Why does Myrmecos Blog have it out for E. O. Wilson?

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In the comments, Eric Eaton makes an observation:

I’m left wondering (just a little) why Alex has such a beef with Dr. Wilson. This is not the first post taking a jab at Wilson, so while Alex makes an excellent point, I’m also sensing some underlying issues here….

Eric is right there’s an issue.  It is one many myrmecologists, especially systematists, have been tip-toeing around for a while now.

The short version is that Wilson is no longer at the leading edge of myrmecology.  As he has fallen out of step with the practicing research community, his public ant commentary is increasingly at odds with the situation on the ground, as it were.  This predictably puts the current generation of myrmecologists in a bit of an uncomfortable position with respect to the community’s most public representative.  Hence the underlying issues.

The longer version is this.  We evolutionary biologists are having the times of our lives right now.  Think kids and candy shops.  Cheap DNA sequencing and powerful computers have opened the floodgates to vast stores of data and countless ways to analyze them.   Not just new genetic techniques, but methods to integrate traditional natural history and morphology into a unified, predictive analytical framework.  And biology has boomed.  Productivity is up.  Funding is up.  We are learning things that previous generations of scientists could scarcely imagine.

Myrmecology has joined the renaissance.  Our understanding of ant origins, while still incomplete, is sharper than it has ever been.  What’s more, not only do we have a more accurate picture of ant evolution than we did even a decade ago, we have an entirely new set of tools for examing ant evolution.

Instead of just speculating as to whether some trait- say, ant-plant associations- has affected the history of species, we can now advance with the full bore of the scientific method: proposing quantitative hypotheses and conducting specific statistical tests.  We can put numbers on rates of change over time.  We can test if some genera speciate more quickly than others, and if those rates are related to any particular trait.  We can put more accurate dates on evolutionary events.  Most importantly, we can place previously disparate facts about various ant species into a single, comprehensive framework that allows us to make specific predictions about the yet unknown.  This is powerful, powerful stuff.

You can see where I’m going with this.  Wilson, myrmecology’s most visible proponent, has missed the boat.  On one hand, our little discipline has a charismatic, charming spokesperson of a caliber that most small scientific fields can only dream of.  On the other hand, said charming spokesman doesn’t actually grasp what many of us do.  To the extent that people turn to Wilson for the scoop on ants, they’ll remain blind to recent discoveries.  The fact is, there are dozens of myrmecologists who have a stronger understanding of ant evolution than does Wilson.  But, they also lack Wilson’s pulpit, so it’s a lot harder for them to reach the broad audience that Wilson has earned.

The irony is that Wilson built his scientific legacy from innovative syntheses that combined natural history with powerful mathematical tools.  Consider the MacArthur-Wilson Theory of Island Biogeography, for example, that took intuitive ideas about the distribution of species and transformed them into a unified framework that spawned scores of productive research programs.  The current expansion of biology stems from a similar synthesis, one that integrates Darwin’s notion of common descent with mathematical concepts from graph theory, population genetics, and elsewhere.  Why a man who has been at home with earlier advances doesn’t grasp the power of the current one I can’t say.   Perhaps it is generational.

Wilson’s latest publication, a book co-authored with Bert Hoelldober called “The Superorganism“,  is rife with examples of Wilson’s dated thinking.  I won’t cover them here- that’s for another post- but to mention that the most telling clue comes in the acknowledgments.  The people who reviewed the manuscript, folks like Jennifer Fewell and Gene Robinson, are all in Hoelldobler’s area of expertise.    These are leading scientists at the top of their game, and they’ve helped Hoelldobler produce a fine review of the field.  In contrast, not one ant systematist- Wilson’s area- reviewed the manuscript.  Apparently Wilson did it alone, and his part of the book reads like a fossilized remnant from the 1980’s.  Well-written, but dated.  Even though Wilson cites new research, he doesn’t show that he actually understands it, and his chapters are riddled with little inconsistencies.  Figures that contradict the text, for example.

I’d like to finish by emphasizing that these issues are not personal.  I do not know Wilson well, but the few times I have interacted with him he’s been the very picture of courtesy and generosity.   Indeed, Wilson is unusually humble for a public figure of his stature.   And I can’t even feel comfortable blaming Wilson for the apparent calcification of his myrmecological outlook.  These days the guy puts in a tremendous effort on environmental and conservation issues, and that takes time.   All told I think his policy efforts are a far more important role for him to assume anyway, so this post should not be intepreted as a criticism.  It’s just a statement of the situation, that is all.

15 thoughts on “Why does Myrmecos Blog have it out for E. O. Wilson?”

  1. I have met Wilson just once, when he visited here a couple of years ago, and also found him to be a gentleman. Your analysis is acute, and there’s no easy way to suggest to — nay, persuade — such a man that he’s falling behind in his science.

  2. James C. Trager

    Thanks for this Alex. Your comments express quite percisely the tremendous respect and admiration we younger myrmecologists have for Wilson. They also corroborate perfectly my own personal interactions with him, while honestly laying out the discomfort systematists feel with his dated views on ant systematics and evolutionary history.

    Long may he wave and continue his advocacy for the integrity of the world’s biological/ecological diversity!

  3. I must say this is the exact picture of E.O. that I have…one of a old man who does not recognize advancement. I have been disappointed in him since “The Creation.”

  4. James F. Kamola

    Your comments sound like the sour opinions of James Watson about Ed’s work. Ed is an old man and it is normal for an old man not to be “a la page”, but, according to Watson, his job was out of date even many years ago. I find always dangerous when people, like Watson and you, believing to be the depository of truth, blame other people because they do not follow that “truth”.
    Taxonomy cannot be reduced to mathematics, there is still room for sound contributions like the ones Ed provided. Ed is still the flagship of ant taxonomists, if he does not represent you, you cannot blame him for that…
    May be you could simply try to become the Ed Wilson of 21th century, then you will be for sure representative of you… 😉

  5. Silence serf! How dare a post-doc have critical thoughts about one of the luminaries! Get back to work quietly answering important evolutionary questions, writing valuable keys, and by all means keep taking those great pictures we all use on our websites and in our presentations.

    Seriously though… Wilson’s previous theoretical contributions and advocacy and activism are priceless. Others now drive the evolutionary thinking and research – so why worry? But that’s not to say I don’t appreciate your opinion.

  6. Hi Alex,

    Your comments on the effort Wilson puts into his conservation work reminded me of a comment he made during a visit to ucd – you were probably there. It was at a meeting he had with a group of grad students. One student asked Wilson for his opinion on rank-free classification. The gist of Wilson’s reply was that we shouldn’t worry about such esoteric issues when species are going extinct at such a high rate. Instead, Wilson suggested that we should be focusing on describing and protecting species before they go extinct.

    It was a very different response than what I expected, and although I don’t agree with it, his answer often pops into my head when I am thinking of new research projects.


  7. José María Gómez Durán

    I think there is a problem with the way words are used. I know Alex Wild some weeks ago from his marvellous blog, and I know James Tragger from his excellent participation in the Spanish Forum Lamarabunta. I am sure they have good reasons in their review of the last work of E. O. Wilson.
    The problem with some critic words, I think, is the general impression they can throw over a whole life. From an historical point of view, Wilson is one of the greatest biologists of XX century, with innumerable contributions to field studies, and author of extraordinaries synthesis. And I am also sure that Alex Wild fully recognize the importance of this scientist for the advance of myrmecology and biology.

    Let me tell my recent experience with Edward Wilson. 2 or 3 years ago I sent him 3 selected pages with ants’ observations of a Spanish naturalist (José Celestino Mutis, 1732-1808). He liked them and proposed me to work together with Mutis’ material. He was specially kind and generous with a person with no degrees (I am just a modest amateur fond of ants). Finally, he sent me an email proposing a future book. Then, Wilson worked and wrote what I think is a nice book bringging out the figure of Mutis. Perhaps this book will appear during 2009.

    Returning to Alex Wild, I must say how much I appreciate the way he make me enjoy and learn with his blog and galleries. Some days ago I couldn’t avoid to make an Spanish summary, in Lamarabunta Forum, of his 11 myrmecological milestones of 2008 (http://www.lamarabunta.org/viewtopic.php?f=3&p=97149#p97149).

    Warm regards,

    José María

  8. Thanks for your comments, all.

    James K. – I don’t begrudge Wilson his taxonomic focus. After all, much of my own research is morphology-based taxonomy, and I’m well in agreement that we need more of it. Rather, it’s the specific matter of “The Superorganism”. The book jacket advertises “the remarkable growth of knowledge… during the past two decades.” Wilson is thus tasked with writing a synthesis of the recent research, and I think he’s done a poor job of it.

    Josh- I think Wilson’s chapters do a disservice to folks like Ward, Brady, Schultz, Moreau, Kronauer etc. who have been producing some excellent research on ant evolution, yet whose work goes essentially unacknowledged in what will be the only ant book that most non-specialists will pick up. Yes, Moreau’s 2006 phylogeny is reproduced, but it sits amid text that shows Wilson clearly doesn’t understand what it means.

    Mike- I remember that! The ant lab took him out to dinner afterward and he essentially reiterated the same point. While sitting across the table from Brian O., of all people.

    José María- Thank you for your kind words. Yes, you are absolutely right. My criticism here is specific, and not meant to belittle the enormous contributions Wilson has made to biology throughout his career. By the way, I stop by the lamarabunta forum about once a week to read, it seems like a fine group of myrmecologists you’ve assembled over there.

  9. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

    Maybe it is not the end result but the way you get there that can be the problem.

    I still didn’t have the chance to read “The Superorganism” but if genetical research appears in articles and books I think I also belong in Wilsons corner of science.

    I know a very big lot about ants and how they are supposed to have evolved by a few different people but the research in itself gets to high for me. Yes, I’m a biologist and no, I’m not to old I believe (only 45 now) and yes, I get most of the basics of genetics and molecular biology, but….. When reading genetical evolutionary articles I get a nervous breakdown (maybe because I don’t work in a genetic lab?) by the sections about the methods and the results. Some of those parts can, for me, be written in Sanscrit or Hebrew or Arabic because they all are the same for ME, I don’t understand it. For the discussions, they are partly the same but, with a good summary and a good general consensus-tree, I get the most of it (although I sometimes redraw those trees to get them more simple and better understandible, there is a big difference between, say, 185 species, 63 genera or 22 subfamilies!). For me, the biggest problem lies there, techniques that outside the specialised field aren’t understandible and to much information in the trees. One example, the supplementary material by the Martialis article. I’ve redrawn them on a subfamily level to make it more clearer to me, I could better see the evolution by subfamily (and the problems therein.) than was the case by a multitude of species.

    I think, with a better explanation (for someone like me not familiar with the techniques and methods), simpler end diagrams and a good discussion it would be better for me to understand it all.

    Like I hear from Wilson, I think maybe he has the same problem like me…..

    Yes, I’m a “Wilsonist” (if I may invent a word on the spot!) and think he has done much for myrmecology in general and for the description of species and their behavior. Maybe someone should help us with the molecular biology side of it!

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  12. I’m not a scientist, just a fan, but as a layman, I can see how the boom in genetics would be like taking giant steps in the field. It’s an exciting time for biology. I’m not really familiar with E.O. Wilson except in name, but you outline the problem very well. Perhaps there is some call for a new generation of scientist who can lay some of this out in an approachable way.

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