books conservation

Anthill, a novel by E O Wilson

My brother introduced me to E O Wilson, whose book The Diversity of Life was required reading on his biodiversity and conservation degree. I borrowed the book and loved it. Wilson’s latest book is a novel, and now that we’ve both read it, I thought it might be interesting to write a joint review…

Paul: E.O. Wilson is a well known wildlife conservationist who has spent his life fascinated by the natural world. He has written a number of books, countless journals and pushed the science of conservation in new directions. It surprised me therefore to hear that he had written a ‘novel’.

Anthill is a three part story of a child who grows up with unlimited access to wild, native woodland, through which an independence and love of natural history develops. The second part is ‘The Anthill Chronicles’ which tells the tale of an anthill the main character is studying while at college, and the third stage is about urban expansion and its cost to the environment.

Naturally, E.O Wilson’s true talent lies in his superb description of the world and his character, which reflects his own life. On the flip side however, scientific language and specifics could bog down non-scientific readers. Occasionally the depth of description contrasts with other sections in the book, and it can begin to drag or feel irrelevant to the overarching storyline. That said, the aforementioned Anthill tale is truly one of awe and enlightenment. As a scientist of invertebrates, the manner in which he describes the rise and fall of an ant empire cannot help but generate a love and respect for the common garden visitors.

It’s an easy and facinating read as you discover how ant colonies in the wild are not so unlike our own unstoppable drive for expansion. Interestingly, exponential growth in an anthill is considered a flaw of the natural order, where escalation of resource consumption causes the inevitable demise of a colony. There are lessons to be learnt from the natural world and ants themselves. This book is a good place to start.

Jeremy: Edward O Wilson is a biologist and a world authority on insects, particularly ants. He is also a gifted writer, and his science books are second to none, full of wonderful descriptions, childlike enthusiasm for living creatures, and passionate calls to value the riches of nature. A novel in that vein was an intriguing prospect, and it does indeed run along those themes.

Anthill combines three different stories. The central thread is a life story that echoes Wilson’s own Alabama childhood, a young boy discovering the outdoors and losing himself in world of bugs and snakes. The second story recounts the life and death of an anthill, told from the perspective of the ants. The third is the story of development, and of human progress. All three play out over the same plot of land, the fictional longleaf pine woods of the Nokobee Tract.

There’s much to like here, from the naïve idealism of the central character, and the unexpected drama of ant warfare. (I spent many happy hours observing marching ants in Kenya as a teenager, and I can understand the fascination) There are also some problems. The book is something of a celebration of the South, with forays into Southern mannerisms and traditions that sometimes slow the narrative to crawling pace. At the other end of the spectrum, a late foray into thriller territory seems hasty and out of place.

As first novels go, Anthill is pretty good, and it’s worth reading for the ‘Anthill Chronicles’ section alone. It’s only because Wilson’s non fiction writing is so strong that this fees a little under par by comparison.

3 comments

  1. Wilson is a decent guy and has some interesting ideas. His views on belief systems and their evolution through sociobiology make for an intersting intellectual exercise.

    He once said men would rather believe than know. I’m afraid he missed the mark where this man is concerned. I have an insatiable hunger for truth and knowledge.

    Beliefs are for filling in gaps in understanding.

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