The Homer of the Ants

Anthill

by E.O. Wilson
Norton, 378 pp., $24.95
atwood_1-040810.jpg
Mark W. Moffett/Minden Pictures
Leafcutter ants on Barro Colorado Island, Panama; photograph by Mark Moffett from his book Adventures Among Ants, which will be published by University of California Press in May. For more images, see the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com.

Anthill is E.O. Wilson’s first work of fiction. It contains what its title promises it will contain: an anthill, embedded at its core. Not a metaphorical anthill, a real anthill, filled to the brim with—well, ants. And thereby hangs its tale.

People have long been fascinated by the similarities between ants and human societies. Though there are no ant symphony orchestras, secret police, or schools of philosophy, both ants and men conduct wars, divide into specialized castes of workers, build cities, maintain infant nurseries and cemeteries, take slaves, practice agriculture, and indulge in occasional cannibalism, though ant societies are more energetic, altruistic, and efficient than human ones.

The mirroring makes us nervous: Are we not enough like ants or are we too much like them? Our ambivalence shows: being compared to an ant can be either a compliment or an insult. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise,” exhorts the Book of Proverbs, suggesting that we should emulate the ant’s industry; to which the aesthete Max Beerbohm riposted, “The ant sets an example to us all, but it is not a good one.” Many generations of children were fed Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant—he feckless and fiddling, she drudging away at the storing of winter food; he begging for a handout when the chill arrives, she shutting the door Scroogily in his face. John Wyndham, in his 1956 novella, “Consider Her Ways,” postulates an all-female society that forms when men are wiped out by disease. Huge, stupid “Mothers” produce large batches of cloned girl babies, small fretful nurses tend them, Amazonian workers do the manual labor, a caste of intellectuals act as planners. As the time-traveling heroine from our own age remarks, the system lacks romance: but it is a more peaceful one than anything we see around us.

It is also a more peaceful one than anything the ants themselves come up with. In Greek myth, the Myrmidons were a valiant warrior tribe led by Achilles, the hero of the Iliad. Their name was cognate with the words for “ant” and “ant nest,” and they were valued especially for their ferocity and loyalty, for an ant will defend her nest to the death. There is, however, something mindless and robotic about such behavior, and it’s no coincidence that many of the warrior aliens and machines in science fiction films have lifted features from the ants. (The shininess, the blank eyes, the swarming, the sharp metallic-looking mandibles…) In T.H. White’s 1938 Arthurian fantasy, The Sword in the Stone, ants are a metaphor for fascist dictatorships, repeating a monotonous bonding slogan —“Mammy-mammy-mammy”—and broadcasting religio-political agitprop when disturbed, under a sign …

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