From Margaret Atwood’s review of “Anthill” by E. O. Wilson in the New York Review of Books:
[E. O. Wilson] has written widely on human nature, on genes, on mind, on culture. Then, beginning in 1984 with Biophilia, he expanded his field of vision to position human beings within their own crucial ecosystem, the earth. It’s no accident that small children are riveted by other life forms: we humans emerged to consciousness in necessary converse with them. It’s only in the past fifty years or so that children have been brought up to think chickens come from the supermarket and Nature is a TV show. As with so many things, what we don’t know may kill us, and what we seem not to know right now is that without a functioning biosphere (clean air, clean water, clean earth, a variety of plant and animal life) we will starve, shrivel, and choke to death.
Wilson wrote one of my favourite books, The Diversity of Life and is renowned for his work studying and writing about insects, and ants in particular. His latest book is called Anthill, but this time it’s a novel, a fiction.
So, why has Wilson now turned to novel-writing? Those of us who’ve been at it for a while might have warned him off. Stick to what you know, we might have said. Rest on your considerable laurels. Don’t risk having the literati point and jeer; don’t give your opponents the opportunity to tear you down. What have you got to gain?
“A wider readership for urgent ecological messages” might be one answer. Many people have trouble grasping complex hypotheses and long strings of numbers, whereas narrative skills seem to be part of the basic human toolbox—an adaptation that gave those who could spin impressive yarns an evolutionary edge. Studies have shown that we identify with and remember stories, learning more easily from them than we do from more abstract presentations. (Hence the “stories” of such things as candles and pencils that we got in primary school. Are kids now being taught via Andy Atom and Ginny Gene? If not, maybe they should be.) Biologists—like doctors—are by their nature prone to storytelling: they study life forms, and a life form is nothing without its story, moving and changing as it does through time, through birth to growth to reproduction, then back into the ongoing food chain. Wilson may well have reasoned that he could get his warnings across more easily through a novel than through another “Nature” book.
What to make of Anthill ? Part epic-inspired adventure story, part philosophy-of-life, part many-layered mid-century Alabama viewed in finely observed detail, part ant life up close, part lyrical hymn to the wonders of earth, part contribution to the growing genre of eco-lit: yes, all these. But hidden within Anthill is also a sort of instruction manual. Here’s an effective way of saving the planet, one anthill at a time, as it were—preserving this metaphorical Ithaca as an “island in a meaningless sea,” a place of “infinite knowledge and mystery.” The largeness of the task and the relative smallness of the accomplishment make Anthill a mournful elegy as well: this may be all that can be saved, we are led to understand. But we are also led to understand that it’s worth saving.
Full review @ nybooks.com