48 pages 1 hour read

Edward O. Wilson

Letters to a Young Scientist

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


Letters to a Young Scientist is a 2013 nonfiction book by American biologist Edward O. Wilson (1929-2021). Wilson is among the most influential evolutionary biologists and entomologists of the 20th century. He published dozens of books about his discoveries, about the field of biology in general, and about the importance of preserving biodiversity on Earth. His work spanned several genres, from textbooks, to nonfiction, to essays, to fiction, to autobiography. He won two Pulitzer Prizes: one for On Human Nature (1979), and one for The Ants (1990). The title and premise of Letters to a Young Scientist is inspired by poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous book, Letters to a Young Poet. In a series of letters to future scientists, Wilson provides his most important pieces of advice about the qualities that make a great scientist, the realities of the scientific community, and the value of biodiversity.

This guide uses the 2013 e-book from Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Content Warning: This guide discusses eugenics and scientific racism. 


Wilson starts by assuring young readers that they have made the correct choice by going into the sciences, as the world badly needs scientists to help solve major problems like climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Scientific fields are advancing very quickly, even compared to a few decades or centuries ago. The rise of the internet has made it significantly easier for biologists to catalog the world’s species, for instance. Estimates for how many species exist on Earth are going up all the time. Wilson had a childhood fascination with entomology (the study of insects) that also extended to an interest in snakes. He was a poor high school student, but he filled in the gaps in his education when he attended the University of Alabama and then Harvard. He encourages readers to pursue their passion for science with dedication and hard work.

Many young people, Wilson notes, worry that they cannot do well in science because they have poor mathematics skills. While it is important to have a grounding in mathematics, it is perfectly possible to have a very successful career in the sciences without any aptitude for math. It is common for scientists to collaborate with mathematicians when conducting their research. After all, while some scientists (like Newton) relied heavily on advanced mathematics in their discoveries, others (like Darwin) relied on observation of their environment, with mathematics being secondary. Aspiring scientists should aim to study in a field that is not very popular. This way, they will be more likely to make major discoveries. Wilson himself had this experience when he chose to study ants, quickly becoming one of the world’s only experts on ants and publishing academic research when he was still a teenaged undergraduate. 

Wilson views science as the only way for humans to acquire factual knowledge about the world. It is the highest calling, though he concedes that the humanities have their uses. To illustrate the primacy of science, Wilson discusses Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which is so well-supported by evidence that it can essentially be considered a fact about the world. He then outlines important traits for scientists. Though religious people can do good science, they must separate their religious beliefs from their scientific work, as the two are not compatible. It is important for scientists to be creative in their approach to their work. It is also crucial for them to be able to remain steady in the face of criticism; Wilson’s work has faced quite a lot of criticism. He sees scientists as being fundamentally similar to poets in their propensity to dream and their desire to tell stories. When young scientists start their work, they will need enduring passion, but also a degree of patience. Exceptionally high intelligence is not crucial for a successful scientific career. Instead, patience and informal experiments can lead to unexpected discoveries. Scientists should not take vacations; their dedication to their work should be near-total.

Certain personality traits are particularly important for scientists. Introversion, distrust of authority, and a strong personal drive are a few examples. Single-minded dedication to a single subject, like Wilson’s lifelong interest in entomology, is also a must. Scientists are explorers of the world, similar to the first people who scaled Mount Everest. Mentors can help young scientists find their place in the scientific community. Wilson’s mentor, William L. Brown, had a particularly big impact on his early career because he believed in Wilson’s abilities to contribute meaningfully to science. Wilson describes the struggle of attempting to make a major discovery, only to be unsuccessful. Wilson is emphatic in his argument that scientific discoveries are more important to the world than any research in fields like history, as they contribute new information to the world.

Wilson became a mentor to Corrie Saux Moreau, an aspiring entomologist. He admired her perseverance and her desire to complete difficult but important work. He holds up Moreau as an example of the drive needed to succeed in science. To be sure of making discoveries, scientists must have a broad and thorough knowledge of their subject. Wilson’s deep knowledge of ant species, for instance, helped him develop the field of island biogeography and helped him study the impacts of invasive species. Science functions as a universal language in a way that Wilson does not think other disciplines (like the humanities) can do. If there existed on another planet such a thing as a society of giant termites with human-level intelligence, it would be possible for humans and termites to communicate through their shared scientific understanding, even if their cultures could not be more different. This scientific understanding could help the species overcome mutual distrust.

Biology is a field full of new discoveries because diverse life exists even in the most inhospitable areas of Earth. This means that there is a great deal for young scientists to explore. A lot of Wilson’s research has focused on insect pheromones, which he was able to explore by developing carefully thought out hypotheses and then testing them. On a larger scale, biological theories can help explain the migration of species across the globe and their development over time. Some of the theories that were meaningful to Wilson in his early career have now been debunked. Wilson was able to make some of his discoveries in biology, including a breakthrough in island biogeography, by building on existing work by other scientists; young people can do the same. Wilson closes his book by briefly expounding on the importance of ethics in science, the need to correctly cite sources and avoid plagiarism, and the value of scientific cooperation.