Tackling fiction with what he knows best

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs

I was thumbing through my New Yorker magazine when the featured fiction story caught my eye.  The accompanying graphic showed several silhouetted ants and the opening line of the story read: “The Trailhead Queen was dead.”  I began reading and got pulled into the plight facing the colony, which was profoundly affected by the death of its long-lived queen.

Something about the fiction story was different though.  While it kept my attention it also fed me detailed and fascinating facts (e.g. “…..ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone.”)  Halfway through reading, it struck me that this was just the sort of story a biologist could write.  I flipped back to check who authored the piece and was startled to see that it was a biologist: Edward O. Wilson.   The short story published in The New Yorker was an excerpt from a novel Anthill that he’s just written.

E.O. Wilson with ant specimens.
Credit: Associated Press

As noted in a recent Science magazine interview, Harvard University’s Wilson, best known for his work with ants as well as his work on biodiversity, has once again pushed himself to try a new venue to air these passions.  In his first (and he claims last) novel, Anthill, Wilson focuses on Alabama’s dwindling longleaf pine savanna, which once covered 60% of the southeastern United States.

The lead figure of the novel is naturalist and lawyer who tries to save remaining tracts of longleaf pine savanna from development.  In the Science interview, Wilson says that he believes a critical issue for the American South is reevaluating how it treats its land and natural resources.  Like any good writer, Wilson understands that you should write about what you know best.  As he explains to Science:

I use [ants] because I know them intimately.  They go through battles, through tournaments, through the death of the queen, and through the death of the entire colony.  There are parallels with cycles of human civilization.

In the novella, “The Anthill Chronicles” excerpted in The New Yorker, Wilson graphically writes about the creation and destruction of four separate ant colonies—ants are, as Wilson tells his Science interviewer, “vastly more interesting than depicted in any movies that we have ever had or any television specials.”

Wilson peppers his ant novella with descriptive phrases grounded in what he knows about these insects as a scientist.  Examples include:

“…..the male was no more than a guided missile loaded with sperm, his life’s work a single ejaculation.”

“The metronomic pumping out of fertilized eggs from her twenty ovaries was the heartbeat of the colony.”

“When defending the nest, the elders were among the most suicidally aggressive.  They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies.”

It is fairly unusual for scientists to try their hand at fiction and Wilson tells Science that doing so is certainly challenging for a scientist trained in scholarly writing.  While he admits he took certain liberties in his novel, he claims he did so without arousing “outrage” from his colleagues.

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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  1. Excellent post at Ecotone, motivating me to post the following response:

    Anthill is a wonderful read; no exception to the rule of E. O. Wilson’s writing talents. (No, it hasn’t been released yet, but I have a pre-publication copy.) It’s good to have the world’s top conservation biologist exercising his abilities in a variety of venues and media.

    Pertaining to the ESA, though, I think it’s also important to note that E. O. Wilson is “tackling fiction” in more ways than one. For example, he has tackled the fiction that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Dr. Wilson is among the numerous dignitaries who are signatories to the CASSE position on economic growth, which describes a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. The hero in Anthill understands this conflict quite well.

    Hopefully the ESA will start tackling the fiction of “green growth,” too. Widespread knowledge of the environmental problems caused by economic growth is necessary for a sustainable consumer ethic and economic policy regime. This is something the Anthillers of the world will need in their struggles for conservation.

    Brian Czech, Ph.D., President
    Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

  2. Thanks for posting this!! I have seen him talk and read his other books, but now I am curious to see how he expresses his science and his advocacy in this new book. Have a great weekend!

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