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Wilson named distinguished professor

The State University of New York Board of Trustees last week appointed evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson to a distinguished professorship.

Wilson, author of Darwin’s Cathedral, initiated the multidisciplinary Evolutionary Studies, or EvoS, program at Binghamton. He holds a primary appointment in biological sciences with a joint appointment in anthropology.

Very few people attain the rank of distinguished professor. Including Wilson, just 20 Binghamton faculty members and professors emeritus now hold the title, which is awarded to individuals who have achieved national or international prominence and a distinguished reputation in their field.

In her letter nominating him for the honor, President Lois B. DeFleur noted that Wilson is a prolific and innovative scientist. He has published two influential books and more than 60 articles, book chapters and reviews just in the past several years.

“His creativity and insight in the study of evolutionary biology have received national and international critical acclaim,” she said last week. “He is also an exceptional teacher. He gives generously of his time and talent to help students design ambitious projects. This student-centered emphasis has helped several of his students achieve success with their independent research programs.”

Wilson, a former Guggenheim fellow, is the recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and a member of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society’s editorial board.

He believes evolution must be used to understand biology. And there’s no reason to exempt humans from that study, Wilson said.

“Evolution is really as important as gravity in interpreting the world around us,” he said.

This unifying premise is what allows biologists to study a diversity of organisms and subjects, Wilson added. That common language enables them to relate to their colleagues as well as larger audiences.

“That’s how I can write a book on religion, co-edit a book on literature and still study tadpoles,” he said.

Wilson holds a doctorate from Michigan State University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester. Before joining Binghamton’s faculty in 1988, he taught at the Kellogg Biological Station and Department of Zoology at Michigan State.

He said his work naturally includes people from numerous other disciplines, but that most researchers in his field find themselves rather isolated. Before coming to Binghamton, his network was widely distributed. Now, he frequently collaborates with colleagues on campus.

“This has been the perfect size university for getting an endeavor like EvoS started,” he said. “It absolutely takes my research to different places. As soon as different minds get involved, they go in directions I never would have anticipated.”

A recent project he worked on with undergraduate Matt Gervais is a perfect example of that phenomenon, he said. The research, which addressed the role of laughter in early human evolution, has received international attention.

Wilson said he also values the relationships he has forged with faculty members such as Ralph Miller and Stephen Lisman in psychology as well as Patrick Regan in political science. “Many of my projects could never be done without these collaborations,” he said.

Wilson said programs such as EvoS can save people from overspecialization and help the University become a single intellectual community. The program welcomes undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members with no training in biological sciences, he said.

Wilson remembers being struck as an undergraduate by how behaviors usually associated with humans, such as altruism, were being studied in nonhuman organisms. He began to use evolution to think about both humans and nonhumans while still in graduate school.

These days, his writing, teaching and research enjoy what he calls a symbiotic relationship.

His next book, How to be a Good Evolutionist, draws on a course he teaches titled Evolution for Everyone.

Wilson considers it his mission to help others see the value of evolution as a tool for understanding the world and solving problems. Now that he knows he can deliver that message in the space of a semester, he wants to try doing it in the book.

“Half the people in America don’t believe in evolution,” he said, “and the other half don’t use it.”

Wilson finished the book in nine months. But he shrugs when asked how he manages to be so prolific. “If you see great value to what you’re doing,” he said, “you look forward to every day.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08