I’m going to leave any evaluation of the literary merit of Anthill (W.W. Norton, $24.95), by Edward O. Wilson, to other critics. To me, how Wilson’s first novel stacks up next to Ulysses and Animal Farm is not relevant. Anthill is a good story, no question, but the value of this book is derived from who is doing the telling.
The importance of Anthill for any entomologist, conservationist, or naturalist in general comes from the fact that reading it is almost like sitting down for story time with the biological paterfamilias. And it contains so much that interests us: the coming of age of a naturalist, pages of ant talk, and even some down-home nature loving. In Raff Cody, the main character, Wilson creates a bookish biophile whose experiences are ones we can relate to. When Raff gets into Harvard Law School, his friends all show up with ant antennae made of wire. What serious nature lover hasn’t had similar treatment? One of my favorite ways Wilson weaves in the reality of scientific life is the nerd-snares-radical-vixen plotline which gives us hope that being a biogeek may not always be a hinderence in the pursuit of love. In some way, my read of Raff’s life story represents a pat on the shoulder from Wilson, which reassures us that it is okay to be obsessed with nature, regardless of what career path we follow.
In his autobiography, Naturalist, Wilson reveals much about his development as a biologist and the evolution of his ideas. Many of us found these details inspiring. I, for one, decided to apply to graduate school once I set down that book. But Anthill provides a different, more personal connection to Wilson. Reading this book is almost like hearing a story directly from a village elder that helps us understand values, experience, and nature from a perspective not bound the confines of data or history. It also makes me wonder how it might reveal other paths that Wilson considered taking in his own life. Does he wonder what his life would have been like as a lawyer? Was there a JoLane Simpson in his past? These insights make Anthill valuable, and who wouldn’t want to share a Dr Pepper with Wilson in his office, or even better on the veranda of a rainforest lodge, to hear him spin a yarn? Reading this book brings naturalists even closer to someone who is so valued for his science and ideas, as well as for his position as the head of our tribe.