Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

E. O. Wilson:
Anthill. A Novel.

Roughcut: 378 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (April 5, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0393071197
ISBN-13: 978-0393071191
Price: 34.99 EUR

Put up your Antennae!

After controversial and groundbreaking books on social insects, biodiversity and human behaviour, myrmecologist and twofold Pulitzer Prize winner, E. O. Wilson, has written his first novel. Unsurprisingly, ants are the protagonists.

Ants are found everywhere. We might encounter them from time to time, yet we are only occasionally aware that these small creatures belong to societies and employ complex chemical communication to maintain their micro civilisations. The American biologist Edward Osborne (better known as “E.O.”) Wilson knows them very well. The now 81-year-old myrmecologist has studied these insects all his life. In 1990 he published, together with the German biologist Bert Hölldobler, The Ants, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book which is one of the most complete works on the topic.

Wilson, one of the most famous biologists of modern times, had already won a Pulitzer Prize before The Ants. In his “general non-fiction book”, On Human Nature (1978), he provided evolutionary explanations for human behaviour. The prolific non-fiction writer waited until this year for his debut as a novelist. The result is Anthill, the story of Raff Cody, a boy exploring the epic world of ants and determined to save their habitat from destruction.

A young naturalist

Like Wilson himself, his protagonist, Raff, is an Alabaman. Growing up in the south of the state, the child devotes his free time to inspecting his surroundings on fictional Lake Nokobee. During his walks in the longleaf savannah next to the lake, he becomes a naturalist, collecting and taking notes about salamanders, frogs, damselflies, grasshoppers, spiders and any other interesting creatures found along the way. But his favourite animals are, unsurprisingly, ants. Young Raff becomes fascinated by their social structure and, while still in High School, believes that he has unravelled the secret of their life cycle. This leads him to enrol at Florida State University, where he studies ecology and entomology. Not unexpectedly, he ends up doing his graduate thesis on the ants inhabiting the savannah around Lake Nokobee.

The Anthill Chronicles

E. O. Wilson, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, has switched to fiction with his new novel Anthill.

Sounds like a biography in disguise, doesn’t it? Is “Raff” really the young Edward? The story is beautifully interrupted by a section, in the middle of the book, entitled “The Anthill Chronicles”. These are the narrative accounts of Raff senior’s thesis, describing the adventurous goings on in the Nokobee tract, where the protagonists are the ants, their colonies, their battles and the struggle for survival,

In the miniature world of antdom, clumps of grass (are) like groves of trees and bushes, and dead leaves and twigs like fallen timber. (...) One drop of rain striking an ant (has) the human-equivalent force of a firehose jet.

Wilson takes us into their world and introduces us to different ant colonies in the area. He also teaches us about how these little insects communicate. Chemical signals are for them what words are for humans. The author wrote this section based on scientific information and, both the reality of the events and the narrative, make it the most fascinating part of the book. It is a shame that it lasts less than 80 pages but, nonetheless, that is enough to get caught up in their miniature universe. We witness, next to Raff, the daily jobs that each one assumes: the workers that go out for food, the nurses and even the ones that take care of the cemeteries. The soldiers also play their role, not by going to battle unnecessarily, but by displaying, the equivalent of military parades by human armies. The Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood had a reason to call Wilson “the Homer of Ants”.

Ants as a metaphor

Anthill, however, is not just about ants. As the author promises in the prologue, ants and humans become a metaphor for each other. Human behaviour is portrayed as consistently in line with Wilson’s own views, based on sociobiology, the extension of evolutionary theory to social organisation. One of the bottom lines of the book is that we are indeed part of the same phenomena and that we obey the same rules in nature as any other living being.

Along the way we get to know an ant colony with a mutation in a gene related to smell. The consequences are, ironically, initially positive for the colony. Their inability to detect the queen’s odour results in an expansion of their colony and territory. They rise up as a powerful empire, but in the long run become a problem for their habitat, unable to maintain the whole population.

So that seems to be the second message: this supercolony reminds us of human expansion. How long will our habitat be able to sustain us?

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013