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Biologist E.O. Wilson, who influenced how people see evolution and nature, dies at 92

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The prominent biologist E.O. Wilson died yesterday. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, he shaped modern thinking on evolution and the environment.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: E.O. Wilson started out small and ended up about as big as you can get. As a boy growing up in Alabama, he first discovered his love of nature, particularly insects.

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E O WILSON: I had a bug period - and I think most kids do - and I just never grew out of it.

BRUMFIEL: That was Wilson speaking to Public Radio's Science Friday back in 2012. There was one bug that truly captured his imagination - ants. Individually they were so weak, but collectively they had such power. Wilson wanted to know how the forces of evolution could have created such wonderful little insects, and ants became the focus of much of his work.

CORRIE MOREAU: He helped break through this idea of pheromone communication, that they use these chemical trails to share information.

BRUMFIEL: Corrie Moreau is a professor of entomology at Cornell University and a former graduate student of Wilson's. She remembers him as kind and also curious.

MOREAU: He had this ability to synthesize, you know, what would seem as disparate fields or disparate, you know, thoughts in ways that I just found so fascinating.

BRUMFIEL: He was grasping for answers about why animals like ants cooperated. But it turned out it wasn't just about ants. It was about people and their desire to be selfish but also be part of a group.

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WILSON: We'll never get over that conflicted nature.

BRUMFIEL: It was those explorations of the human experience that really landed with the public. Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes for books geared towards a general audience, though his later scientific work sometimes landed with a thud, like a 2010 paper which claimed some aspects of modern evolutionary theory were wrong. Over 100 scientists penned a letter rejecting his ideas. Moreau said Wilson didn't mind.

MOREAU: Ed was not afraid of controversy. He absolutely loved to stir the pot, but it always came from a place where he wanted to better understand things.

BRUMFIEL: Towards the end of his life, he devoted himself to environmental causes, ultimately lobbying the world's governments to set aside half the Earth as wilderness. In the end, he wanted not to deny humanity's animal nature but to understand it, to make humans better animals.

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WILSON: We want to be fractious and quarrelsome and uncertain and dithering, but we just want to do it with more wisdom and making better decisions.

BRUMFIEL: E.O. Wilson died on Sunday. He was 92. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.