I never thought I’d have a reason to write about ants on this blog, but thanks to entomologist Edward O. Wilson, I finally do. Wilson was on the Charlie Rose show the other night, discussing his first novel, Anthill, just published at the age of 80. Of course, he’s no stranger to writing, having published 20 plus books, all of them until now non-fiction on scientific subjects. He’s won two Pulitzers and at least a dozen other awards for his essays and books. Not an artist, exactly, but his writing is often very elegant.
I guess I’ve always liked Wilson, despite some of his opinions – there was a time when I agreed with the woman who poured a pitcher of water on his head during a conference on racism – because of his love for the natural world and especially ants. When I was a kid I was fascinated by them, and thought briefly about becoming an entomologist myself. I worried, however, that most of the jobs in that particular field of science would be about killing the little crawly things, when I just wanted to understand them. I still have a yellowed copy of a high school essay I wrote in the first person of an ant many centuries from now, explaining how he and his kind survived and humankind disappeared, an idea that was poorly expressed but might hold me in good stead with Wilson. Until he found out, truth be told, that I also gave up the idea of entomology because the creepy crawlies sometimes gave me the heebie jeebies.
Wilson explained on Charlie Rose that he wrote his novel because it was another way of trying to get a point across. Somehow, he felt, he and other scientists concerned about the environment “weren’t making the kind of progress we want to make….” and that fiction might be a more powerful persuader. The book, particularly the parts about human beings, has received mixed reviews, but its center piece, a fictional tale from the ants’ point of view, has received raves. That’s unfortunate since a major reason for the book is to bring us together under the single rubric of Nature. Dr. Wilson writes of his main human character, a scientist based on himself, that
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.
Human society and the world of ants have been compared many times before, of course. Busy workers all of us, and most of that work done in a social setting. A less frequent comparison is another one that came up on Charlie Rose, and that is the incessant war-making present in both kinds of society. But one of Wilson’s most telling statements, all of it said with the same ironic smile:
If we took away all the ants from the ecosystem, a large part of the rest of the world would collapse. If we took away ourselves, the rest of life on earth would flourish.
Charlie didn’t ask why our absence would be helpful to “the rest of life on earth” – most of us have no trouble thinking of reasons – but he did ask about ants. Why are they so important? “They’re among the little things that run the world, turn the soil, renew the nutrients….,” Wilson replied.
Now, I’m certain that most of us don’t think much about “the little things,” that part of the ecosphere that’s only present to us when it’s menacing our kitchens or making unsightly hills in our lawns. But Wilson gave me reason to think and think again. First, I wondered how anyone could live with the consciousness of “the little things”- that is, in a world where they were present and contextual all the time, from day-to-day and every minute. I mean, even as a kid, they made my skin crawl. Our worlds are generally made up of other people and people-made things. They’re growing wider-two centuries ago our points of view were mostly confined to our neighborhood, our community, sometimes our country. Today, many people live in a context that’s worldwide. Wilson is asking that we take that much, much further and realize that we are creatures living alongside other creatures, all of us part of a complex ecosystem and that, of course, only a grain of sand or less than that. We are part of nature.
Even if the notices were mixed, I plan to read this old man’s book, a scientist who, at the age of 80, is trying to tell us something important about the world as he knows it in a language where we may at last be able to hear it.