A nthill is a novel of ideas. Because the ideas are those of Edward Osborne Wilson - the world's leading myrmecologist (student of ants), Harvard University's illustrious and influential researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), evolutionary theorist (consilience, biophilia), conservationist, humanist and populist writer (Tom Wolfe famously called him "a new Darwin, or perhaps I should say an updated Darwin, since no one ever believed more religiously in Darwin than he does") - his fictional account of an Alabama backwoods boy who grows up to be a Harvard lawyer fighting to save the woodlands of his childhood has power and importance disproportionate to the genial, folksy, frequently clumsy storytelling of an octogenarian first-time novelist.
As a child, Raphael (Raff) Cody falls in love with his parents' favourite picnic spot in the West Nokobee Tract at the edge of William Ziebach National Forest between Greenville and Mobile in the East Gulf Coastal Plain of Alabama. It becomes his secret place and he bicycles into it every chance he gets to escape his family. As a Boy Scout who soars right up to Eagle, he learns how to take notes of everything he sees.
Then, guided by an avuncular professor at Florida State University, Raff writes his senior thesis on the creation and destruction of four separate ant colonies whose histories unfold on the old picnic ground. That thesis - a stand-alone novella called The Anthill Chronicles - forms the third section of the novel and (as the author notes) "is written in a manner that presents the lives of these insects, as exactly as possible, from the ants' point of view." It's remarkable not merely for the concision with which it presents the essential scientific information contained in Wilson's magisterial works as myrmecologist, The Ants (1990) and The Superorganism (2009), but also for its near-Homeric sense of epic.
Anthill is both parable and thriller
Referring to ants, Wilson once said, "Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species." He writes elsewhere, "Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity became part of it. … The way to achieve [an]epic that unites human spirituality, instead of cleav[ing]it, is to compose it from the best empirical knowledge that science and history can provide." In Anthill, he gives spirituality and history as fair play as possible in a late-20th-century United States that badly confuses religion with histrionics, history with militancy and science with technology.
At the end of four years studying environmental law at Harvard University while engaging in "Gaia Force" politics in the densest intellectual "anthill" humankind has constructed in America (Wilson's wittiest depiction is Harvard as "a kaleidoscope of specialists … whose lives are moulded to ensure their own well-being through service to the greater good"), Raff turns his back on Wall Street and returns to Alabama with a clever strategy to save the Nokobee Tract by brokering a mutually satisfactory deal between developers and conservationists. While learning to work effectively with both, he seriously underestimates the power of the religious right. Does it collapse the deal and cost him his life? Anthill is both parable and thriller.
Edward O. Wilson is a man of his time and place, and reads too much of his United States back into human nature (as Steven Pinker, one of his intellectual heirs, also does), but he gets one thing gloriously right in everything he writes: biophilia, the inborn affinity human beings have for other forms of life, an affiliation evoked by pleasure, security, awe, fascination, revulsion. It is a love of otherness. The astonishing otherness of Anthill's The Anthill Chronicles contains seminal thinking for the rebirth of affinities crucial to survival:
"Nature works, Raphael learned, because it has order, and from order, it has beauty. … Each creature, Raff came to understand, has a clock. Every passing hour retires some of the players and brings forth others." This is essential reading.
Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof's Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984 will be published in May.