Friday, May 7, 2010

Edward O. Wilson uses a boy’s love of ants to tell an important environmental story.

I read a review of Edward O. Wilson’s novel about a boy’s naturalist obsession, and I thought it sounded like fun. I never dreamed there was as much to learn about ants, but every sentence dedicated to explaining their behavior was wonderful for someone as uninformed about the natural world as I am!


Anthill (378 pages, Norton, $24.95) is Edward O. Wilson’s first novel. Wilson is an emeritus biologist at Harvard, and he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his non-fiction accounts of animal behavior as affected by the environment. I do not know his scientific writings, but judging by the power and elegance of this novel, I am sure they are well-written and engaging.
This novel is well-written and engaging too, and as a coming of age novel, with its personal intensities and its nearly melodramatic plot devices, one might offer little more than polite respect. But in the middle of the narrative, and for what must be a third of this nearly four hundred page novel, Wilson tells the account of an anthill near Clayville Alabama, where the hero, Raphael Semmes Cody is growing up.

We first see Cody hanging back on a hunting adventure and expressing a deep love for the natural world. He cannot imagine shooting at a living creature. Instead, we learn, he spends hours in the wilderness around Lake Nokobee, and he learns to love every creature that resides.

He has a special fascination for the ants, which seem unlike ants he has seen anywhere else. When later on, after a series of surprises in his private life, he goes off to study entomology at Florida State University, he learns that he has discovered a unique species, and his mentors there encourage him to follow their life cycle in his undergraduate Honors Thesis.

That thesis is what comprises the middle chapters of the book, and in them we learn a lot about the behavior of ants, their formation of colonies, the ways in which colonies compete with one another, and how super colonies are created, and how they die. It is hard for me to describe these chapters in a way that makes them sound interesting, but I assure you that they are. Wilson, or young Raff Cody in his youthful enthusiasm, makes a lot of slightly heavy-handed suggestions about how like human behavior this ant competition really is. Battles for survival, communal purposes, and relative size of different colonies all work into this plan. It does not really tell us too much about human interaction—the connections are too facile for it to succeed in that way—but it does help us to understand more about the ant behavior. And every detail of the lives of the differently coded individuals in the ant colony is fascinating. From the queen, who can live for over twenty years, to the nurses, the workers, the drones: every ant has a purpose and carries out that purpose for the good of the whole.

Later when Raff goes on to Harvard Law School—he has decided that law will enable him to further his environmental causes even more effectively than a Ph.D. would—Wilson attempts to describe Harvard as an anthill. Wisely, he drops this after a few cogent suggestions. The analogy would be too hard to sustain, and Raff’s story veers off in ways that the ant associations would be hard to maintain.

Nevertheless, Raff’s Harvard experience sets him up in a position to take on some of the anti-environmental forces back home, but instead of fighting them, he decides to join them. He becomes the corporate lawyer for the big developer who was his nemesis earlier and who is dead set on developing the area near the lake that Raff loves so much.

The last section of this novel plays out this drama, as Raff makes friends among environmentalists and tries to remain true to himself as he works for the developer. This all comes to a head in surprising ways. For one thing, a kind of bible-thumping religious maniac gets involved—he threatens Raff as a “liberal-minded atheist,” and he argues that the Bible supports the notion of development. This is too complicated an argument to get into here, but this fundamentalist threatens Raff and makes him think again about what he is trying to do.

The last section of the novel goes by a little too quickly—Raff makes friends and rises in the community, but it is hard for us to get a sense of that. But still the last section is compelling in its way, and it truly makes us realize how high the stakes are when an environmentalist confronts development and the hopes for the profits of lucrative real estate deals.

I enjoyed this novel, and I am happy to recommend it. I do so more for the ant colony than anything else, but Wilson tells a good story about the young environmentalist too.

E. O. Wilson

Buy this book at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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