“In my heart, I’m an Alabaman who went up north to work,” says Edward O. Wilson, who has now been at Harvard University for 59 years. As a boy growing up in the South, Wilson was enraptured by the natural world. In his new work, “Anthill,” idealistic young Raff Cody has to figure out a way to save a patch of wild country from rapacious developers.
Wilson has written more than 25 books, making major contributions to myrmecology, evolutionary biology, sociobiology and ecology, among others. He’s won all the big science awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, and has a drawer full of honorary degrees from Yale, Oxford and other institutions across the globe.
Teeming with creatures, ranging from a man-eating 1,000- pound alligator to poisonous snakes and suicidal insects, “Anthill” is Wilson’s first work of fiction.
We spoke at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.
Lundborg: What made you decide to write a novel now?
Wilson: People respect nonfiction but they read novels. I wanted to write a different kind of novel bringing in our dependence on the living world by addressing it in detail, with correct natural history.
Lundborg: The hero is exhilarated by the natural world -- are you Raff?
Wilson: It’s a little bit autobiographical, especially in the early life, with a troubled family, and finding solace in the natural world.
The South is probably the most backward in managing its environment and resources. There’s now a three-way tug of war between developers, rising environmentalists and strong religious conservatives, which makes up the central conflict in the book.
Lundborg: You describe a segment of southern society as “proud, broke and mad all the time.” Is this a distinct species?
Wilson: We have a lot of those in my fellow countrymen. We even have an educated redneck elite that just hates the federal government. Perhaps these are the great-grandsons of the Confederacy.
I’ve just finished a book on the history of Mobile, Alabama, my home town, for which Alex Harris is doing the photographs. It’s something of an isolated, tribal small town, worth bringing to the world. I try to explain why there are rednecks.
Goodbye, Little Things
Lundborg: You’re trying to save the world -- how are conservation efforts going?
Wilson: Biodiversity in the world is going down fast. If we keep eliminating species at the rate we are now, we’ll lose as many as half by the end of the century.
We don’t even know what’s out there for the most part, in terms of the little things that run the earth. Ants make up two-thirds of the biomass of all the insects. There are millions of species of organisms and we know almost nothing about them.
Lundborg: How did you come up with the ant’s-eye view of existence that makes up the central part of your book?
Wilson: It’s all based on fact. Ants have the most complicated social organization on earth next to humans. And ants are not dummies: Individual ants can learn a maze half as fast as rats.
The foibles of ants are like those of men, written in a simpler grammar. I created an epic of war, except with ants.
Lundborg: Unlike humans who send their young men, ants send their old ladies to war?
Wilson: Old individuals are the ones who go out to the perimeters and defend them suicidally. There are all sorts of wonderful metaphors in an anthill.
Lundborg: You depict a mutated ant supercolony that grows out of control.
Wilson: The supercolony is us and it’s real life, not a DreamWorks film. It has an advantage over other species and pushes them out, but ultimately it’s unsustainable. The ants strip everything bare.
Lundborg: We’re threatening our own survival?
Wilson: Yes. Wilson’s Law is if you save the biofilm, the ecological system, in a sustainable way, then you automatically save the physical environment. If you just save the physical environment, you’ll lose them both.
Lundborg: You’re about to stir up a little trouble with your coming article in Nature. Tell me about that.
Wilson: I think there’s going to be blowback. For 40 years the kin-selection theory has prevailed as the dominant explanatory scheme accounting for the evolution of advanced social behavior, including altruism and the division of labor.
That’s all wrong. With Martin Nowak’s mathematical analysis, we show that altruistic social behavior can evolve outside of kinship.
Lundborg: When do you write?
Wilson: I write everything in longhand on yellow legal pads. I work on trains, planes, anywhere. It’s probably genetic, but I can ignore all distractions except a shrieking infant closer than three feet.
(Zinta Lundborg is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)