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Anthill by E O Wilson
Anthill by E O Wilson Review by Robert Tulip
In an amazingly distinguished career, Edward O. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Ants, founded the philosophical movements of sociobiology and consilience, and led scientific debate about how humanity relates to nature. Anthill, set in his home state of Alabama in the deep south of the USA, is Wilson’s first novel, and represents a return to his social roots and an effort to distil the scientific and political messages learned over his long and productive life. What I loved about Anthill was the depth of insight in Wilson’s cultural, scientific and symbolic messages, and the combination of a radical ecological vision of nature conservation with a conservative respect for social institutions and incremental evolutionary change as the only way to get things done.
The theme of Anthill is man versus nature. Wilson wants to show how society can change towards a more sustainable attitude. His main character, Raff Cody, is something of a Huckleberry Finn, growing to know and love the wetlands and forests of his home district of Nokobee, much as Wilson did himself when he was a boy. Raff’s question is how he can preserve biodiversity against the onslaught of progress and development. The message of Anthill is that lasting results are achieved only by bringing the conservative ruling forces of money and power along, converting them to see the economic benefits of conservation. Where Wilson sought in his own life to protect nature through science, in his imagined career he puts Raff Cody into the law.
Wilson takes this problem of nature conservancy as the basis for a series of parables. Foremost is the need for cooperation, negotiation, compromise and understanding as the basis to achieve any lasting practical outcomes. The anthill of the title is not just the ants of Nokobee, but the whole of human society. The ruthless pressure of evolution has taught ants what they must do to function as a super-organism, providing a template for how humanity must cooperate to prosper over time.
Raff goes to Harvard University to study law, having been convinced during his undergraduate biology degree in Florida that working through the law is the only way to have real influence. At Harvard he falls in briefly with a student group called Gaia Force who are committed to the revolutionary overthrow of civilization as we know it as the only way to save the earth. Wilson uses Gaia Force as a parody of the lessons he has learned about the uselessness of radical posturing. Raff’s refusal to accept the doctrinaire Gaian ideology, despite his deep commitment to conservation, emerges as the more informed, committed and ethical approach.
Wilson takes his time to build a social picture of the Alabama culture where he grew up. Raff’s father is a redneck fraud, a drinker and gun nut, while his mother hails from old money genteel stock in the town of Mobile. The marriage illustrates social tensions within the white communities, with more than a hint towards Wilson’s own scientific research on caste in ants as also reflecting caste in human culture. The detailed social picture of Alabama life, with various class and racial and religious complexities, provides a real political context to determine if the nature reserve of Nokobee will survive or fail. The social setting occupies much of the book. You can see that Wilson wants to use the opportunity to tell a story about social respect, with a sense that the South can adapt and innovate to save its natural heritage and thereby find its soul.
Seeing human society through the prism of his natural scientific study of ants, Wilson uses Anthill as a parable to imply that the social insects provide an instinctive evolutionary model for human conduct. The centerpiece of the book is a section called the ant chronicles, telling of ant life as a simple narrative based on intensive scientific research. This scholarly content is completely accessible, even gripping, and lifts the social story of Alabama life to a whole new level. The most pointed story in the ‘ant chronicles’ is a mutation when one ant colony suddenly changes to allow multiple queens. At first the new super colony takes over everything, but then they irritate the local humans so much that their nest is poisoned in an ant Armageddon. Meanwhile a more cautious and conventional ant colony adapts and survives. Wilson wants to suggest here that like the mutant ants, human society has changed in ways that may now seem successful for a time, but the sociobiological truth is that if our culture remains out of kilter with nature we have no future. In part this is a deeply conservative message, that building on tried and proven methods is usually wise even where our superficial logic does not see why long evolved patterns are best.
As well as being a fine novel, with engaging plot, beautiful descriptions of nature and interesting characters and conversations, Anthill is a parable for planetary survival. There is an urgent message about the real potential for compromise so that people can see our collective best interests align with preservation of nature. One of the most interesting subplots is the role of religion, with conservatives using pseudo Biblical language to argue for human dominion over nature. As in the debates with the environmental posers at Gaia Force, Wilson understands deeply where both sides come from in this religious clash. He constructs set piece confrontations in which the inadequacy and risk of the creationist attitude is shown rather starkly.
Humans think we are smart, but our actual social conduct is mostly as instinctive as that of ants. Wilson uses the territorial conflict of ant colonies as a metaphor for human growth, with the powerful taking what they can and the weak conceding what they must, but all eventually constrained by natural limits. Human arrogance will tend to ignore and deny this comparison with dumb insects, but Wilson has a deep wisdom here. Although he does not mention it, you could say the message of Anthill is from the biblical proverb ‘look to the ant o sluggard, consider her ways and be wise’. We are natural social organisms evolving by cumulative adaptation within the real boundaries of nature. Looking to the model of the ant colony to see how social life on our planet can succeed over millions of years, encompassing the short decades and centuries that humans usually consider, E.O. Wilson provides essential lessons in humility and wisdom for our salvation as a species.
Joined: Mar 2009 Posts: 482 Location: Texas
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Re: Anthill by E O Wilson
I passed over it a few times but now that I realize it covers a work of fiction by Wilson [imagine that, in a fiction books discussion forum] I am hitting my head against the cement. I have included this book in The List and will be looking for it.
I don't want to muck up such a fine review. Please consider the rest of this to be a big Thank You For The Review. My first thought concerning the ant-human comparison was that ants have no capacity for either pleasure or pain. JS Mill says, "screw 'em" so long as in the process one doesn't screw one's own (precious) self. My second thought centered on a scene from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine wherein the shapeshifter Odo says to Kira: I don't step on ants, Major. So somewhere between Mill (not that I positively know whether he stepped on ants or not) and Odo I find myself stranded. It's hard to know what to do with something that couldn't care less what happens to it on anything but a cellular level. A plant streches out for the sun while an ant stuggles to extract itself from a puddle of water... it's not about life, or goals, it's about sentience.
Humans think we are smart, but our actual social conduct is mostly as instinctive as that of ants. Wilson uses the territorial conflict of ant colonies as a metaphor for human growth, with the powerful taking what they can and the weak conceding what they must, but all eventually constrained by natural limits.
But should it be left to these natural limits? I see no logical proof against the claim that the powerful should take whatever they want. After all, it is through the powerful that all species continue on... does Wilson refute this belief? One more thing, likely as not religious groups will be arguing to protect the environment rather than continuing their support for its unseemly exploitation. It is long past time for a debate about Dominion and whether it entails certain responsibilities on those through which it operates.
_________________ The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? - Jeremy Bentham
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