Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: Anthill (E.O. Wilson)

I have to take a break from Science-with-a-capital-S once in a while (don't tell my advisor), so occasionally I read books. Recently, I picked up a fiction book (don't tell my advisor) by E.O. Wilson. Yes, that E.O. Wilson, with the ants and the sociobiology and the world-famous-Harvard-ecologist, is also a novelist, having in 2011 published Anthill: A Novel. The book was prominently displayed on the Sale shelf (but not the Bargain table) at Barnes and Noble, so it must be doing alright, but I guess not super well (its Amazon Sales rank is #939,041, which puts it only 938,037 spots behind Ann Coulter's #1,004-ranked racist book Mugged, so hey, good job America on taste).

E.O. Wilson. Source: Wikipedia. Image available via
Creative Commons license via PLoS.
For those who aren't ecologists and don't know who E.O. Wilson is, shame on you for not knowing who E.O. Wilson is. He's the world's leading ant expert, as well as the pioneer of sociobiology, an avid environmentalist, an ecologist, and a humanist. He also extended his work on ant social behavior to human evolution, which Richard Dawkins doesn't like very much. But either way, he's regarded within biology as one of the world's top scientists. He doesn't have the go-get-'em aggression of Dawkins or Tyson, but he's got a long history of environmental advocacy, support for secular humanism, and cooperation/outreach to the religious sectors (he doesn't have a Conservapedia entry, so the church folk must not hate him too bad).

And now he's a novelist. This is unusual, for sure. Scientists are often notoriously bad writers, and a scientist being caught reading a novel is embarassing ("It's not mine!" "I only read Crichton to correct the horrible science errors!"). But writing a novel? That takes time and can interfere with the long hours of drudgery scientific pursuit. If you tell your advisor you're writing a novel, he frowns at you, wondering if it was wise to give you Sundays off and how quickly the next round of first year students are going to arrive so he can give your project away. If your advisor tells you he's writing a novel, you probably chuckle nervously and calculate in your head how much it would delay your graduation if you transferred labs. But then again, E.O. Wilson retired from teaching in 1996 and has pretty much defined our understanding of social insect behavior, so hey, he can do what he wants in his free time. Note that scientist-authors are not unknown: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlocke Holmes fame was a surgeon, but usually you end up with things like climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri's racy dimestore romance novel or Amy Bishop of the shooting-her-department-over-tenure fame penning hauntingly autobiographical novels.

In short: what would this scientist's novel be like? I found out.

Anthill isn't the next To Kill a Mockingbird. It's too detailed, too matter-of-fact with its story, not conversational enough or shrouded in mystery/symbolism to be considered Literature-with-a-capital-L--you know, the kind you study for 8 years so you can get a job as a barista. It feels more like an autobiography than an adventure. But it's an enjoyable book, and it's written in an accessible manner that is not  dry as you might expect a scientist to write (though the scientist voice comes through). It may be because the writing is drawn from childhood experience: Wilson himself is from Alabama and took an early interest (obviously) in entomology. There's a lot of naturalistic detail in this book. To a chemist whose birdwatching skills entail distinguishing crispy and original recipe chicken, I guiltily found the naturalistic listings of species upon species in each chapter/scene a little overwhelming. Maybe this will turn off non-scientists who try to read the book; maybe not. Importantly, though, E.O. Wilson's book carries a clear tone of love for science and enthusiasm for how science can improve lives. Not enough scientists or authors communicate this. 

My favorite feature of the book was right in the middle: a series of chapters titled The Anthill Chronicles. (This isn't a spoiler, incidentally). Wilson narrated the rise and fall of several ant colonies from an ant-colony perspective, a sort of myrmecological Gallic Wars. It was the most interesting part of the book, and making ecology interesting to a chemist is not always trivial. And darn it, he fooled me into learning some things about ants. That part of the book is probably worth its own read.

The human part of the story is alright, too, but I already know some things about humans. It feels at first like your Harper Lee/William Faulkner/(other author I used to know) Deep South novel, with its commentary on family, tradition, racism, and the like. Again, there's more human detail than you would usually expect from a scientist. It smacks of sociobiology and determinism, but that's kind of the point of the novel, I guess.

In the last part of the novel, we get a healthy dose of environmentalism/denialism. Again, I won't ruin the story, so read the book yourself. But I think Wilson does a great job tying ant behavior to human behavior (surprise!). His approach to denialism is not one of Richard Dawkins' persuasion; it's a change-from-within strategy. I wish the ending been longer. It wraps up more quickly than feels natural, and a lot of opportunity was missed to delve further into denialism (especially religiously-motivated) and the interface of scientists and anti-science or fundamentalists. But these things are in there, and the novel did prompt me to question my own philosophies on how we should engage the public.

Read the book yourself--it's by E.O. Wilson for crying out loud. And/or read this other tangentially related article in Trends in Microbiology if you don't want to spend $12.