A Paris Review-style interview with E.O. Wilson
A score of books. Two Pulitzers. Papers that defined entire fields. So why did biologist Edward O. Wilson bother writing a novel? Because people need stories, he says. Wilson hopes his fictional debut from earlier this year, Anthill—about a young man from the South, militant ants, and the coupled fate of humans and nature—will help spark a conservation revolution.
Wilson met me at his Harvard office—a three-roomed cavern at the university’s natural history museum. “Harvard treats emeritus professors very well,” he observed. He showed me part of the world’s largest collection of ant papers, and a copy of his portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He wore a blue/black checked shirt and slouched when he sat. His sentences were criss-crossed with asides and qualifications, and he squeezed in a few startlingly good impressions. Throughout our talk he sipped iced tea—or as Wilson, a native Alabaman, might say, sweet tea. When he spilled some on the table, he swept it onto the floor with his hand. “The difference between a book review and an interview,” he mused right before we started, “is like the difference between a handshake and a shot in the back.”
Edward Wilson: Fire away, and I’ll try to get back answers of decent interest, brevity, and so on.
Sam Kean: I’ve heard you say you have a policy of never taking any vacations. Was writing this book sort of a vacation for you?
EW: I would say in one sense I never take a vacation. I never go on a fishing trip. I never go to the beach except to study the ants who live in the sand. So in that sense I’ve never taken a vacation in my life. But I consider that most of the work I’ve done in my life is one continuous vacation. I don’t know how I’ve managed to get away with being paid for what I do. Because to me it’s a constant adventure and thrill.
And I have the advantage as a scientist, especially when working on ants, to do a search wherever I go. Even when I took my family on vacations—for them—and of course, I had to have leisure time with them!—I could do research wherever we went, because ants are ubiquitous. Even if you went to the beach somewhere, there are ant species. After all, they make up more than half the biomass of all insects. And ants are found form the arctic almost to the ends of the southern continents…
But here I am, nattering on about ants. We were talking about the book. Go ahead.
SK: So did you consider the book a vacation from science or a continuation of it?
EW: All three! That is, it combined all three of my key interests. One is science. Second is conservation of biodiversity. Third, is an exciting new experience: to plunge into a different mode of thinking and writing. Although maybe I should say that the mode of thinking is really not that different.
SK: Not that different from…?
EW: Science. Because the ideal scientist, I’ve always thought, is a person who thinks like a poet (or, if you wish, a novelist), who works like a bookkeeper, and—if he’s fortunate to be able to do so—who writes like a good journalist in explaining what has been found. But the difference between the creative process and writing science is that you don’t have the bookkeeper period.
On the other hand, if you have a science base, which this book certainly does, with the ant part, you can accomplish certain things. It’s the first time anyone has written of the cycles of the ant colonies as the ants themselves experience it—as best we can understand it from the science. And I think this is the first novel—it’s certainly the first southern novel—but it’s one of the very few American novels to pay close attention to the environment. Particularly the diversity of life in the environment.
Most novelists deal with the environment in phrases like, Went through the dark woods, looking for a dark path, you know, or, Found peace in a meadow filled with beautiful blooming flowers. That’s about as far as most novelists go. What I’ve done is to make the environment—and particularly that treasured habitat that a young Raphael Semmes Cody, the hero, spends the entire book designing and scheming and fighting to save—I made it virtually a character in the novel. Treated it as an entity, the ecosystem, almost as a character. So that in a sense it comes full circle to your question: The book has a lot of science in it.
EW: What was most difficult for this scientist in writing a novel (and again, I’m anticipating a question: maybe you can design a question to meet it…) is the style of writing a novel. In particularly, dialogue. I had the help of a brilliant editor, his name is Robert Weil. W-e-i-l. Bob Weil, at W.W. Norton, who counseled and guided me in the novel. And helped me—or pressed me—to do what a good novelist would do. Which is to translate action into dialogue. You cannot just go through and describe what people do. You include that, that’s an essential part of it. But you must give the reader a sense of action and progress in the plot by the way the protagonists, the way the key characters in the novel, are speaking to each other.
SK: Was that your instinct, to make it more action and less dialogue?
EW: Oh yes. [Laughs.] If you’re doing nonfiction all your life, which is what I’ve done, science-based nonfiction, you scarcely ever write a line of dialogue. Now in a novel, you must have a very large part as dialogue. [N.b.: spoiler alert…] As for example I have in the first confrontation with the cultists, the religious cultists, who get slaughtered at the end of the book. (I don’t know whether you want to tell people how the book ends…) But the first confrontation with them consists entirely of dialogue. And their personalities, their beliefs, the way they interact and settle a matter, or fail to settle it, is entirely in dialogue. So I was very pleased to be able to do that.
SK: Was that something you had in the first draft of the book, or did that come later?
EW: From the beginning. In that one chapter, it’s all dialogue. But there’s plenty of action elsewhere. I deliberately have trips that Cody takes through the environment—right to the last chapter, when the now thirty-year-old Cody has returned to Nokobee, and takes the scouts on a trip. And for example the trip down the river [at the beginning of the book], when they’re looking for the river serpent and they confront Frogman. And then the next chapter when I take them on a hunting trip.
It’s all one way, my way, of describing the environment to the reader in detail, so the reader learns the plants and the animals and what the animals are doing exactly and what their significance is, as the reader himself would experience it if he took that walk or that trip down the river. And that’s a very good way of introducing natural history, because so much of natural history—both the profession, scientific natural history, and the enjoyment by anyone—consists of taking a trip, and exploring. Natural history without the spirit of exploration and the joy of surprise is not fulfilling. There’s got to be a trip and exploration—and surprise.
I don’t think it got into the novel, but just an example of surprise: In the days before the extinction of the ivory-billed Woodpecker—which happened in 1944, the last one apparently died in 1944. But when people saw them, they were fairly uncommon—these giant woodpeckers, flying in pairs. Dramatic. The early settlers—especially coming into the range of it along the southern United States—when seeing it would make an expression of surprise. Like “Lord God—what is that?” And that was common enough, so that the ivory-billed woodpecker got to be known widely as the Lord God bird.
SK: Oh, I think you did mention that.
EW: I do? Okay. Well, I love that. Lord God bird—that captures what you want to experience as a naturalist. There’s always the inevitable surprise. It doesn’t matter where you are, anywhere in the world. It can be the Amazon, it can be a small woodland lot in Yorkshire, I suspect. And no matter how much your training is, unless you’ve been in that place exhaustively for a long time, and exhaustively studied it—and in places like the Amazon, even that doesn’t suffice—you’re certainly going to see something that makes you say, “Lord God, what is that?”
SK: You mentioned in another interview To Kill a Mockingbird, and how it has influenced all southerners. How has it influenced you?
EW: Actually, it hasn’t influenced me so much as it gave me a new instrument to promote the conservation ethic so badly needed in the southern United States. Which is still substantially a frontier region in its psychology, you know, in its attitude. I realized—and this is one of the motivations I had in writing the novel, in going ahead and saying, I’m going to do it now, this is something very important for me to do—I realized that people respect nonfiction. But they read novels.
One of the high hopes I have for the novel—and it remains to be seen—is that it actually could have a positive social effect, because of the timing. Let me explain that: It was 1961, I think, when To Kill a Mockingbird came out. Or maybe it was 1960, that can be checked. [It’s 1960.] By Harper Lee. It was a huge success, particularly after a movie was made of it with Gregory Peck as the key character.
It came out at precisely the right time, which was on the cusp of the civil rights movement in the south. It became a literary impetus for the movement, to add to it, to that movement. It made people everywhere more conscious of the problem and circumstances of the deep south and the deep racism, the strong racism that still existed. And now, my perception is that we’re on the cusp of another kind of crisis altogether in the south. And by the south I mean from Carolinas to Texas, with Tennessee and Kentucky.
SK: Gotta add those on there. Okay.
EW: The deep south especially has destroyed most of the main forest of the area, which is the long-leaf pine savannah, which I describe in detail [in the book]. The long-leaf pine savannah is a key ecosystem. It once covered sixty percent of the south. And all but approximately one percent of it, of the original growth, has been cut.
And that’s just the beginning [of the troubles] for a magnificently beautiful part of the country, with the largest number of species of many groups, like salamanders, turtles, some groups of plants like ground flora, with perennials and low shrubs, as many as 150 species in one hectare in some areas. It’s biologically one of the richest areas in the northern hemisphere, that coastal plain. And it’s threatened, and there’s no appreciation of it. There’s no important regional planning yet. There are virtually no national parks. And not nearly enough national wildlife refuges through there.
But at the same time—as I illustrated in the novel, I built that in as a major part of the novel—in addition to the reckless pioneer spirit, even the dogma, of the developers and some of the business leaders—now, at the present time, there’s a quickly rising environmental conservation movement through the south, including in Alabama. So what I’ve done is to give the conservationists a heroic role in the novel. To have what they are doing as hopefully tilting the emphasis in the south to an ethic of conservation and of sustainable planning. That’s how I hope Anthill will be the equivalent of To Kill a Mockingbird.
[To be continued. Interview has been slightly condensed for clarity.]