Since the passing of E.O. Wilson on December 27, 2021, tributes to his life and legacy have been shared with the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and public. We’ve gathered them here to provide a memorial, edited for content, length, and grammar.
The funeral of E.O. Wilson was held on January 7, 2022. The full transcript of the memorial, officiated by Rev. Dr. Rand Peabody in Lexington Massachusetts, is now available.
Last updated Mar. 18, 2022.
Board of Directors, Staff and Advisors of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation / Half-Earth Project
David J. Prend, Chair of the Board of Directors
“It would be easy to understate Ed’s scientific achievements, but hard to overstate his impact which extends to every facet of society. He was a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanize. He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human. His infectious curiosity and creativity have shaped the lives of so many, myself included, and I feel lucky to have called him a friend.”
Paul Simon, legendary singer-songwriter
“The world lost a great scientist and I, a dear friend, with the passing of E.O. Wilson. Ed was an intellectual giant and a gentle, humble, compassionate man. We were fortunate to have had him for 92 years.”
Jeffrey Ubben, Inclusive Capital Partners
“Ed loved people and celebrated the human being by celebrating all living species.”
Stephen H. Lockhart, MD (retired)
“I am truly saddened, as I am sure that everyone on this email is, to hear the news about Ed. However, I am grateful for a long life filled with passion, compassion and kindness. His contributions define a path to a brighter future for all of us. It is now up to us to follow it. His life was a blessing.”
Keith Tuffley, Citi
“Ed was such an inspiration, an intellectual giant, as well as a very likable, charming and genuine man. The world is a far better place for Ed’s contribution to science and knowledge. He will be missed, but his legacy is forever.”
Greg Carr, Carr Foundation
“Professor Wilson amplified his scientific understanding of life into a love of all living creatures and a respect for the dignity of all human beings. He taught all of us that self-awareness is a blessed wonder, the variety of living forms miraculous, and worship of Nature a spiritual activity.”
Dr. Dawn Wright, Chief Scientist, Esri
“Our great friend E.O. Wilson (1929-2021), a truly special, wonderful Earthling, will be deeply missed by the conservation and the GIS community!! Nevertheless, his message remains clear and we continue the work in earnest.”
Dr. James B. McClintock, University of Alabama at Birmingham
“Ed Wilson, a heartfelt friend and mentor, gentleman hero of conservation biology, will be sorely missed. With his death, however, comes hope and optimism that his remarkable legacy will elevate the crusade to preserve earth’s biodiversity for generations to come. I suspect if we (humanity) make it through what Ed Wilson euphemistically called ‘the bottleneck,’ his life’s work will have laid the foundation for our success.”
Dr. Paula J. Ehrlich, CEO & President, co-founder of the Half-Earth Project
“E.O. Wilson’s holy grail was the sheer delight of the pursuit of knowledge. A relentless synthesizer of ideas, his courageous scientific focus and poetic voice transformed our way of understanding ourselves and our planet. His greatest hope was that students everywhere share his passion for discovery as the ultimate scientific foundation for future stewardship of our planet. His gift was a deep belief in people and our shared human resolve to save the natural world.”
Dr. Walter Jetz, Scientific Chair
“With Ed we have lost one of the intellectual giants of our time. He was a wellspring of deep and influential ideas linking disparate fields of science. He showed the powerful role of bold, rigorous science for appreciating and preserving the world’s species and their many wonders.”
Dr. Dennis Liu, VP of Education
“In one of our last conversations, Ed talked about his fervent commitment to education and the critical role of teachers and students in the essential work of understanding life on our precious planet and taking action to protect nature for the benefit of all species. Although Ed was charismatically articulate and clear about the bad news, he also had a gift for conveying calm, wisdom, and humor, beyond words. We aim to honor E.O. Wilson by putting love of nature into action by sharing, teaching, witnessing, protecting, restoring, and being grateful.”
Piotr Naskręcki, Half-Earth Chair
“I considered Ed not only my hero, mentor and a life-long inspiration but also a good friend. Despite several orders of magnitude in his seniority (in every sense of the word), he had always made me feel that I could approach him at any time, with matters both large and small. His generosity was boundless, his advice always valuable, his spirit unrivaled in optimism. Even long before Gorongosa, Ed was a constant presence in my life and influenced many major decisions that I took, both professionally and in personal life. I am who I am and do what I do mostly because of him. And the best part is that he had exerted that kind of influence on entire legions of people, young and old, throughout his entire career. His legacy consists of not only a monumental amount of scientific discoveries, entirely new branches of biological sciences, and unparalleled influence on nature conservation but, equally importantly, the millions of seeds that he had planted in people’s minds. I will always carry the torch of his passion for life on Earth and the quest to understand and protect it. We have lost an icon and a leader but not his spirit.”
Dr. Bill Finch, Principle Science Advisor, Half-Earth Project
“When E.O. Wilson died this week, many here may not have recognized how he changed Alabama in the eyes of the world.
Those impressed by celebrity will be interested to know that Ed Wilson was likely the most famous Alabamian of his generation. There are plenty of people worldwide – in Europe, in South America, in China or Africa or much of North America — who would scratch their heads if you mentioned a football coach, but they’d know immediately that E.O. Wilson was among the most widely recognized and influential scientists of the 20th century.
Ed was famous because – in his research, in his many books and TV appearances — he gave the world a new way of thinking and talking about life. Ed made his entrance as the “ant man” – the world’s preeminent authority on ants. But the discovery and celebration of what Ed called “biodiversity” was central to his work. Nature for Ed wasn’t just beautiful scenery, or some philosophical ideal. Nature was first and foremost its components, its species, each and every one.
Just as Ed gave people new ways of thinking about the world, he gave the world a new way of thinking about Alabama.
It may seem odd that the modern concept of biodiversity was born in a place that has often been notorious for disregarding its own diversity.
But perhaps that’s why Ed, more than any writer of the last century, explored how people could and should interact with diversity. I think he believed Alabama could become a model of that relationship, because he understood the profound effects that state’s exceptional natural riches had on him as he was growing up. Concepts like biophilia were his way of articulating the impulses that drove him as a boy to feel the muscular resistance of snakes in his hands, to arrange the wings of butterflies, to study how the minute habits of ants could rock an entire forest.
I think he felt that understanding the biodiversity of Alabama could shape the future of the state, even as it had shaped his future, and as it would shape the world.
If people see Alabama differently in this century, it won’t be because of Mercedes or Toyota or Airbus or those other things we import into Alabama. It will be the result of Ed’s effort to get the world to finally see Alabama for what it is, a great cauldron of life, a global center of biodiversity.
As Ed often ruminated, he had to go up north to find work – at Harvard University where he spent much of his life. But he was always ambivalent about leaving the state that taught him so much. And in the latter half of his life he came back at every opportunity. That’s how I got to know him.
He had access to every great natural area in the world, but he brought teams of scientists to study the insect life of the Red Hills in the center of oak and magnolia diversity in Monroe County and to survey one of the global centers of carnivorous plant diversity in Splinter Hill Bog in north Baldwin County. He declared that the Paint Rock Valley in northeast Alabama should become a world center of research into how forests and ecosystems work. It was as if this rediscovery of Alabama could help explain and confirm the bent of his life.
And for his 88th birthday, he decided he wanted nothing in the world more than a chance to prospect for ants in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. He swatted his net through the reeds with surprising force, chuckling as he gathered ants that seemed to appear out of nowhere, filing them in vials for identification.
It might have seemed like some serious scientific endeavor, as I pontificated about plants and Ed theorized why we might find ants here, and not over there. Perhaps it was. But on that day we were just two happy boys tromping through the swamp, discovering Alabama diversity as if for the first time.”
Mike Phillips, Turner Endangered Species Fund, Half-Earth Council
“Ed Wilson was a north star for guiding efforts to cherish and protect the living world. Navigating the future without him will be difficult. But his written words are durable and inspiring and chart a clear path. It is altogether fitting that we lean on them as never before – “There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.”
Doug Booher, Half-Earth Project Map
“With the death of Dr. E.O. Wilson announced as we finalized proofs of this work we wanted to pay tribute to him with a note of remembrance, as we were all most eager to share this work and our Alabama ant-biophilia.
Dr. Wilson grew up in Alabama as a pioneering naturalist, finding his love of ants after a fishing hook accident forced him into the nearsighted but expansive universe of “the little things that run the world”. Although he is famous for his work and career at Harvard as a taxonomist (he described 429 species!), theoretical ecologist, and as a global conservation advocate, he always remained an Alabama boy and in the latter half of his life he came back at every opportunity —notably as his focus shifted towards conservation.
An ever important sentiment shared by Wilson was that we are “still short on saving a large percentage of the species, many unknown mostly to the public” and still in an age of discovery. Wilson stated that “we’ve come to recognize that the fauna and flora are fundamental in continued human existence” and the first step in understanding what areas to conserve is to understand each and every species inhabiting those areas. Historically conservation efforts have been prioritized using charismatic flora and fauna and although the role of invertebrates have long been known to be important among ecologists, we simply have not had the baseline knowledge of what invertebrates live where to include them in most conservation strategies.
Through Dr. Wilson’s estimates, ants outweigh the vertebrate fauna wherever they co-occur. Ants are ecosystem engineers, aerating the soil through nest building and planting the herbaceous understory through seed dispersal. There must be concerted biodiversity inventory efforts to know what invertebrates are where in order to steward them and reap the ecological benefits they bestow upon us.
This small work on the ants of Alabama is at the heart of his vision and supports the goals of the E.O. Wilson Foundation’s Half-Earth Project. Dr. E.O. Wilson is known to many of us as uncle Ed for his mentoring role and positive influence in our lives. It is our goal that by updating the ants of Alabama that we provide a better base of knowledge that can be used to help prioritize conservation decisions with this most important group of terrestrial invertebrates. This one is for the ur-myrmecologist, uncle Ed.”
Norina Vicente, Half-Earth Project Fellow, Gorongosa
“The joy of life.
An inspiration for myself and our entire generation.
The motivation of current scientists.
I heard about Prof. Edward O. Wilson for the first time in 2016 while in university and got inspired to hear about the work he did as a naturalist, conservationist, and Myrmecologist in the world, specifically in Gorongosa National Park. Prof. Wilson was my inspiration to study ants, and through his words I learned that ants are a role model to study human existence and to understand sociobiology among humans.
Some of us did not have a chance to meet him in person as myself, but through your recognized and well-known work we are connected to you. We will continue with your legacy by your words and lessons will continue guiding us and your advice will be lightening our dreams wherever you are, we will keep holding the concept you gave us “Biodiversity” and be sure that we will also pass this message to the next generations.
We thank you very much for all the advice and thoughts.
There is time for teaching, advising and the time for resting
May your soul rest in peace.”
Ricardo Guta, Half-Earth Scholar
“It was with great sadness that I received the news of the physical disappearance of Professor EO. Wilson, my source of inspiration in biodiversity documentation. The world is in mourning. But despite everything we thank you for everything you have done for science and young people passionate about nature with me “Letters to a Young Scientist”! We are grateful for making the world a better place, awakening in us the hope of a positive coexistence and positive interaction between man and nature.
His principles and legacy on biodiversity documentation will always be a guide and source of inspiration in my life and for many young people and scientists passionate about nature.
Since I met Professor Wilson in 2014 at the opening of the E.O.Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory my life has completely changed as my passion for nature has increased more and more.
Inspired by his work, I now feel it is my mission as a young scientist, taxonomist, and conservationist to document biodiversity to make the world a better place. For this reason, I have currently been carrying out several independent works aimed at identifying species in conservation areas and recently in urban areas, mainly expansion areas as these still contain semi-native vegetation that holds a great diversity that overtime is lost with urbanization. The Knowledge of biodiversity can change the way societies build their homes, maintaining green spaces to ensure species protection. Furthermore, I feel very lucky and flattered because I am currently researching “Phylogeography of flightless spring katydids”, in which one of the species was named in her honor “Brinckiella Wilsoni” and I am very excited to know the full natural history of it.
With these few words, I want to say that Professor Wilson is gone but his principles and legacy will be followed by current and future generations.
President William J. Clinton
“E.O. Wilson taught us so much about the importance of preserving our rich biodiversity, and perhaps more significant today, how cooperation, not conflict, has enabled humanity to survive and thrive. His later books left us a roadmap for the future. I was honored to know him.”
“Today the world takes pause to honor the life and legacy of E.O. Wilson – scientist, sage, & modern-day Darwin, whose love and understanding of our natural world was both spellbinding and inspirational. In 2014 – Turner Endangered Species Fund and Turner Biodiversity Divisions partnered with E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation to support the Half-Earth Initiative – aptly named – to protect half of the earth (land and sea). Turner lands, 2 million acres strong, became a fitting laboratory to provide conservation opportunities to a new generation of young scientists and policy makers who would carry forth E.O.’s beacon of hope for the planet. On Turner lands and beyond, his indomitable spirit will live on in the call of the wild.”
Dr. Richard Dawkins, University of Oxford
“Sad news of the death of Ed Wilson. Great entomologist, ecologist, greatest myrmecologist, invented sociobiology, pioneer of island biogeography, genial humanist & biophiliac.”
Dr. M. Sanjayan, Conservation International
“I was saddened to hear of Edward O. Wilson’s passing today. My thoughts are with his family and his colleagues at the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. Every conservationist and ecologist owes their career path in some way to Ed. Many of us were inspired by his groundbreaking books including “Biodiversity,” which was seminal to the field and which helped establish that word in society’s consciousness. His writing reminded us that the world is really magnificent and connected and dripping with life. Ed served with distinction as part of the Conservation International board, and we will all miss his curiosity and wisdom.”
Dr. Elizabeth Gray, Audubon Society
“Nature has lost one of its most ardent advocates today. Being a student of Professor Wilson inspired me to become a biologist and devote my career to conservation. He will be sorely missed.
E.O. Wilson’s messages reached millions, whether in the classroom, the field, or through his writings. His love of the natural world taught us to observe wildlife with razor sharp curiosity.
But most inspiring of all, he taught us that we have a deep, collective responsibility to protect our planet. E.O. Wilson’s legacy spans generations. It is up to all of us to carry his vision forward.”
Dr. Stephen Pinker, Harvard University
“Sad indeed. A great scientist and a lovely man (I’m still grateful for a letter of encouragement he wrote to me early in my career, before we were colleagues). We disagreed about some things, but it didn’t affect his generosity and willingness to engage.”
John Francis, National Geographic Society (retired)
“There’s no one like him who has the power of writing along this difficult frontier in a way that’s so careful and wonderful and rich.”
“The world lost a true hero for the planet when Dr. E.O. Wilson passed away – “the Darwin of the 20th century”, prolific writer, pioneer of groundbreaking new concepts in biology, and one of the towering intellects of our time.”
James M. Stone
“Ed Wilson was amazing. He had an enormous impact on thought and philosophy as well as science … and he was a wonderful friend. I had a long lunch with him at my office just a month ago, which I will now remember as an unforgettable privilege. His contribution to our understanding of social insect behavior and communication would have been enough to earn him enduring admiration. His seminal contributions to the field of human behavioral evolution would similarly have been sufficient by themselves. And his powerful influence on so many people’s sense of responsibility toward our planet and all of its other living occupants would alone have made him a giant. Who else can claim achievements of that magnitude in three different arenas?
While I am sad about what we have lost, I remind myself that Ed died at 92 and with a reputation as one of the best and most constructive intellects ever to grace this earth.”
Carter Roberts, World Wildlife Fund
“We’ve lost another conservation giant. Former WWF Board member and longtime WWF National Council member Dr. E.O. Wilson passed away on December 26. He was 92.
A native of Alabama, Ed started studying ants as a teenager, and went on to a career devoted to examining and cataloging the diversity of life on Earth. He published broadly and across many fields, conceiving a new field of sociobiology, the idea that genes guide our social behavior, the theory of island biogeography, and coined the term ‘biophilia’ to describe humanity’s innate affinity for the natural world.
After two Pulitzer prizes and countless honors, he ended his career focused on conserving the places that sustained the species he named and cataloged throughout his life. His 2016 book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, delivered a call to arms to set aside half the planet if we hoped to save life on Earth, including our own. It laid the groundwork for the conservation community’s current vision of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 as a step toward that vision.
Like other legendary scientists who have served on WWF’s Board, he was long past proving himself by making others feel smaller. Instead, he focused on the person in front of him, and he always made them feel both appreciated and capable of great things.
In 2018 I visited his modest office one last time to interview him for our magazine. I learned he was working on his 34th and 35th books simultaneously. He shared that once he turned 90 and those two books were done, he planned to “stop writing and go back into the woods”. “To just sit and contemplate nature seems like a luxury,” he said, “but we could all use a bit more of it in our lives.”
Ed’s distinctions and accolades are too many to count. He mentored thousands of students as a Harvard professor. His award-winning books made it possible for millions to see the genius of the natural world and its importance to our lives. But more than anything, Ed will be remembered for that rare combination of brilliance and kindness which touched and inspired us all.”
Robert Weil, Editor, W. W. Norton & Company
“I never thought I’d see the day when Ed would leave us. Having worked with him for nearly twenty years and edited thirteen of his books, I thought that this collaboration would go on forever – or, at least, that Ed would be writing until he turned 100, which is something we all thought he could do. In fact, in our last conversation, he told me, as he so often did, that he was working on a new book on eco-systems, and that I should expect it via Kathy Horton (Dr. Wilson’s assistant at Harvard University) soon.
We did, however, have a chance to go over one book project that had suddenly become quite active, this being the graphic version of Anthill. We had been certain, even in 2008 when Ed’s one novel first came out, that the book’s middle section, The Anthill Chronicles, would become a separate book, though we had no inkling that it would become a graphic novel. He was excited that there had been progress, and in two conversations with the young artist, Lillian Melcher, he pointed out that she should not neglect the role of pheromones in ant communication and pointed her to new research that had come out after his autobiographical work had first been published.
Like most things that Ed wrote about in that last, long feverish spurt of creative genius, he remained most concerned about the parlous state of our environment and worked tirelessly, with Paula Ehrlich and so many others, to use his inestimable clout to make a difference. Frightened and deeply troubled that we were losing our battle to save the world from destruction, he felt that fiction had the power to transform people’s attitudes in a way that non-fiction simply could not. In this way, he was inspired by Harper Lee, who had grown up only a few towns from his, whose To Kill a Mockingbird had changed the way that so many millions felt about racial bigotry. Perhaps, he mused, a work of fiction could create a similar call to action when it concerned the environment…Truly, all of his books in his last few decades concerned this theme, and one can even go as far back as his memoir, The Naturalist, where he speaks of “three parallel worlds” – the ants, human beings, and the threatened biosphere itself – which then, and even now, still manage to co-exist in space and time, although he warned not for long if we continue to perturb the biosphere and its epic cycles, and in the end destroy ourselves.
Indeed, everything seemed to be epic about Ed. He spoke in such a gentle, engaging voice which easily belied that epic nature of everything he wrote about. While literature itself has been the focus of millions of books written about the human world, Ed believed that it was through ants, not humans, that we could best understand the cooperative structures and the destructive violence that he felt marked our destiny. And even though he feared that man’s relentless destruction of the natural world would ineluctably bring about our own demise and that we had, in his own words, “fumbled the football,” he still did everything in his power to undo the neglect that had characterized funding of ecological and evolutionary biology at the university and research level. In this regard, he was most interested in reaching the young people, whom he hoped to engage in works like Letters to a Young Scientist and Half-Earth, among so many other hugely lyrical and plangent works. The truth is he could never give up.
I know that Ed would not want us to shed tears now. He would want us to use his sentient being to further the causes that defined him in life. Still, it’s hard not to feel a gaping maw in our consciousness now that he is gone. Those of us privileged to be in his orbit felt blanketed by his mantle of goodness. And even though the ants always warred, as they were genetically programmed to do, there was Ed Wilson, forever showing us what it meant to be human.”
The Garrison Institute
“Dr. Wilson loved life — in the sense of being alive, but also the very process of life, and how it evolved in all of its majestic and mundane complexity. Dr. Wilson, who preferred to be called Ed, was an early proponent of the idea of biodiversity, capturing the diversity of life, and he spent the latter half of his life promoting its importance. Ed advocated for the protection of half of the earth’s most biodiverse lands and oceans, as essential bio-genetic reserves and generators of life’s complexity. This idea was a key source for our Pathways to Planetary Health program.
Many other ideas from Dr. Wilson permeate what we do. His book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, made the evolutionary case for altruism. Later, writing with David Sloan Wilson, he said, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
Dr. Wilson also advanced the concept of consilience, integrating sciences, ethics, and religion — a holistic approach that is deeply familiar to us at Garrison.
In 2009, Dr. Wilson said in an interview that “the real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” Our future is uncertain, he went on, “until we answer those huge questions of philosophy that the philosophers abandoned a couple of generations ago — Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” This fall, we had the privilege of participating in a symposium with Dr. Wilson and David Attenborough that addressed some of those questions noted above. We will continue to work on the challenges he proposed.”
Enric Sala, Explorer in Residence, National Geographic
“Ed Wilson was a giant – scientifically and personally. His many scientific publications and books showed his extraordinary intellect, but he was also the epitome of “scholar and gentleman”, always generous with his time with students and colleagues. He made huge advances in biological science through his work, but most importantly, he became the most eloquent and compelling voice for the need to preserve the diversity of life on our planet.”
Stuart Bell, President, University of Alabama
“Through a relentless pursuit of new knowledge, our friend E.O. Wilson taught us to view the natural world in fresh and inspiring ways. His legendary work will continue to encourage future generations of students who are passionate about science and innovation.”
Tina Miller-Way, Dauphin Island Sea Lab
“I fear that we will not see another of his ability, breadth, passion and commitment in our lifetime. I will cherish even more my autographed copies of his books and continue to use his life as an inspiration.”
Doug Tallamy, Author
“In “Half Earth,” he distilled a lifetime of ecological knowledge into one simple tenet: Life as we know it can be sustained only if we preserve functioning ecosystems on at least half of planet Earth.
But is this possible? Nearly half of the planet is used for some form of agriculture, and 7.9 billion people and their vast network of infrastructure occupy the other half.
As I see it, the only way to realize E.O.’s lifelong wish is to learn to coexist with nature, in the same place, at the same time. It is essential to bury forever the notion that humans are here and nature is someplace else. Providing a blueprint for this radical cultural transformation has been my goal for the last 20 years, and I am honored that it melds with E.O. Wilson’s dream.”
Don Henley, Musician, Singer, Songwriter, Founder & Chairman, Walden Woods Project
“I admired Professor Wilson, not just for his extraordinary work ethic and his remarkable achievements, but for the kind, humble and generous man he was. When I first launched the Walden Woods Project, rather than being skeptical like many of the locals, he was enthusiastically supportive, graciously agreeing to contribute a chapter to the book of narratives and essays I was editing to benefit the project. When the book was published, in fall of 1991, Professor Wilson amiably joined me for a book-signing event, where we sat for several hours, autographing books and chatting with each and every person who came up to the table. His modesty and generosity of spirit left a deep impression on me. Here was this titan of science and literature, this two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, patiently signing his name to hundreds of copies of a book, which contained but a single chapter by him, with no complaint and no restlessness to depart. I will always be grateful for the time I was able to spend with him. He was a true gentleman, his mere presence inspirational.”
Mark Thoreau (family of Henry David Thoreau)
“We met in 2017 in Boston at a Walden Woods Project event to honor Dr. Wilson. Although I only met Dr. Wilson the once I wanted to share my memory of him.
Prior to the event in Boston there was an event the day before in Concord where the Thoreau exhibit at the Walden Pond visitors center was opened by Don Henley. Durning Don Henley’s speech both Dr. Wilson and I were mentioned and we each stood up and took a bow at the point we were mentioned. We were sitting at opposite ends of the front few rows. I am always aware at events in Concord that as soon as my name is mentioned people will come up to me and ask me questions/take photos, so I did not get to talk to Dr. Wilson that day.
The next evening my husband and I attended the Walden Woods Project / Thoreau Institute Global Environmental Leadership awards at Boston Symphony Hall and while we were all having drinks I introduced myself to Dr. Wilson. He told me that he had been looking for me the day before to introduce himself to me which I found very humbling. We had a nice conversation where we discussed my Thoreau connection and the UK pronunciation of THOREAU. Later in his acceptance speech he announced to the audience that he had met Mr Thoreau and that the name is pronounced thuh·row.
Dr. Wilson was a real gentleman and made us feel very special on that day. We had our photo taken together that evening, a very special memory.
Our thoughts are with Dr. Wilson’s family and friends at this difficult time.”
Ian Miller, Chief Scientist, National Geographic Society
“The team at the National Geographic Society was so saddened to hear about Ed’s passing. He was an inspiration to all of us having been incredibly generous with his time and advice over the decades.
I first learned of Ed as a child while leafing through books in my grandfather’s library. A crisp copy of “On Human Nature” was on the shelf and I can still remember reading the front cover of the book and wondering what it meant to explain our human experience through biology. I didn’t read the book at the time but my grandfather had read it and filled my head with all manner of new concepts. I can vividly recall being astounded by the idea that human and social insect societies were so similar and we could learn about our own experience by studying them. I immediately started seeing the backyard ant hills and yellow jacket nests much differently. That book, now well-worn, sits on my shelf.
Over the decades and through my academic career, even though I was trained as a geologist and paleontologist, Ed’s scientific and philosophical contributions interlaced with my own journey. Of particular note was his long essay “Creation.” I often relied on it’s invocations as I spoke to public audiences about evolution and the history of life arguing that regardless of one’s world view, we should band together to protect nature.”
Mark W. Moffett
“Through a friendship that lasted more than forty years, I came to appreciate Ed’s special combination of curiosity, obsession with getting at the truth, capacity for hard work, humbleness, and irrepressible optimism. On another day Ed appeared in my office waving a manuscript with a grin. “I had a paper rejected…it was bound to happen eventually!” His decades-long assistant Kathy Horton tiptoed in soon after to tell me he’d received rejections before. Ever the optimist, he would forget each time.”
Dr. Kadeem Gilbert
“A scientific giant. Wilson was also my academic grandfather. I feel very fortunate I had the chance to interact with him during my PhD. Despite my nerves, I was pleased to discover that he was every bit as humble and kind as many had reported; unbelievably down-to-earth.”
Robin Sandfort, PhD Candidate
“As a young student I met EO Wilson while working for Bert Hölldobler in Würzburg. He changed my view on biodiversity and the evolution of social interactions forever.”
Dr. Corrie Moreau
“As a young aspiring ant biologist about to start my PhD with Ed Wilson as one of my thesis advisors, he was not only supportive and gracious with his time, but he really encouraged me to think boldly. And maybe most importantly he taught me that science should always be fun.
Few people on the planet have ever had the impact that E.O. Wilson has had. This is not only due to his brilliant and innovative mind, but his generous personality and belief that anyone could make important contributions to biodiversity. You will be deeply missed, Ed.”
Dr. Barbara Thorne
“I am one of Ed Wilson’s students (Masters 1978; PhD 1983; post-doctoral fellowship also with Ed). News of his passing has hit me deeply; he will forever reign as one of the finest people I have ever known, and he has been immensely influential in my life for over 45 years.”
Jaclyn Foster, Alabama Middle School History Teacher of the Year
“I am so sad to learn of the passing of legendary scientist Dr. E.O. Wilson. I will never forget the time he spent with myself, my son, and my students helping them with their National Geographic Education projects for the Geo Challenge.”
Eric Keller, Animator
“Sad to hear that E.O. Wilson passed away but I’m happy that I was introduced to his writing and to the man himself 10 years ago. He led an exemplary life and he made the world a better place. I hope you guys at the half earth project have a good 2022, fight the good fight. Stay safe and raise a glass in his honor.”
Robert Dennison, AP Biology Academy Instructor, Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassador
“Meeting Ed was one of the highlights of my life. He was so friendly, kind and gracious both while attending my Darwin performance and especially during the dinner we shared afterwards. I was in awe to meet one of my intellectual heroes and he could not have been more supportive and welcoming of me. I’m thankful that Ed’s legacy will live on and continue to touch so many lives through his writings and especially through the work you and others are doing with the Half Earth project.”
Selim Tlili, Biology Instructor, Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassador
“I’m thankful that I got to ask him a question and thank him for his contributions to mankind. I’m sorry for your loss but I’m so glad that we can mourn the loss of someone who made the world a little clearer and more interesting.”
Bonnie Brewer, High School Biology Instructor, author, Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassador
“So sad to learn of this news. Biophilia has forever changed me and my mission as an educator. I grieve his loss and send thoughts to you and all who know Ed personally.”
Colleen McVeigh, Urban Conservation Education Specialist, Field Museum, Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassador
“Very sad to read the news. My condolences to you and the team at the Half-Earth Project and best wishes in your endeavors as you continue his legacy.”
Katharine M. Noonan, Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge, Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassador
“Dr. Wilson was on a mission to the very end, wasn’t he. The Half-Earth Educators and our students will be warmed by his gentle humor, sharpness of mind and dedication
to understand the living world long into the future.”
Shannon B. Olsson, PhD, National Center for Biological Sciences, India
I first met Ed in 2000 while I was a graduate student and he inspired me to pursue a career promoting and protecting biodiversity in India. Here is an excerpt from the piece I wrote on Tuesday. The rest can be read at https://nice.ncbs.res.in/2021/12/28/edward-o-wilson-1929-2021/ :
In 2000, I walked into my PhD advisor’s office at Cornell. Tom Eisner, my advisor, was there meeting with one of his very good friends. They had known each other for many years at Harvard and both had a passion for insects. That friend was Edward O. Wilson. My first thought was that he was very tall. But as I looked up (quite a bit up for me), I noticed a particular twinkle in his eye as he and Tom discussed the latest observations of their six-legged friends. Little did I know that first influential meeting would set me on a course for the rest of my life.
One of E.O. Wilson’s quotes from his book “The Naturalist” was a founding statement for the Naturalist-inspired Chemical Ecology Lab, and graced our website:
“Nature first, then theory. Or, better, Nature and theory are closely intertwined while you throw all your intellectual capital at the subject.”
That was Ed’s philosophy, and he has inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps. He inspired me to pursue a career, and a life, studying the beauty of our natural world. His example showed me how respect, humility, and a sincere awe of what Life has created on Earth can change minds, hearts, and even the planet itself. Thank you for everything you have given the world, Ed. We’ll do our best to keep moving forward, while looking down to see what mysteries lie in the leaves and grass at our feet.”
Patricia M. O’Donnell, PLA, FASLA, AICP, F. US/ICOMOS
“E.O. Wilson was a credible, strong and unceasing voice for biodiversity. His sparking of the 50/50 quest for half of the planet for the richness of species to support all life is a benchmark worldwide. It has never been truer that humanity needs nature. Thanks to this amazing man for a lifetime of leadership that will underpin all our efforts going forward for species, habitat, and bio-cultural diversity across our recovering planet in the years ahead.”
Tom Meuller, Professor California University of PA, Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassador
“I never met Dr. Wilson, but am proud to work as one of the many Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassadors. His influence and vision will live through all of us.”
“There can be no doubt that the great man’s reputation will grow a thousandfold over the coming years and he will be seen and forever remembered as the first whistleblower to awaken us to all that must be done in order to quite literally save mankind.”
Ajay Rastogi, Foundation for the Contemplation of Nature
“Professor Wilson has left his physical body. I knew of him only through his writings; and felt deeply connected to him from my mind and heart. I specially took to ‘Biophilia’ and based on this brilliant piece of wisdom, designed a practice, ‘Contemplation of Nature’. I wish to narrate this journey of over a decade briefly as a tribute to his genius and compassion for all life.
The foundation of most spiritual practices rests on: Acceptance of self and others, transcendence from barriers of mere logic and intellect into more intuitive realms of connectedness; and feeling the love and kindness flowing to all creation. It’s fascinating how ‘Biophilia’ encompasses it all.
Biophilia suggests that humans have an innate genetic imprint to connect with the natural world which implies that all creation is ‘kin’ to us. This understanding helps an individual human being to transcend from a mere ruminating/speculating self to an awareness of a larger ‘interconnected’ self. This awareness is ‘liberating’ and yields a sense of freedom from the narrow sense of self and a deeper, more trusting connection with the world at the same time. This ‘self assured’ authentic self is a more ‘autonomous’ one and enhances the sense of personal responsibility, often referred to as ‘Naturalness Orientation’. These subtle yet deep, positive feelings and emotions have the potency to create a paradigm shift from over fascination with externalities of ‘consumption for happiness’ to greater connection with our biological and agricultural roots in the course of evolution.’ The social animal that we are, greater connection with the social and the natural world in our habitats/landscapes puts us in a flow of greater commitment to the situation at hand. This pathway to greater integrity of thought and action affects every aspect of life naturally such as relationships and stewardships etc.”
Dedee Shattuck, gallerist
“The only solace I have is the breadth of work he has published. He was/is a true leader.”
Helena Freitas, Center for Functional Ecology
“Among biologists and conservationists there must be a certain sense of being orphans, but we do need to continue his extraordinary legacy.”
“As a student of evolution, a humanist, and evolutionary leader, Dr Wilson’s work had a profound influence on my ability to think about human natures, the consilience of knowledge, and our conservation of life on this planet. He also influenced my development of evolutionary leadership, since “the fate of life on our planet is in the hands of the people and countries” as he pointed out.”
Jerry Coyne, PhD
“…Ed was one of the great ones. Evolutionary biology, ant biology, and conservation biology will be poorer for his absence. And he was a terrific guy—rare for someone who was so famous. Just ask people who knew him.”
“Dr. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project gave and continues to give me hope for the world and all her species. He was a man of unique vision and insight.”
“The works E.O. Wilson initiated are far from over. For example He directly influenced our (a group of 8 authors) current ongoing research as well. So an idea for you is to start writing about those research projects and other initiatives he started or influenced. We (our group) can only write about his influence on our research, but others may cover His influence on their own ongoing projects too.
I think we can better maintain his legacy by furthering his initiatives besides remembering his past achievements.”
“Hearing of his passing was a blow, but it also left me with an even more fervent sense of mission. What he has bestowed upon humanity with the Half Earth Project is the noblest vision conceivable. Not only commensurate with the magnitude of the challenge that faces our planet, not only planet-sized (which it must be), it is completely worthy of humanity and of our precious and unique world. Because of its grandeur, it carries the sufficient energy to bring it to fruition.”
“From Biophilia to Half Earth, E.O. Wilson was a gentle giant among our species. His love and scientific curiosity for all life on Earth inspired and motivated us to try and make things better. Our work in Boston, designing green schoolyards for teaching and learning, was informed by his love of children and his use of systems thinking when considering ecosystems. We must develop pedagogies that foster new generations of environmentalists and fortunately Ed’s work will continue to inspire us all.”
“I just wanted to say that he was an inspiration to younger, not much, ecologists like me. He’s still with the Creator, as we all are. Hopefully, we can work together to insure a reasonably healthy planet for our children and grandchildren.”
“After I had given a copy of my privately published memoir to Ed, we often had conversations. He liked to work and nap in our Greenhouse room which is off a corridor I use to reach my apartment here at Brookhaven. One day, as I passed this room, I noticed Ed, in what seemed an uncomfortable position, slouched down, his long legs dangling. I tip-toed into the room, found a foot-stool and gently moved his legs, one after the other, onto the stool. He opened his eyes half way, smiled, mumbled a sleep laden “thank you” and returned to slumberland.
This little personal interlude remained our secret.
The world hasn’t lost E. O. Wilson because he recorded and acted on his many brilliant insights. And now we can learn about them and support his work through this foundation.”
“There is no easy way to measure the impact of these lives, just as we cannot measure ripples, or the confluence of many streams into a river. E.O. Wilson and Doug Tallamey emphasize the importance of keeping the faith that each individual makes a difference. Together we hold the webbed dream for biodiversity and a vital, healthy Earth. There is no greater privilege than this shared walk.”
Courtney Kimmel, Captain Planet Foundation
“He was a truly remarkable man and we will do our best to empower young people to follow in his footsteps as guardians and warriors for our planet, and all species that inhabit it.”
“I was a medical resident at Harvard back in the ‘90s and one late night I stepped into the bookstore for a brief respite before heading home. I flipped open his book On Human Nature and my pulse started to race with excitement and hunger for more. That was my introduction to E.O. Wilson and his inner world of wonder, especially his remarkable ability to see patterns and associations in seemingly unrelated things.
Since then I have enjoyed his books and heard him lecture. On one fortuitous instance at Emory University, I shared a glass of red wine discussing medicine and biodiversity. I remember with fondness his generous and kind nature.
He will forever be a source of inspiration for me and for that I am eternally grateful.”
Eric Chivian, PhD
“Along with Alex Leaf (who was chief of medicine at the Mass General Hospital and who held the most prestigious Chair in Medicine at Harvard Medical School), Ed was the most important professional mentor of my life. Both Ed and Alex were geniuses, and both had a quiet, understated humility despite their international renown, and an extraordinary quality of kindness and generosity. Both were totally accessible as teachers to all those who requested their guidance, including me when I was a lowly student, and later a first year resident at the MGH.
…He was a close, good friend. I admired him enormously, his childlike enthusiasm and curiosity about the world was infectious, and I loved him dearly, as did many, many people.”
The Passing of Courage
An Homage to E.O. Wilson and Thomas Lovejoy
by Joel Cohen
What was inevitable came far too quickly,
when for Wilson and Lovejoy, their time on earth ceased, as .
their days collapsed, falling silently on the snowcapped peaks
made tall by their own achievements.
It followed that our planet fell silent and birds fleeing skyward held their breath,
While Earth ensured that champions took their honors and final rest.
I still see them somehow, as I try to imagine their final dreams.
But I will never know those things.
So, in my own way, I blurt out “What if all their words and deeds somehow just
pass me by, like a fleeting summer shower I know so well,
as it interrupts momentarily the business of the day?
Or will it be just the opposite? That everything gets stronger, becoming future’s light,
made by its missing luminaires to whom we say a final, “Good night.”
But right now, rather than worry, think again of Wilson and Lovejoy.
How their mild-mannered tendencies remained as multiple awards leaped upon them.
Then, suddenly we knew that Mr. Darwin’s successor could be named.
While for Dr. Lovejoy, a forest home, distant and removed,
Waiting for him to go, leading, as he was a torch of his own making.
And while both often seemed to speak from a tower grand,
each was always willing to step in and lend a hand.
For those of us who remain, we may not have known their final dream,
but we can be sure of what would be their greatest fear:
that, for generations to come,
nothing wonderous of nature,
here on this earth, could be found. That is,
unless the work of half-earth could finally be assured,
nourished to succeed and promised to endure.
Since his days on the islands, since his days spent low to the ground,
As he came to know the social side of ants,
Or, in someplace totally different, with his days in the forest,
While spending nights in a wilderness camp,
To know one plant from another, and its story more precisely still.
It was nature that paraded in front of their eyes, teaching them what to see,
and how the natural world was meant to be. 2
While at Harvard, he engendered disgruntlement,
“Life cannot be studied” so the scientists demanded, “without relying on molecularity!”
But Wilson did not succumb. More inspirational he became.
Eventually, words gained ears, as did their teaching of
what species are alive, some of which you and I can see,
but by the next generation, many missing there may be.
We attended a BioBlitz; we walked forest ecologies unknown,
And next to plants and ants, we saw the birth of earth and the rise of ideas.
With eyes and hopes cast upon them, they introduced biodiversity to a global populace.
But others adopted a different view, wishing from nature amusement alone.
But you and I, we’ve been through that. Some people just take longer to learn —
that being human means taking care of one’s home. So together we shout in a unified voice,
“Look here! There are always wonders of nature for which to rejoice.”
David Rothenberg, author, musician
“…in the last three decades of his long and productive life, Wilson became one of the foremost scientists in the environmental movement, arguing forcefully in Half Earth for the radical idea that at least half of our planet should be kept free from human influence, for the exclusive use of the rest of nature’s creations. The proposal sounded radical, but in reality, Wilson’s was deeply conservative, a last-ditch attempt to stave off mass extinction, and, in the process, slow climate change.
Maybe we can pull it off, but not without cultured scientists of Wilson’s caliber. Let’s hope he remains an inspiration to the students of today, and that many more are inspired to blend science and literature with has much elegance as he has done.”
Melissa B. Wilson
“…I published a thesis on how we could use the Pacific Crest Trails and the Continental Divide Trail as wildlife corridors which was awarded the Harvard Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Thesis. I received a personal email from Wilson that read: “Dear Mel: Many thanks for the copy of “Reimagining the American West.” It’s brilliant and exceptionally thought-provoking for conservation science. As an Alabamian, the only way I could be more proud is to discover that we are cousins. Please continue your work. Warmest, Ed”
…If we are to save half the Earth for other species, may it begin with me. I, like Wilson and his dear friend Thomas Lovejoy, choose kindness. Rest in peace friends. Thank you for every word you each wrote. I will continue my work in conservation. May my kindness honor you as we work to save life on Earth.”
Emily DeVoto, PhD
“Over 30 years ago I met Ed Wilson briefly while he was working on The Ants, and then life moved me on to other things, though I have always been a naturalist at heart. Much more recently while tutoring a young relative in biology I picked up Half-Earth, and then Naturalist and The Diversity of Life, and a whole stack of his wonder-full books remain for me to work through as I consider what to do with the rest of my years. I even had his email address on an open tab in my browser, so that I might pick up the conversation directly. And then word of his passing reached me and jolted me into the realization that time does not allow the luxury of endless dreaming of a better world. Ed has pointed the way and handed all of us the baton of saving the world’s biodiversity, and we must not drop it. It’s a new year and I’m ready to get to work.”
Quentin D. Wheeler, PhD
“Ed had a profound impact on my life and career, like that of so many others. I was so fortunate early in my career to be at Cornell where Ed would come to work with fellow myrmecologist Bill Brown. Beyond his incomparable contributions to science, I have always marveled at his generous spirit. Any time that I asked him for a favor he responded without hesitation, eager to donate his time, knowledge and reputation to a worthy scientific cause. The world is poorer at his passing, but no one has made a more enduring impact.”
“Ed had a profound influence on my late husband’s (David Woodruff) career. His own path was largely determined by working with Ed as a PhD student.” (David Woodruff 1943 – 2015 was a world-renowned conservation geneticist and biogeographer who studied with Professor Wilson).
Kathi Anderson, Executive Director, Walden Woods Project
On December 26, 2021, the world lost one of its pre-eminent scientists, Dr. Edward O. Wilson. Often referred to as the modern-day Darwin, his achievements are too extensive and profound to enumerate in this short remembrance. His life’s work will forever be celebrated for spearheading efforts to preserve and protect the biodiversity of this planet. Simply put, E.O. Wilson created the groundwork for an achievable plan to save our imperiled biosphere. He proposed devoting half the surface of the Earth to nature, thereby protecting 85 percent of species from extinction. Known as the Half-Earth Project, his plan is one of the grandest conservation efforts of our time.
Through the years, The Walden Woods Project had the honor of knowing and working with Dr. Wilson — a treasured friend and supporter of our organization’s efforts to protect Walden Woods.
The prologue to his book, The Future of Life, takes the form of a poignant letter from Dr. Wilson to Henry David Thoreau that expresses Dr. Wilson’s indelible connection to Thoreau’s principles. Following are several excepts:
“Henry. I am at the site of your cabin on the edge of Walden Pond. I came because of your stature in literature and the conservation movement. I came because of all your contemporaries, you are the one I most need to understand… I am here for a purpose: to become more Thoreauvian, and with that perspective better to explain to you, and in reality to others and not least to myself, what has happened to the world we both have loved… Surely our stewardship is its only hope. We will be wise to listen carefully to the heart, then act with rational intention with all the tools we can gather and bring to bear.
Henry, my friend, thank you for putting the first element of that ethic in place.”
A kind and humble man who cared deeply about humanity and about all life on earth, Dr. Wilson possessed a unique ability to inspire people of all ages to reconnect to the natural world through knowledge and engagement. His last visit to The Walden Woods Project took place in 2019 during the second Great Walden Bioblitz. Here, he is pictured with a group of children who are captivated by his examination of an ant.
The 2019 Walden Bioblitz celebrated E.O. Wilson’s 90th birthday and brought dozens of experts and amateur naturalists together to reassess the biodiversity of Walden Woods. A similar event was held in 2009 in celebration of Dr. Wilson’s 80th birthday. The world’s first bioblitz (organized by Dr. Wilson and naturalist Peter Alden) was held in Walden Woods in 1998 and spawned the concept of bioblitzes, worldwide.
In 2017, The Walden Woods Project honored Dr. Wilson by presenting him with its 2017 Global Environmental Leadership Award before a packed audience at Boston Symphony Hall.
All of us at the Walden Woods Project will sorely miss E.O. Wilson, but we know his legacy will endure through the millions of people who carry on his work to preserve the planet’s biodiversity.