Much more than most scientists, Edward O. Wilson translates his research for the general public, and explains its relevance beyond scholarship.
Wilson, an entomologist, is generally thought to know more about ants than anyone, ever. And for decades, through his writing, he's been an outspoken advocate for the science behind conservation.
For instance, Wilson's 1984 book, Biophilia, about the evolutionary basis for humanity's attraction to nature, heavily influenced the environmental movement. And in 1988, he edited BioDiversity, the volume that introduced that now-universal term into popular usage.
At 81, Wilson has tried a new tack: With April's publication of Anthill (W.W. Norton & Co.), he's become perhaps the planet's most-senior debut novelist.
Anthill centers on Raff Cody, a small-town, southern Alabama lad who grows up loving nature as embodied in the nearby Nokobee wildlands. Raff comes of age in the 1990s. Then, like Alabama native Wilson, he takes up entomology. And after college (and law school), he takes up the cause of saving the Nokobee from condo developers.
Wilson, who's won two Pulitzer Prizes for his nonfiction, is a wonderful writer. His skill at making biology accessible and engaging translates to fiction. For Anthill is no tract: The characters are well drawn and the details minutely observed. Data about social class, for instance, is presented with a kind of scientific detachment.
Or perhaps it's the detachment of some other creature with a single-minded focus on sensory stimuli. Describing one scene from Anthill in her New York Times review, for instance, Barbara Kingsolver wrote, "If ants wrote a stage play for human characters, it would look like this."
Perhaps most strikingly, about 70 pages in the novel comprise "The Anthill Chronicles." The section (Raff's collegiate honors thesis) tells the story of three ant colonies basically from the ants' point of view. It's something only Wilson would (or could) do.
Moreover, the section almost explicitly comments on humanity's seeming inability to live within nature's limits. Ant societies are second only to human societies in complexity; one colony Raff/Wilson chronicles follows a "grow or die" imperative that outlives its energy source -- its queen -- and can't change its habits fast enough to avoid catastrophe. "The foibles of ants, Raff learned, are those of humans, written in a simpler grammar," Wilson writes.
Wilson visits Pittsburgh on Thu., May 27, to receive the Rachel Carson Homestead Association's Rachel Carson Legacy Award. His research, coincidentally, was among the work Carson drew on for 1962's Silent Spring, the book credited with launching the modern environmental movement.
For all his own knowledge, in Anthill and in books like 1992's The Diversity of Life, Wilson always emphasizes that human authority is finite. In loving the Nokobee as only someone who knows it intimately can, for instance, Raff grows to understand "that nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists on islands within it."
E.O. Wilson speaks on "The Future of Biodiversity Conservation." World Environment Day: A Rachel Carson Celebration of Biodiversity. 5:15 p.m. Thu., May 27. Day-long conference and lecture: $25 ($10 students). Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 724-274-5459