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The Homer of the Ants

Anthill

by E.O. Wilson
Norton, 378 pp., $24.95
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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.

1.

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 that reads “EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY.” More recently, the former French prime minister Édith Cresson’s 1991 remark about the Japanese and their trade practices—“yellow ants trying to take over the world”—was not intended as praise.

On some level the ants frighten us, as well they might. We humans would die without their soil-tilling activities, so critical to the continued existence of plant life; but what if they get out of control? Too few ants would be a disaster, but so would too many. How can we ensure that we will always have just the right proportion of ants?

In case you think this is a merely academic question, take a look at daring eco-adventurer Mark Moffett’s spectacular new ant book, Adventures Among Ants,1 which covers many varieties of ants—the army ants of Africa, the canopy forest weavers, the Amazon slavemakers, the leafcutters with their fungus gardens. Most ominously, Moffett describes the enormous war now being waged by the Argentine ants against all other ants and every other mini-bioform. The Argentine ants are not a pest in Argentina itself, but thanks to their hitchhiking propensities, they’ve now spread to places like California, Hawaii, and South Africa where they have no serious competitors. They’re forming huge supercolonies, while spreading their farmed aphids all over everything, including, very possibly, your rose bushes. This monoculture of ants is bad news.

Which brings us to Anthill. It’s no great surprise to learn that Moffett’s thesis supervisor was none other than Edward O. Wilson. Wilson is by now the grand old man of ants, having studied them intensively and written eloquently about them for over forty years. Anthill, though his first novel, is by no means his first book: at last count he’d logged over twenty-two of them, many of which have been groundbreaking.

Ants in themselves might not have raised many eyebrows outside the entomological world, but in the mid-Seventies Wilson lobbed what amounted to a stink bomb into the steam-heated gender wars of those times with his 1975 book, Sociobiology. Is saying that female hormones are different from male hormones a betrayal of the fight for equality in the workplace? Are we no more than our hormones? Should these hormones determine our social behavior, and our rate of pay? According to the World Economic Forum, women—as workers, buyers, and sellers—are now the largest emerging economy (bigger than India, bigger than China), so it’s certain that these questions will continue to trouble our waking dreams.

They have certainly troubled Wilson’s. He’s written widely on human nature, on genes, on mind, on culture. Then, beginning in 1984 with Biophilia, he expanded his field of vision to position human beings within their own crucial ecosystem, the earth. It’s no accident that small children are riveted by other life forms: we humans emerged to consciousness in necessary converse with them. It’s only in the past fifty years or so that children have been brought up to think chickens come from the supermarket and Nature is a TV show. As with so many things, what we don’t know may kill us, and what we seem not to know right now is that without a functioning biosphere (clean air, clean water, clean earth, a variety of plant and animal life) we will starve, shrivel, and choke to death.

In the 1990s Wilson (like many other naturalists) became increasingly troubled by what looked more and more like a human war against Nature—a war that was resulting in the disappearance of whole species and ecosystems. Over the past twenty years he has turned more forcefully toward advocacy. In Search of Nature appeared in 1996; Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge in 1998; the deeply troubling The Future of Life in 2002; and in 2006, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth —this last a plea to the religious right, urging an attempt to find common ground in the interests of saving the world that fundamentalists claim to believe was created in an act of divine love. But Wilson had by no means given up on the ants: The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies appeared in 2009. 2

2.

So, why has Wilson now turned to novel-writing? Those of us who’ve been at it for a while might have warned him off. Stick to what you know, we might have said. Rest on your considerable laurels. Don’t risk having the literati point and jeer; don’t give your opponents the opportunity to tear you down. What have you got to gain?

A wider readership for urgent ecological messages” might be one answer. Many people have trouble grasping complex hypotheses and long strings of numbers, whereas narrative skills seem to be part of the basic human toolbox—an adaptation that gave those who could spin impressive yarns an evolutionary edge. Studies have shown that we identify with and remember stories, learning more easily from them than we do from more abstract presentations. (Hence the “stories” of such things as candles and pencils that we got in primary school. Are kids now being taught via Andy Atom and Ginny Gene? If not, maybe they should be.) Biologists—like doctors—are by their nature prone to storytelling: they study life forms, and a life form is nothing without its story, moving and changing as it does through time, through birth to growth to reproduction, then back into the ongoing food chain. Wilson may well have reasoned that he could get his warnings across more easily through a novel than through another “Nature” book.

However, the pedagogical motive is surely only one among many, for Anthill is a strange hybrid. As befits a saga with insect life at its core, it’s divided into six parts—one for each leg—with a prologue at the front that might stand for the head. In this prologue, Wilson tells us three things of import: first, that his story takes place on three planes of life—human, insect, and the biosphere that contains both—and that all are connected; second, that ants are a metaphor for men, and men for ants; and third, that the wars among ants are like mini-epics, of which Homer might well have written, “Zeus has given us the fate of winding down our lives in painful wars, from youth until we perish, each of us.”

Aha, I thought when I hit this quote. A clue—not so much to the contents of the book, perhaps, but to its structure, its patterning. Wilson knows his ants, but he also knows his classics, and, being a responsible fellow, he would not strew references to the Iliad around at the outset in an act of careless name-dropping. So I took him at his word and read his narrative with one eye on his venerable sourcebook.

The central figure in the book does not speak in the first person: instead, like Achilles, he is spoken about. (Heroes are always a little less heroic when portrayed too intimately: picture Heathcliff brushing his teeth.) The overall narrator of Anthill is one of the hero’s teachers, Dr. Norville, who may be said to play the role of the Centaur Chiron, educator of Achilles. This device allows for just enough distance: any closer and our lad might seem a bit humorless, and at times even priggish. But as it is these qualities may be excused as emanating from narrator Norville.

The role of Achilles himself—or possibly Achilles/Odysseus, because Wilson’s main man is a crafty little guy, not above a few lies and mind games—is played by young Raphael Semmes Cody. Like Wilson, “Raff” grows up in Alabama at a time not far from that in which Wilson himself grew up. Like Wilson again, young Raff takes a great interest in nature, focuses on ants, and goes on to study at Harvard. As you might expect in the work of a first-time novelist, some of these passages most likely contain boyhood reminiscences. The foods of that time and place are lovingly described, down to each sundae with chopped walnuts and each bowl of crab gumbo. So are the specific Yes Ma’m, No Sir manners of the era. So are the flora and fauna of the “Nokobee Tract,” a piece of Alabama wilderness that features as the maiden-in-peril of the plot. But Raff Cody doesn’t turn into a scientist like Wilson. His heroism takes another form.

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Bert Hölldobler
Two sister carpenter ants, adopted by different queens, confronting each other with threat displays; from The Superorganism

Let’s consider the importance of names, because, like the Greek authors before him, Wilson certainly does. Raff’s mother is a Semmes, descended—we are told—from the real Raphael Semmes who was a famous admiral during the American Civil War. Like many aristocrats, Raff’s mother is as addicted to genealogy as Homer was: in upper-level Alabama as in the Iliad, who is related to whom is very important. But she has tumbled out of her illustrious family by marrying a man beneath her. Raff’s father, Ainsley Cody, is a rifle-cult, beer-drinking semi-redneck who lives by his own code of honor, which includes respecting others if they deserve it, defending yourself, and never backing down if you are right. Both the Semmes side of the family and the Cody side contribute to Raff’s inheritance. (Needless to say, there is marital tension. Don’t marry goddesses, the mortal Greeks were warned: such matches don’t turn out well.)

But “Raphael” is not only the name of an admiral, it’s also the name of an angel—an archangel, no less, and one associated with healing and the driving away of devils. As for “Cody,” it would be impossible for an American of Wilson’s generation to be ignorant of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, sharpshooter, fighter, and plainsman. Healer, charismatic wilderness-wise fighter, brave warrior who never quits: Wilson has given his hero some big shoes to fill.

After Wilson’s prologue has been duly delivered in fine Shakespearean form, the action begins with a quest. Teenaged Raff and his cousin Junior set out to look for the “Chicobee serpent,” a mythical Loch Ness creature said to haunt the Chicobee River. On the way they visit a local eccentric—and possibly lunatic and killer—called “Frogman,” who lives by himself in a riverside cabin, sells frogs’ legs to keep himself in sundries, and is the self-appointed guardian not only of the land but of an enormous alligator called Old Ben. (This Cyclopean Frogman creature—part man, part custodian of nature, part dangerous monster—has a key part later.)

The narrative then doubles back to fill us in on Raff’s parentage, birth, childhood, and growth, using several well-chosen episodes. The elders in his story bestow gifts upon him: Dr. Norville gives him encouragement for his interest in natural history, and his father donates self-reliance and a code of honor, and eventually some rifle practice. But his biggest teacher is the Nokobee Tract, a stretch of pristine longleaf pine that is almost all that’s left of this once widespread Alabama ecosystem.

Raff learns it inside out: he leaves, literally, no stones unturned, and is richly rewarded with the red-tailed skinks, pillbugs, centipedes, and—yes! —ants that he finds in and around them. Through these explorations and his boyish air-rifle hunting, Raff comes to realize the fragility of his beloved tract and his own power to destroy its creatures, but also its ultimate strength:

He constructed a broader context in which he drew a picture of humanity, and of himself…. In time he understood that Nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists on islands within it.

Raff is now—as Norville calls him—a “citizen of Nokobee.” This implies that—like every ancient Greek hoplite-citizen—he is pledged to defend his territory.

Thus equipped with essential wisdom, Raff is ready for the third section of the book, which is called “The Launch.” Through the wealthy and established Semmes side of the family, he is given yet another gift: he’s offered a higher education, provided he promises to go into law. He does so promise. Unlike wily Odysseus, he’s a Boy Scout and also a Cody, so we know he’s honor-bound to keep his promise, though he’s not all that keen on being a lawyer. But off he goes to Florida State University in Tallahassee, where his childhood “Uncle” Norville is well placed to continue as mentor. Thus Raff can happily continue his study of biology even while en route to a law career.

A number of beetle identifications later, Raff completes a thesis for Norville that has as its subject an anthill colony located at Dead Owl Cove, near his hometown. This leads us to the fourth section of the book, which is a retelling of Raff’s anthill thesis by Dr. Norville, leaving out the “measurements and tables” and rendered as closely as possible to “the way ants see such events themselves.”

This section is called “The Anthill Chronicles.” It’s a sort of Iliad of the ants, being concerned with tragic ant martial conflicts. Why did Wilson choose the word “chronicles” instead of “histories” or even “wars”? Perhaps because the word lends a certain gravitas, or a feeling of mythic antiquity; one thinks of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, used by Shakespeare for many of his plots. There is also Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a space-world set of stories involving encounters with aliens. “The Anthill Chronicles” lives up to all these flavors of its name, especially the last one: if its protagonists were Martians, it couldn’t be stranger.

Following Homer, Wilson plunges into the anthill’s history in medias res. The Queen has just died, and the Trailhead Colony’s doom is upon it, because no anthill can survive the death of its Queen for long. If someone had told the ants of their Queen’s death, they would have responded as Dorothy Parker did when informed of the death of Calvin Coolidge—“How could they tell?” Ants don’t identify another ant as dead until it smells dead—they communicate almost entirely through chemical signals—and the deadness aroma takes a couple of days to develop.

The Trailhead Colony of ants is cast as Troy, with the neighboring colony of Streamside playing the invading Greeks. First the Streamsiders and Trailheaders puff themselves up and strut about like so many Hectors, boasting and testing their enemy’s strength; but as the Trailhead colony weakens, deprived of its Queen and thus its ability to produce more heavily armored hoplite soldiers, the Streamsiders move to the attack. Soon it’s an all-out fray. “Elders were among the most suicidally aggressive,” we’re told. “They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: where humans send their young men to war, ants send their old ladies.” (This reader paused to recall the floral-print-dressed Monty Pythoners reenacting the Battle of Waterloo by bashing one another with their purses, but she did not pause for long.)

When Troy falls, most of its inhabitants are slaughtered and the rest carried off as slaves, and—in a sizzling account of terror, murder, and cannibalism—so it goes with the ants. You’ll never get closer than this to life inside an ant colony, nor find an account so riveting. Wilson knows his ants, and he’s with them all the way, as they deal with every huge grain of sand, tasty caterpillar, and hostile ant-soldier they encounter.

Then Fate enters in the form of a dangerous mutation produced by some of the ants. Instead of one queen to a colony, with war at the peripheries, the colonies produce queenlets with the ability to coexist. A supercolony forms, with disastrous results for the outnumbered Streamsiders. Unfortunately for them, the oversuccessful supercolony not only annihilates almost everything in its area, thus destroying its own food base, but it annoys the gods, who in this case are human beings. Formerly they showered cookie crumbs upon the happy ant recipients, but too many ants spoil the picnic, and this is too many ants. Like H.G. Wells’s Martians spreading havoc from above or like Zeus hurling thunderbolts, the godlike exterminators arrive, spraying insecticide. Not a moment too soon, for the supercolony was about to release a giant swarm of queens, who’d have spread their kind far and wide after mating with the hapless male ants—“complete with wings, large eyes, massive genitalia, rudimentary jaws, tiny brain, and the one big purpose…followed by quick death.” (No wonder Max Beerbohm felt that the ant was not a good example.)

In time, a fourth group of ants emerges—like Rome from the ashes of Troy—and takes over the Trailhead territory, and all goes on as before among the longleaf pines.

3.

But fresh disaster threatens. The Nokobee Tract is owned by a family whose members will soon want to sell, and then the tract is likely to be developed, and Raff must now arm himself for his own coming war. In the section called “The Armentarium”—a term meaning the medicine collections of doctors, or else the things necessary to complete a given task—Raff chooses and polishes his weapons. They are verbal ones—his affinity with Odysseus comes to the fore—and he hones them at Harvard Law School, part of the “great brainy anthill” of Cambridge. He enters manhood through an affair with JoLane, an early-1970s ideologically driven fellow student who doubles as “Lilith, Aphrodite, a force of nature.” (The description of this steamy encounter will probably raise hackles on any “radical feminists” who happened to be around at the time.) Like all such love goddesses from Inanna onward, JoLane throws her paramour over for a rival, and Raff leaves the pompous Gaia Force student movement through which he’d met her. He will not choose the violent extreme.

Fully armored now, Raphael returns to Alabama for the final section, called “The Nokobee Wars.” The forces arrayed against him in his quest to save the tract include the moneymen and power brokers and developers, but even worse is a bunch of thuggish, murderous Alabama fundamentalists who believe that God wants Nature to be destroyed in order to hasten the Second Coming. Not being a dastardly ending-revealer, I won’t say what happens next, except that it’s nip and tuck for young Raff and it’s a good thing he’s a fast runner. But a hint: there are uses for the creepy Frogmen of this earth, and for their giant pet alligators, too.

What to make of Anthill ? Part epic-inspired adventure story, part philosophy-of-life, part many-layered mid-century Alabama viewed in finely observed detail, part ant life up close, part lyrical hymn to the wonders of earth, part contribution to the growing genre of eco-lit: yes, all these. But hidden within Anthill is also a sort of instruction manual. Here’s an effective way of saving the planet, one anthill at a time, as it were—preserving this metaphorical Ithaca as an “island in a meaningless sea,” a place of “infinite knowledge and mystery.” The largeness of the task and the relative smallness of the accomplishment make Anthill a mournful elegy as well: this may be all that can be saved, we are led to understand. But we are also led to understand that it’s worth saving.

Despite the seriousness of the warning he means to convey, I believe Edward O. Wilson had a fine time writing his first novel. It shows in the exuberance of the prose, and in the inventiveness of the plot. And—with the exception of small stretches of awkwardness and preachiness—the reader will have a great time reading it. Certainly I did. For now I must confess: I too was a child pillbug admirer and skink-hunter, and my first novel was about an ant. I wrote it at the age of seven. It was not nearly as good as this one.

  1. 1

    To be published by University of California Press in May.

  2. 2

    See Tim Flannery’s review in these pages, February 26, 2009.

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