The Ant Man’s World

From The Wall Street Journal:

A well-known portrait of Edward Osborne Wilson shows the smiling Harvard professor hovering, like a benevolent god, over some models of his cherished leafcutter ants. The photograph serves as the cover of “Tales From the Ant World,” Mr. Wilson’s most recent and, by my count, 35th book. The large ant right beneath Mr. Wilson’s chin, a mix of Mars Rover and de Chirico mannequin, wields a leaf almost as big as the entomologist’s head. The proportions seem off, but in a larger sense they really aren’t: As Mr. Wilson, now in his 90s, has reminded us over a long, distinguished career, ants can more than hold their own against humans. There are, by some rough estimates, 10,000 trillion ants in the world at any given moment, and their combined weight (Mr. Wilson, who likes to mock his ineptness at math, nevertheless supplies numbers whenever he can) would match the total weight of the planet’s human population.

Mr. Wilson has always had a knack for reducing complex problems to simple number games, easy-to-grasp metaphors or memorable anecdotes. A world-famous scientist, winner of many medals and honorary doctorates, celebrated for his research on ant communication and evolutionary equilibrium in island settings, he has also swept up awards in the field of literature, including two Pulitzers and, for his novel titled (what else?) “Anthill” (2010), the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for fiction. Earlier this year came the ultimate literary sanctification, inclusion in the venerable Library of America, where Mr. Wilson is now rubbing shoulders with just a handful of other nature observers: John James Audubon, Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. And, as if further corroboration of Wilson’s eminence were needed, we now also have “Scientist,” a full-length biography by Richard Rhodes, whose previous work in the genre includes the popular “John James Audubon: The Making of an American” (2004).

. . . .

Mr. Wilson’s career as a naturalist began during a summer vacation on Paradise Beach, Fla., with an incident so far from paradisal that it would have ended a lesser man’s aspirations: A pinfish the boy had caught jumped and pierced his right eye, blinding it. Yet, although he would later lose some of his hearing, too, young Wilson never wavered in his determination to become a naturalist. He settled on entomology: Keeping his surviving eye trained on the ground, he would track the motions of animals too small to rise to most people’s attention, creatures whose world was ruled not by sight and sound but by taste and smell. “I opened logs and twigs like presents on Christmas morning, entranced by the endless variety of insects and other small creatures that scuttled away to safety.”

Born into a complicated, nomadic family, young Wilson attended more than a dozen schools in 10 years, with no apparent damage to his intellectual development. His sixth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C., noted on his report card: “He writes well and he knows a lot about insects. If he puts those two things together, he might do something special.” And “something special” he did with “those two things.” One of the great pleasures of the new, lavishly illustrated Library of America edition is the opportunity to appreciate the many ways in which Mr. Wilson fuses literature and science. His blend of wisdom and wit even extends to his footnotes: He never saw the Emperor of Germany bird of paradise in the wild, Mr. Wilson admits, but “many Paradisaea guilielmi probably saw me.”

. . . .

Works by scientists don’t, as a rule, contain such perfectly paced sentences as the following tribute to Bulum Valley, New Guinea, where Mr. Wilson went in 1955 to collect ants: “A flock of sulfur-crested cockatoos circled in lazy flight over the treetops like brilliant white fish following bottom currents.” And not too many fiction writers would dare insert such precisely observed passages into their novels as the following, taken from Mr. Wilson’s “Anthill,” a description of a particularly scrappy ant species: “The swollen posterior lobes were filled with adductor muscles that closed the jaws with enough force to cut through the chitinous exoskeleton and muscle of most kinds of insects.“ If you think such language is entirely too technical for a novel, you have a point. But I would still suggest that you give “Anthill” a try—the combination of ant lore and human plotting works well enough for Margaret Atwood to have tagged Mr. Wilson, in a review of the book, the “Homer of the Ants.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link. If the WSJ does something to make it decay with use, PG apologizes if you hit a WSJ paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG found Mr. Wilson’s Amazon Author page fascinating for his prolific popular output which was almost certainly accompanied by a lot of publications in academic journals.

NOTE: The WordPress Kindle Embed function has been blowing up whenever PG hits the Free Preview link below the image of the book cover. If you click the Buy on Amazon link, that will take you to the book’s site on Amazon where the Look Inside feature works fine.

PG hasn’t been able to track down the source of the problem. If someone else has, PG would appreciate an explanation or fix via the Contact PG link at the top of the blog.