says. "At the risk of oversimplification, it can be said that the naturalists discover the problems in nature that the problem solvers solve."

A gentleman and a scholar

Among my most cherished possessions is a signed copy of one of Wilson's books. It still makes me blush to think that he would ever consider putting someone like me in the same camp as himself. "For Steve Connor. Fellow student of the ineffable made effable. With warm regards." And to complete the signature, he drew me an exquisite little portrait of an ant.