The natural world loses two of its biggest advocates | Science

This weekend saw the deaths of two of the world’s strongest advocates of protecting the world’s flora and fauna.

Edward O. Wilson, 92, an ant researcher at Harvard University who also introduced controversial theories about how societies evolve and function, became a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and, later in life, a powerful conservation advocate, died on 26 December of complications from puncturing a lung. He was seen by many as the greatest naturalist of his generation and a possible heir to Charles Darwin.

The day before, Thomas Lovejoy, the conservationist who coined the term “biological diversity,” drew attention to biodiversity loss in the Amazon, and helped rally the political will to protect species and habitats, died of cancer at age 80. Though not as widely known as Wilson, Lovejoy was an explorer at large at the National Geographic Society—an “unyielding champion for our planet” and “a consummate connector,” as Jill Tiefenthaler, the society’s CEO, put it in a statement.

Wilson and Lovejoy “were really sort of bookends of the conservation movement,” says Daniel Simberloff, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a former student of Wilson. Similar in their drive to preserve biodiversity—both won the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement—they differed in their approach, Simberloff says: Wilson was a man of ideas, whereas Lovejoy was “brilliant in getting things done.”

Wilson and Lovejoy were part of a cadre of scientists, now dwindling, who led and shaped biodiversity conservation and research priorities during the second half of the 20th century. With their deaths, “I feel like I’m the last of the Mohicans,” says population biologist and Stanford University professor emeritus Paul Ehrlich, 89, who belonged to that group as well.

“I’m devastated by the loss of these two big giants in the field and also by the loss of two close friends,” says Stuart Pimm, a conservation scientist at Duke University who runs a nonprofit organization called Saving Nature of which Wilson and Lovejoy were both board members. The two men “shared a common passion about what we now call biodiversity,” Pimm says. “Tom was the first person to use ‘biological diversity,’ but Ed, through his extraordinary writing talent, was able to make it a household word.”

Wilson and Lovejoy had many things in common. Both loved to be outdoors, dressed in khakis and sun hats. (Lovejoy was also well known for his bowties, and Wilson for his field vest full of pockets.) Both began as biologists dedicated to understanding their favorite organisms: birds in Lovejoy’s case and ants in Wilson’s. Both eventually embarked on a much bigger mission: convincing the world of the importance of saving species. “They had the ability to see small things, but also see the global view,” says Elizabeth Hadly, a global change biologist at Stanford.

Wilson made an early mark in evolutionary biology with a landmark book co-authored with Princeton University mathematical ecologist Robert MacArthur in 1967, The Theory of Island Biogeography. In it, they posited that the amount of biodiversity on an island depends on the rates at which new species arrive and existing ones go extinct, and that extinction rates are partly determined by the size of the island. The theory spurred a new field and inspired ideas in geology, ecology, and conservation biology, Simberloff says.

Thomas Lovejoy holding a macaw
A love of birds inspired Thomas Lovejoy to study biodiversity loss in the Amazon and become one of the world’s leading conservationists. He died on 25 December.Dylan Coulter/National Geographic

In the 1970s, Wilson’s analyses of the highly complex relationships in ant colonies led him to found another field: sociobiology, the study of the ecology and evolution of societies—not just in ants but in other animals and humans. “All hell broke loose,” Simberloff says, because it implied that genetics played an important role in human behavior, an unpopular notion at the time. But Wilson’s ideas inspired other researchers, and although still somewhat controversial, sociobiology today “is a major thrust of both evolution and behavioral ecology,” Simberloff says. Wilson also vigorously defended organismal biology against molecular biologists such as DNA pioneer James Watson, who considered the likes of Wilson mere stamp collectors.

Whereas Wilson was a student of human behavior, Lovejoy “was more a manipulator of human behavior,” Ehrlich says. In the 1970s, while studying birds in the Amazon, he used his considerable charisma to turn deforestation into a research opportunity by convincing landowners to preserve plots of undisturbed forest of different sizes and shapes and at various distances from each other, allowing biologists to study their species compositions and population densities. “He was very adroit at getting people behind certain projects,” Simberloff says.   

The work demonstrated that more isolated habitats were more likely to lose biodiversity and that the smallest ones lost the most species, providing support for Wilson’s and MacArthur’s views. It drove home the importance of trying to preserve large areas and connecting remaining patches of habitat with natural corridors, a widely advocated strategy today.

Lovejoy used his charm in politics as well. He convinced groups of U.S. senators to visit his plots in the Amazon to help them understand the importance of thinking globally about conservation—a “consummate diplomat trying to make things happen politically,” Pimm says. Lovejoy also helped transform the World Wildlife Fund, then a small group, into the international conservation giant it is today, and he got a public television series called Nature off the ground.  His 1980 estimate of global extinction rates—a first—helped the world recognize how fast species were disappearing.

Wilson became a conservation advocate later in his career. In the early 1980s, “I was finally tipped into active engagement by my friend Peter Raven,” a botanist who led the Missouri Botanical Garden from 1971 to 2010, Wilson wrote in his memoir, Naturalist. Raven had pleaded with academic researchers to get involved in conservation, and one day Wilson “crossed the line” and called Raven to say he was going to do everything in his power to help. Wilson, Raven, Lovejoy, Ehrlich, and a few others became known as the “rainforest mafia.” “We were the first generation to think that there was really any problem” with species loss, Raven says.

When the U.S. National Academy of Sciences was charged with evaluating species extinctions, Raven asked Wilson to organize an information-gathering symposium and edit the final report, which came out in 1988. Called simply Biodiversity, the report took Lovejoy’s “biological diversity,” which referred just to species, and turned it into a catchier phrase that also encompassed ecology and the global environment, Raven explains. The report called the accelerating loss of species the world’s most urgent problem and made Wilson’s name almost synonymous with biodiversity.

Whereas Lovejoy communicated best with a smile and a pat on the back or by writing editorials for The New York Times, Wilson quietly sat in his office churning out a series of influential books and papers. “He was a beautiful writer who inspired millions of people worldwide,” Raven says. Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, published in 2017, called for the protection of half of Earth’s water and land. Spearheaded by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, the call seemed unrealistic to many but nonetheless “motivated people,” Hadly says. Just five years later, some policymakers and governments are seriously discussing how to implement a “30 by 30” goal—setting aside 30% of Earth’s land and water for nature by 2030.

Photos shared on social media over the past few days have captured another side of Wilson and Lovejoy: as scientists surrounded by students. Both had reputations of being gracious and generous with their time. “They were totally dedicated to mentoring young people, and that will be a substantial legacy,” Pimm says.

Corrie Moreau, now an evolutionary biologist specializing in ants at Cornell University, remembers how thrilled she was when she got a holiday card from Wilson before she had even officially been accepted as a graduate student at Harvard. As a fellow lover of ants, she dreamed of working with Wilson but had no idea whether that would be possible because he was already a professor emeritus. Wilson agreed to become her adviser anyway. “I hope you will come; we need someone with your enthusiasm to reinvigorate ant biology,” he wrote.

Once at Harvard, Moreau marveled at Wilson’s ability to recall details about obscure ant species and his patience in listening to her thesis ideas. Once, he even kept a famous visitor waiting while finishing up a discussion with her: actor Harrison Ford, who had come to talk about conservation. Moreau also admired Wilson’s optimism: “He really believed that people wanted to protect the natural world and that humanity had the capacity to do the right thing.”

Lovejoy and Wilson will both be remembered for “a lifelong love of science, a lifelong love of nature and an extraordinary ability to describe and translate it for the rest of the world,” Hadly says.

“They will leave very big gaps,” Pimm says.