Anthill: E. O. Wilson

Posted on May 7, 2010

There are very few people, especially in the modern era, that have radically changed the world’s viewpoints about our relationship with nature. Aldo Leopold comes to mind, but in my opinion, E. O. Wilson is the heavyweight champ. He is known for two major things. First, his prodigious and encyclopaedic study of the ant kingdom. Second, his publishing of the book Sociobiology, a book which describes the ant like relationships in all animals, including ourselves. Controversial at times, he is no doubt the best kind of scientist, one who mixes youthful enthusiasm with diligent study.

Up until this point, he has worked exclusively in the non-fiction realm. With Anthill, he forays into the murky depths of fiction. E. O. Wilson tells us many stories in his book. Overall, the book follows Raff (short for Raphael) growing up in Clayville, Alabama. Raff forms a relationship with a tract of land surrounding the Nokobee lake, a place that he vows, quite literally, to protect with his life. He is a product of another story, the battle between the Old South and the New South, the rich and the poor, the principled and the differently principled; from an early age he learns valuable lessons about compromise that will affect his choices.

The final story, and my favorite by far, takes up a fifth of the book. Wilson tells the story of the anthills in one portion of the Nokobee tract from the point of view of the ants. Different species battle it out and it is just plain wonderful. Seriously, it’s 75 pages of ants ripping each other to pieces. If you know nothing about ants, this chapter will blow your mind. If you know something about ants, it will still blow your mind.

This review may be colored, because I count E. O. Wilson as one of my personal heroes. This is not the best piece of fiction in the world. For example he uses the word akimbo twice in the book. Wilson, by his own admission, struggled with the dialogue; and it sometimes sounds like something out of “Leave it to Beaver”. What is important about this book is its messages. It offers a reasonable means of achieving compromise in the battle between conservation and expansion. Many times, when the professor at FSU is talking to young Raff, there is no doubt that E. O. Wilson is talking to every young person across the world who loves animals. Consider this passage:

What is the best way to learn a frog? Not by reading. Not by seeing a picture or even by holding one in your hand. To learn a frog in a full and lasting manner, you must find one where it lives in nature, watch it, listen to it if it is calling. Study its habitat, Raff, take note of where it has chosen to sit, stalk it, capture it, put it in a jar, and keep it a little while. Study it there, release it next to the edge of the water where you found it, watch it kick away and submerge out of sight. The concept of frog will be with you forever if you follow this kind of education.

From anyone else, that would have seemed trite. But, when E. O. Wilson is telling you how to do science, pay attention. This is a must read for anyone, at any age, who enjoys the natural world, is truly interested in science or who is having trouble deciding what to do with their life. On a more personal note, if you were ever a young lad who trapped bugs or fired a BB gun, this will speak to you on a level that nothing ever will. Once again Wilson draws powerful connections between the teeming world underneath our feet and battles we fight from day to day.



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