Ants

 

(This 1000th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 23, 2010.)

 

Wilson's Novel

 

The remarkable E. O. Wilson has done it again.

 

Most readers of this column will know Wilson as one of this nation's outstanding biologists and naturalists. The author of two dozen books whose subjects range from his specialty, ants, to concerns about population biology, the biology of societies, superorganisms and the diversity of life, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction and many scientific prizes, including the U. S. Medal of Science.

 

Wilson was even the center of two major academic controversies. In the face of the assault on university biology by people like James Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix, he maintained the position that study of life big enough to see without a microscope is equal in importance to laboratory study of the near infinitesimal. (While the Wilson-Watson battle was fought out at Harvard, aspects of the conflict even had its effect on the University at Buffalo, where biology was for a time divided by this controversy into two departments.)

 

And Wilson's 1975 book, Sociobiology, defined this subject as "the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization," that is, human society. This raised a storm of criticism from conservative biologists, who questioned his application of observations about non-human organisms to humans.

 

Both arguments have largely settled down today with Wilson if not the winner of both, at least earning a draw.

 

Although he retired from Harvard several years ago, Wilson continues to contribute to debates that confront all of society. In 2006 he wrote The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, a book directed to the conservative religious community. In it he makes the case that the religious right should also be concerned with conservation. Even though this book was written by a Southerner - Wilson was brought up in southern Alabama - sadly, it did not have the impact it deserved.

 

Now Wilson has turned his talents to fiction and his new book, Anthill (Norton), is quite remarkable for it includes within a coming of age story of a Southern boy a recounting of battles between ant colonies.

 

Can Wilson's writing stand up as quality fiction? A fair response to this question is suggested by the recent inclusion of much of his section on the ant battles in The New Yorker magazine.

 

I enjoyed reading this semi-autobiographical book very much and recommend it to anyone interested in natural history. Although much of my enjoyment came from reading about the ant wars, my most personal satisfaction derived from Wilson's depiction of the contrasting Southern attitudes of his protagonist's parents, his wealthy uncle and his uncle's developer friends, and even from the deeply committed preacher and the violent back-woods redneck who play unexpected roles in the book's final exciting confrontation. I saw in these portrayals many of the attitudes, both good and bad, that I observe in my own Alabama relatives and their associates.

 

Yes, there is some case-making in the final pages of Anthill, but I found in this, evidence of a New South that is changing in its attitudes in very positive ways. I am, in fact, sending a copy of this book to my favorite Southerner, my wife's brother, in hope that he will enjoy it as much as I did. I doubt, however, that it will make him any more accepting of the armadillos that have been tearing up his garden.

 

As if that isn't enough about ants, Mark Moffett, one of Wilson's former students, now a highly regarded explorer, photographer and research associate of the Smithsonian Institution, has written Adventures among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions (U California Press). Despite its title, Moffett's book is a non-fiction account of the author's encounters with six different types of ants in various settings around the world. These may be related but they are far from the tiny pavement ants that build little sand piles in the cracks of sidewalks.

 

What I found compelling about this book is the author's penetrating observations. Even though he is mostly talking about insects that appear in huge swarms, he can add about smaller colonies, "Just as with students in a small classroom, I can quickly identify the slackers and the over-achievers." -- <a href=".."><i>Gerry Rising</i></a>