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.”
SK: In the book, was the “Anthill Chronicles” section the easiest one for you to write? [It describes a war between ant colonies from the p.o.v. of the ants.]
EW: Actually it was. I had just finished with Bert Hölldobler the book The Superorganism. And earlier I’d done many, many—well over 300 scientific papers—on ants. And with Bert Hölldobler, the two of us are about to bring out another book called The Leaf-Cutters, on these ultimate superorganisms. And now they’re one of the best-known group of species in the world in biology because they’ve become a model group to work on, at all levels, from genetics up.
Of course, that was all in my head, so I just rolled it out. And it’s authentic: how they talk to each other, what responses they have, what their cycles are, their constant wars with each other. They’re the most war-like of all creatures we know. Even more than people.
SK: Even more than humans?
EW: Even more than humans, yeah.
SK: One thing that surprised me in the book was that, when Rafael went to Harvard, I noticed you teased the Harvard pieties. Was that something you just wanted merely to tease a little, or was it something you wanted to get off of your chest?
EW: No, I was just teasing. But you know, this happens anywhere you go, especially to a top-rank university that prides itself on its excellence—this could equally well be Oxford and Cambridge. And what I did with Harvard has been done hundreds of time with Oxford and Cambridge. I thought I’ve earned the right to poke the university in the ribs a few times. After all, I’ve been here for fifty-nine years. That was what I doing: I was getting a bit of humor at the expense of what many people see as a puffed-up self-regard.
SK: Another thing that surprised me were references to humans as, I guess for lack of a better word, programmed, sort of like ants are. Especially in some ways sexually. Was that something you wanted to get across, too?
EW: Well, that was not a main emphasis. I had to, from the very beginning, say there are vast differences. And I wasn’t all that interested in comparing the sex adventures (or misadventures) of Raphael at Harvard with ants. What I did want to get across, though, in spite of the vast differences with ants—after all, with the ants we’re dealing with an all-female society, and then take it from there—is that with ants it’s all instinct. With humans it’s substantially culture, and the interaction of genetic propensity and learning with culture.
But let’s not get into all the all. As far as comparisons, it was primarily on the whole issue of the countless wars, of the conflicts between societies. I have been involved in developing, as science, the theory of the origin of many of our social traits—including our powerful propensity to be territorial and respond quickly, with aggression, to territorial invasion. I wanted by implication—I don’t think I spelled it out, but by implication—I wanted for the attentive reader to make the comparison with the ants and their countless wars.
I love the quote from Homer that I used: Zeus has made the decision we should unfold our lives in painful wars from youth until we perish, all of us. There’s something about the tragedy of human existence bound up in that—our struggles and territorial and personal ambitions and our inevitable death. Often caused, at least in part, by that internal cycling. That’s what we call Greek tragedy, because it’s something inborn in people, or in their circumstances. Of course, this is precisely the case in ants.
If you look in Descent of Man, you’ll find that Darwin himself made what may be the most politically incorrect and least quoted surmise about human evolution. He said that it’s quite possible that some of what we call our highest qualities of the human character—heroism, leadership, and the like—have evolved by disputes between groups and wars between groups and conflict, which reward those very qualities that we most admire. Because they give the group an added advantage in conflict. That was what Darwin said. And that is something that we will be hearing more and more about in terms of our reconstruction of human behavior. I actually had that at the back of my mind. It comes through, I think. It comes through for almost anyone who brings a highly social group of animals like ants into play, in a realistic depiction of them.
SK: You mentioned also in the interview you did with The New Yorker that you really wanted to lay out nature “as it was.” And you said you thought it was the first time that a novelist had really tried to do that. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
EW: That’s what I was getting at earlier. Over ninety percent of all novelists, even those who deal with nature as part of the background, present it simply in terms of its impacts on human emotions. In the case of this novel, I tried to do something I haven’t seen done. My knowledge of fiction is not that strong, but I’m reasonably sure what hasn’t been done adequately, even by American nature writers, is to develop in as vivid detail as I can the environment. Particularly the living environment itself, the fauna and the flora. And I make them important for the fate of the human characters—as it should be. I think that was something really new in this novel, and I hope it takes
SK: Do you think Moby Dick was able to do that?
EW: I think certainly so in terms of his attention to whales, and to the appeal to see.
SK: That’s immediately what I thought of, that sort of obsessive attention to whales. But you think yours is doing something different still from what that did?
EW: Yes. There’s a huge difference between a species and an ecosystem. And the latter, the ecosystem, is vastly more difficult to characterize—both accurately and in sufficient literary detail to be interesting.
One of the devices I had, of course, and used, was the journey into the ecosystem as an exploration. I could use that with some confidence because that is one of the human archetypes. By which I mean, that is one thing that most appeals to human beings, instinctively: to go into new worlds and discover surprising things. People love it. That’s a big part of not just fiction—
SK: But of your life!
EW: My life, the naturalist’s life, and human history. Why do we like to read history, and so much of it? We like to read the great trips of exploration, even if there’s not much natural history in them. It’s the wonder of it. The early explorers in the Age of Exploration are compelling because of that journey.
I think we’re on the cusp in literature—a key statement for me to make—we’re on the cusp in literature of inaugurating more detailed journeys into the world of natural history, as part of fiction.
SK: That leads nicely into my next question. What can fiction do in an age that’s largely science based?
EW: There’s one thing it can do. As I said, people respect nonfiction, they give you prizes for nonfiction. But people read novels. It’s what they talk about, and they talk about it because it’s a story. It’s extremely difficult—as important as it is—to describe the molecular structure of the membrane in terms of a story. [Laughs.] I think this is where perhaps environmental scientists and evolutionary biologists have an advantage over molecular biologists.
SK: Did you ever worry that getting into scientific detail or adhering to strict scientific accuracy would undermine any of the human drama in the story?
EW: Quite the reverse.
SK: Why is that?
EW: Because it enriches the context. Simple answer.
SK: There’s a reason I brought that up… The part I was thinking about was the part where the original ant colony had to spend a night by itself after it had been attacked. It knew the other ant colony was coming back, and there was a comment in there about how they really didn’t understand what was going on. It was just a circuit in their neurons. That seemed to me to undermine the drama a little bit, with the ants not understanding their fate—like a human might under siege.
EW: Well, that’s the point. There are many great tragic times in humanity when people were caught like those ants, like the Christians in the Hagia Sofia [left] in Constantinople in 1453 as the Ottoman Turks closed in. And they don’t realize that they’re all going to die, that it’s all hopeless, that it’s over. They don’t know what’s happening. They’re praying, they hope for divine intervention. But it does not make sense to them. That happens to people under a great many circumstances on very small scales and on very large scales. It’s one of the tragedies of existence.
SK: In Consilience especially you had called on social scientists and eventually humanities scholars to incorporate a more scientific outlook in doing their work. While you were writing this did you have in mind what, say, Joseph Carroll [a Darwinist literary scholar] or somebody like that would think about your fiction?
EW: You’re well informed if you know about Joseph Carroll. I had it in mind as a possible consequence to contribute to that, and help bring together in particular science and humanities, yes. But that’s not why I wrote the book. I wrote it for the reasons we just went through.
SK: If your primary purpose had been to bring them together, do you think you would you written it differently or done anything differently?
EW: I think I would not have written a novel. Of course I have feelings and ideals and messages in the novel, but I thought they live in there comfortably, because of the substance of the novel and the way I develop the characters. I think that wanting to do something that you think of grandly as bringing science and humanities together is pietistic. Anyone trying to do it that way, they would seem stiff.
SK: Sure, if you’re trying to do it yourself. But you could make a contribution.
EW: Well, I rather hope this novel will contribute to—how shall I say it?—hands across the chasm of humanities and science. But I didn’t write it for that reason. Thanks for asking, though.
SK: When I first heard that you’d written a novel, I wondered if that was the purpose.
EW: I feared that that might be seen that way. People would say, “There’s one novel I will not read.” That’s the last thing I wanted. That would repel readers. And I would never tell the humanities anyway to “get their act together,” although a lot of scholars in the humanities think that’s what I’ve been doing since Sociobiology, trying to take over territory, intruding. Trying to—how should I put it—melt the Inca gold. All that beauty, melting down in the reductionist way. That’s not what I had in mind at all.
What I had in mind was more like what people like Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall, who just wrote The Rape of Troy, did—it’s adding biology to the whole story. What they’re trying to achieve is to utilize biological insights to augment literary criticism. I think it’s valid to bring biology in then. As part of the explanatory armamentarium for literary critics, to have it in addition to what he or she would already have as a critic writing about something. And I mean critic in a broad sense of not just dealing with a particular novel, but trying to understand what’s going on in the mind, why it happens, and so on. It’s obvious you can bring biology and the way the brain works! It can only be helpful.
But it would be a mistake to be so—what’s the word I’m looking for—direct and plainspoken in fiction. You don’t want to pre-design your fiction to fit any kind of critical framework. That would be a big mistake, and I didn’t try to do it. The creative arts should be to a large degree spontaneous.
SK: So you’re making a distinction between the criticism of it and the creation of it
EW: Exactly. Don’t mess with the best of the creative artists. But think about enlarging the scope and power of criticism of the creative arts, criticism in the broad sense of analysis of the cause and content.