Literary comparisons of ants and humans are common, though rarely are they favorable to both species. The renowned biologist E. O. Wilson, whose SOCIOBIOLOGY: THE NEW SYNTHESIS and ON HUMAN NATURE exposed lay people to modern evolutionary psychology, breaks this trend.
ANTHILL is a novel that seeks to elevate human beings and ants to new noble heights; it does so by pointing out the similarities, strength and weakness alike, in what Wilson considers to be sister species. This novel-cum-philosophical treatise also takes a passionate stab at the ethics and practice of conservation, emphasizing its environmental and spiritual importance while offering some considerations on how to best practice it. There is nothing particularly new or bold about ANTHILL, but that hardly stops it from being an emotionally rich, thoughtful meditation on our place in the universe and how to protect it.
Wilson has a masterful sense of place, and the novel’s setting is as much its star as its protagonist. In Deep South Alabama lies Nokobee County, home to a rich lake and woodland brimming with rare plants and animals. Raff Cody, a small boy from the neighboring city of Clayville, acquires his education among the water, the woods, and, of course, the ants. This setting is home to gentlemen and ladies with honor codes of steel, crazed, gun-toting hermits with pet alligators, hunters whose passion for wildlife rivals most naturalists, and psychotic bible-beaters. From a cast that may be mildly described as “colorful,” Raff emerges as a brilliant, intensely focused student determined to learn all he can about this swampier Eden. His work culminates in a thesis describing 20 years of ant life in the Nokobee tract, which Wilson intended as the most realistic portrayal of an ant’s perspective on the world. It is a gorgeous piece of prose worth a binding of its own.
As Raff studies under a biologist and befriends the local environment journalist, he learns that the Nokobee tract is in jeopardy of being overrun by developers, which snaps him into action and us readers into making this story about a no-name piece of land suddenly more relatable. With eerie single-mindedness, Raff abandons his scientific ambitions and sets off to law school, spending more than half a decade on a single plan culminating in a mid-morning meeting with a developer in order to save the Nokobee tract. It’s a plot that takes some strange turns to Harvard Law School but ends in a simple moral: real conservation is possible, and the answer isn’t to be found through outright conflict, but through careful, considered collaboration.
Which brings the reader to Wilson’s philosophical conclusions. Like ants, humans are wrought with conflict that stymies many of their constructive tendencies. Like ants, we have the capacity to wipe out an ecosystem of all life but our own. And like ants, we find out nobility in our high degree of cooperation and sociability. If we intend to posture as stewards of environments we barely understand to protect them from our clumsy development, that nobility will be what carries us through.
Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on December 22, 2010