Our (Fictional) Destiny As Ants: At 81, E.O. Wilson Tackles The Novel

“If ants wrote a stage play for human characters, it would look like this,” writes Barbara Kingsolver of E.O. Wilson’s first novel, Anthill. In a powerhouse-eco-figures play, the New York Times has just had the author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle review larger than life biologist/theorist/conservationist Wilson’s fictional foray into the parallels between human and ant colonies. A biologist by training and a hugely popular author by trade (raise your hand if every woman and most men in your immediate circle of acquaintance read The Poisonwood Bible), Kingsolver is qualified to use both sides of her brain to scrutinize Wilson’s latest.

And she does. Cautiously. I got the sense that while she may have finished Anthill with an even more momentous admiration for Wilson and his work, she wasn’t entirely won over by his fiction, as fiction. I could, of course, be projecting onto Kingsolver my own objections to an excerpt of the novel which the New Yorker recently ran (“Trailhead”). That short story felt, to me, much more like very beautiful, intricate, character-driven, compelling field reporting than like fiction. But when Kingsolver writes of Anthill that “when new characters appear, their clothing and features are described as if to make them identifiable in a field guide to the humans. Behavior is noted likewise,” I’m inclined to suspect she’d have rather seen those characters’ clothing, features, and behavior described from a less scientific place.

But who can blame Kingsolver for treading lightly in her review, if that is indeed what she’s doing? No small thing to be saddled with the task of measuring a two-time Pulitzer winning scientist’s talent for writing fiction. She herself introduces Wilson as “one of the most important biological theorists since Darwin,” pointing out that he’s also, by the way, discovered a new species.

Still, Kingsolver does profess to have been won over, once again, by the thesis that has been at the center of Wilson’s work for decades. “Fiction is a safer place for drawing on nature to illuminate the human condition, for it is generally understood as metaphor rather than recommendation,” she writes. “Melville gave us whales and obsession, Orwell gave us pigs and politicians. Now Wilson suggests with winning conviction that in our own colonies, we proceed at our peril when we cast off mindful restraint in favor of unchecked growth. It’s hard to resist the notion that as we bustle around with our heads bent to the day’s next task, we are like nothing so much as a bunch of ants.”

And indeed, according to Kingsolver, one of the novel’s takeaways stems from research which Alabaman protagonist Raff Cody (a “mid-20th-century Huck Finn,” by Kingsolver’s reckoning, who “has less mischief in him, and earns more advanced degrees.”) does on an ant colony which is acting very similarly to the way we humans have been acting of late. Raff discovers “an ant supercolony, in which a mutation has removed the ants’ capacity to recognize the subtle, important cues that create limits within and between nests. Colonies thus impaired grow boundless in size, extracting resources until their habitats collapse.”

Huh. I can’t put my finger on it, but the pattern sounds somehow vaguely familiar…

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