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.