My review of Richard Rhodes’s new biography of naturalist Edward O. Wilson, Scientist, is now available on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website.
The University of Alabama, my alma mater, brands itself as “Where Legends Are Made.” I think it’s a good brand, although I am wary of the fact that all institutions of higher education nowadays seem to be more about the branding than about their academic distinction. Even so, I think that one of our university’s truest legends is author / biologist / ecologist / naturalist Edward O. Wilson.
Wilson, a native of Birmingham, grew up around Washington, D.C., and Alabama’s Gulf Coast, has the distinction of being considered the world’s foremost expert in myrmecology – the study of ants, and is frequently called the primary Darwinist of our time. Retired now, but still active, he received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in biology at the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he spent most of his professional teaching career. He has been regularly ranked as one of the most important scientists in history.
So, Roll Tide.
One of the few benefits of Pandemic isolation was the opportunity to read more widely, including a more in-depth exploration of Wilson’s award-winning writing. My most recent reading of Wilson was motivated by The Library of America’s Spring 2021 publication of three of his most acclaimed books in a single volume. Included are Biophilia (1984), The Diversity of Life (1992), and Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist (1994).
In The Library of America compilation, Biophilia is a brief and user-friendly examination of the interdependence and connectedness of human beings and nature. Wilson, a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, has the vision of a poet and his ability to translate his scientific passion to accessible terms for those, like me, who are essentially non-scientific, is an impressive one. After reading Wilson, you will never look at an ant bed the same again. For that matter, you shouldn’t be able to take nature for granted again.
The text of The Diversity of Life is a little more textbook-y at times. The first part of that carefully researched book details the history of evolution. Wilson addresses the five previous periods of extinction on the planet and the millions of years it took for the Earth to repair itself after each. He convincingly asserts that we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction, caused by human activity, and that there may be no recovery from this one unless we act quickly and with purpose. Wilson is pragmatic in his approach, presenting options for human progress while working with nature rather than against it. The fact that The Diversity of Life was written almost thirty years ago makes it even more compelling, given Wilson’s prescient observations.
I’ll admit that parts of The Diversity of Life were a slog for me and I found myself putting the book down to take a breather for a few days on a few occasions. I was not bored – just overwhelmed by the amount of information. So, it was a pleasure when I moved on to Naturalist, Wilson’s very entertaining autobiography. It is a compulsively readable book that explains the passion the scientist brings to his more scholarly texts. His writing is candid and his detailed description of the flora and fauna of the everyday as well as the exotic are breathtaking.
Finishing Naturalist, I was eager to move on to Wilson’s one novel, Anthill (2010). It is clear, having read the autobiography, that Anthill has many autobiographical elements as it tells the story of Raphael Semmes (Raff) Cody, who grows up in south Alabama and becomes obsessed with a parcel of wild forest near his fictional hometown, Clayville, in Nokobee County. We follow Raff’s childhood explorations and his growing fascination with the ant colonies of the Nokobee forest.
As enticing as the coming-of-age story of Raff may be, the novel becomes singular in its appeal and uniquely E.O. Wilson in its mastery and finesse with “The Anthill Chronicles,” the novel’s centerpiece. The “Chronicles” comprises nine chapters and seventy-one pages. It is a memorable and impactful rendition of the life and death of woodland ant colonies from the perspective of the ants. Margaret Atwood calls it the “Iliad of the ants.” “The Anthill Chronicles” cunningly provides keen science-based parallels into the challenges and evolution of the human species. The action of the battle scenes, when rival ant colonies vie for dominance, are as action-packed and suspenseful as any war story you might have read. It’s hard not to be moved by the death of a colony’s queen and the methodically efficient way in which the duty-bound ants handle the aftermath of that colonial tragedy. I am still surprised at how invested I became in dozens of pages of the lifestyles of the ants. Wilson doesn’t give his ants the human traits that a Disney version might; his ants view the humans who come into their territory as “moving trees.” Wilson’s ants are guided by instinct and genetics.
As the “Chronicles” conclude, the reader is back into Raff’s story as he finishes an undergraduate degree at Florida State and heads to Harvard law school. By this time, Raff has a clear path in mind for his goals to use his law degree to advocate for conservation causes. He makes the conscious but unexpected decision to go into practice with a Mobile development company which does not have a good record on environmental issues. We find a direct correlation between the fate of the ant colonies of the “Chronicles” and the story of the developers.
Wilson masterfully uses his fiction to illuminate his naturalist concerns; the book is rife with twists and turns, colorful and disturbing characters. Raff’s environmental activism attracts the attention of a fundamentalist, violent, and anti-conservation religious sect, leading to an unexpected, violent, and thrilling climax. Wilson’s choice of narrative style, shifting effortlessly from an omniscient narrator to the first-person observations of one of Raff’s ecology professors at Florida State, raises intriguing questions about Raff’s destiny at the book’s closing.
E.O. Wilson is a writer who should appeal to the casual reader as well as the environmentally-committed. He’s a “good read,” as we say.