By Sonia Dhingra
Author: E. O. Wilson (Naturalist)
Number of Pages: 384
Year of Publication: 2010
Scientists hardly ever write novels, so it was a shock to me to realize that the famed naturalist E. O. Wilson had written a fiction book, Anthill, which was published in 2010.
This book depicts a southern Alabama boy who comes of age in the thrall of ants and nature. He is determined to save what he loves from destruction. The protagonist, Raff Cody, is in working-class Clayville. He is my favorite character because he is organized, simple-minded, and determined. The story’s narrator is a biology professor who teaches the boy at Florida State University but has known him from childhood. Professor Norville portrays Raff’s life frankly: his settings are habitats, his parents’ marital conflicts seem different biological interests. When there is a new character, their features and behavior are described like they were in a field guide.
During this story, the reader realizes that we are the equal to ants. When 10-year-old Raff is dragged by his mother to visit the family matriarch, Aunt Jessica, she seems like the Queen Ant. Her mysteriously unpaid lifelong servant follows like the worker-ant.
The middle section is titled “The Anthill Chronicles.” It is presented as Raff’s undergraduate thesis and it describes life from the ants’ point of view. No writer could do this better, Wilson’s passion serves him best here. When the nest must be defended, its eldest residents become the most suicidally aggressive. My favorite quote is, “obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: Where humans send their young men to war, ants send their old ladies.”
During his studies, Raff discovers an ant supercolony, that has a mutation that has made the ants unable to recognize the subtle, important cues that create limits within and between nests. These colonies grow in size, extracting resources until their habitats collapse. When real estate developers plan to acquire his beloved Nokobee Tract, one of the last unspoiled stands of old-growth pine savanna, he considers what is possible against the odds.
The major theme in this book is the comparison between humans and ants is bold. It shows that the forces of nature create human nature. Wilson shows that it’s hard to resist the notion that as we bustle around with our heads bent to the day’s next task, we are like nothing so much as a bunch of ants.