In December 2021, two of the leading advocates for conservation biology died within a day of each other. Thomas Eugene Lovejoy III died on December 25 – Christmas Day, at the age of 80, of a pancreatic tumour. Edward Osborne Wilson died the following day, at the age of 92.

Wilson – usually referred to as “E.O. Wilson,” has been called the “father of sociobiology” and the “father of biodiversity.” But it is actually Thomas Lovejoy who coined the term “biological diversity,” which became shortened to “biodiversity,” to the scientific community in 1980. Although one was from Harvard and the other from Yale, the two men were friends and often collaborators, and both were among the co-founders of the Society for Conservation Biology in 1986.

Thomas Lovejoy
Thomas Lovejoy’s lifelong interest in biology was awakened in high school. As a student at the private preparatory Millbrook School in New York State, he worked at the Trevor Zoo located on its premises. “And it was like my first three weeks and that was it. I’m going to be a biologist,” he recalled. He obtained his bachelor’s and PhD in biology at Yale University.

Lovejoy worked in the Amazon of Brazil beginning in 1965. Brazilian regulations at the time required farmers and ranchers to maintain 50% of their land as forest. Lovejoy came upon the idea of using this to investigate the impact of habitat fragmentation on biological diversity over time. He was the founder of the non-profit Amazon Biodiversity Center in 1978. The following year, he founded the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP) near Manaus.

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy recounted how he became interested in biology as a young man working at the Trevor Zoo in New York, and discusses his life work in this 2021 interview.

Lovejoy directed the conservation program of the World Wildlife Fund-US from 1973 to 1987, and from 1987 to 1998 served as the assistant secretary for environmental and external affairs for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He was the chief biodiversity advisor to the World Bank from 1999 to 2002. He held many other posts as chair or in an advisory capacity in various foundations and organizations.

Lovejoy strove to protect tropical forests through “debt for nature swaps.” He is considered one of the founders of the field of climate change biology, about which he co-edited several books (Climate Change and Biodiversity, 1992, 2005Biodiversity and Climate Change2019). He also co-founded the television series Nature.

Not surprisingly, Lovejoy received many awards, appointments, and honours. Among others, he won the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2001), the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Ecology and Conservation Biology Category (2009), was appointed conservation fellow by National Geographic and explorer at large (2009), and won the Blue Planet Prize (2012).

E.O. Wilson – the Ant Man
E.O. Wilson took an early interest in the natural world. When his distance vision and depth perception were impaired during a fishing accident at age 7, he focused on smaller creatures that he could study up close and took an early interest in ants.  At the age of 13, he was credited with discovering the first colony of imported fire ants near Mobile, Alabama. After studying at the University of Alabama and briefly at the University of Tennessee, he obtained his doctorate from and spent his career at Harvard University. He specialized in studying the social behaviour of ants, discovering about 400 species of them, and proved that they use pheromone excretions to communicate. However, Wilson did not think that the social behaviour of ants had great relevance for human societies. His tongue-in-cheek evaluation of Marxism was, “Great idea, wrong species.”

Wilson retained a keen interest in ants long after he retired in 1996.  But his career reached far beyond the study of ants and their behaviour. He was also a major advocate for conservation in general. He founded the Half-Earth Project to set aside half of the land and sea to preserve the bulk of biodiversity. Among the many books that Wilson authored or co-authored are The Theory of Island Biography (1967), The Insect Societies (1971), Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975, 2000), On Human Nature (1978), Biophilia (1984, 1986, 2021), The Ants (1990), The Diversity of Life (1992), Consilience (1998), The Future of Life (2001), The Creation: an Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006), The Superorganism: the Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies (2009), The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), The Meaning of Human Existence (2014), and Half-Earth (2016).

E.O. Wilson and PIC’s Honorary Patron Dr. Jane Goodall shared what they’ve learned over their careers about achieving global diversity conservation in this 2019 interview.

The controversy around E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology
Wilson was a synthesizer of ideas from different fields of study. His book The Insect Societies (1971) examined the biological basis of social behaviour in different organisms and was well-received. However, a subsequent book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), provoked a storm of controversy.  In the 27th and final chapter of that book, Wilson suggested that human nature was shaped by evolution and that humans, like other animals, have instincts pertaining to bodily functions and reproduction.

Perhaps surprisingly, the controversy that erupted over the book did not come primarily from the religious right. (Years later, with his 2006 book The Creation, written in the form of letters to an imaginary pastor, Wilson called upon the Evangelicals and other conservative religious groups to help save the natural world. He believed that we would not save life on Earth unless science and religion could work together.)

It was the political Left that was infuriated by Wilson’s work. His argument that human behaviour was shaped by evolution contradicted their dogma that the human mind is a blank slate, that everything we do is based on contingency, and that our personalities are shaped only by history and our own experiences. In their view, raising the spectre of a biological basis for human behaviour was a justification for war, sexism, and racism.

In a telephone interview with Alice Dreger conducted in 2009, Wilson says that he thinks he is the only scientist in modern times who was physically attacked for an idea. That attack occurred during a 1978 session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when Wilson was about to give a presentation. Protesters rushed onto the stage and one woman poured a pitcher of water over his head as other protesters chanted “You’re all wet.” Wilson dried himself off with the proffered paper towels, there were calls for calm, and he was able to give his talk. In the interview with Dreger, Wilson says that “we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. That’s a huge problem!” He believed that our predispositions or instincts inherited from our prehistoric past could become dangerous in our modern techno-scientific society. He therefore sought, through biology and the social sciences, to study human nature as it actually is in order to find ways to pull us through. But for minds trapped in ideology, his ideas were unacceptable.

In 1978, Wilson responded to his detractors with another book, On Human Nature, which examined the scientific arguments for the role of biology in human culture, and which won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1979.

PIC’s work is also controversial – but that’s why we must carry on
Surely those of us in the population field can empathize with Wilson’s efforts to swim against the politically correct current! Just as the far Left denies the existence of a human nature shaped by evolution, it denies that the world can be overpopulated. It is not that there are too many people, it argues, it is that capitalism has resulted in an unfair distribution of resources. The 20th century saw a tremendous capacity to increase the human food supply through technological and agricultural developments. The human population quadrupled during that century (from ~1.5 to ~6 billion) at the expense of other life forms and environmental sustainability. We might say that this supports the view that humans, just like other organisms, increase their numbers in accordance with the available food supply. Our detractors say that makes us racist (too many black and brown babies), sexist (blaming poor women for our own overconsumption), and neo-colonialists.

But whether some accept it or not, the fact remains that the Earth on which our lives depend is ailing under the weight of our numbers, now approaching 8 billion. As our patron Sir David Attenborough has said, “Human beings have overrun the world.” It’s thanks to your support that PIC continues its efforts to preserve life on Earth, human and otherwise, by campaigning for a sustainable human population through equality for women and girls, universal access to contraception, and education.


Madeline Weld, Ph.D.

President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668
Email: [email protected]