As promised at the end of my last book review, I started reading the late E. O. Wilson‘s only novel before he died, and thus before the big hubbub about an unusually stupid op-ed denouncing him in Scientific American, resulting in an open letter whose signatories started dropping off under pressure (like the Harper’s letter*). It’s not that long a book, but I read it very inconsistently thanks to the distractions of the internet and under the assumption I wouldn’t have to worry about having to return the book due to others requesting holds.

*I had forgotten Gelman chimed in on that one, and just recently linked in a post-script to a response to the Wilson controversy by a creationist (as a way of mocking the outlet publishing anti-Darwinism).

Anthill is somewhat autobiographical, but the bit from the first-person perspective of a science professor are only a small portion of the book. Instead of the professor, the book is instead about a boy he mentors named Raphael Semmes Cody (or “Raff”). Like the real Wilson, Raff is fascinated by the ants near his home in Alabama, and he eventually transfers from a nearby university to Harvard for grad school, but unlike Wilson he goes to law school with a plan to come back home and ensure the preservation of the fictional “Nokobee” old growth forest (also he’s in school during the Clinton administration, presumably making him more relatable to then-contemporary readers). One can imagine that this reflects Wilson’s own shifting priorities, as he moved on from the “sociobiology wars” (letting others pioneer the research he mostly gestured toward) and came to focus more on conservation efforts (rehabilitating his image successfully enough that the NYT had a rather positive obit).

The main reason I wanted to read Anthill was that I’d heard it was from the perspective of ants rather than humans. This is actually only true of “The Anthill Chronicles”, a section (10 chapters, 62 pages in this copy) in the middle of the book tracing the rise & fall of multiple rival ant colonies that Raff studies as an undergrad. That’s the sort of thing you’re not going to find in other books (which are often semi-autobiographical ones written by literature professors), and it reminded me of playing SimAnt as a kid. Wilson had already received numerous accolades for his books and was a solid prose stylist, and his personal connection to the material made it seem real, but I just wasn’t that interested in Raff’s life.

Anyone familiar with the controversy around Wilson will have heard about how protestors tried to stop him from speaking and dumped a pitcher of water on his head while he was giving one talk, so it’s hard not to think of them in the bit where Raff as a Harvard student joins up with a group of environmentalists (one of whom is also his only real love interest in the book despite the brevity of their relationship) who tend more towards radicalism than him. There’s one bit where Raff upholds the tradition of southern manliness (inculcated by the “code” of his actually kind of crappy dad) by getting a radical detractor to back down first from the threat of a fight, but the book doesn’t seem like it’s out to settle scores (seeing as how its uncomplicated protagonist still shares their cause). Rather, Raff just rightly regards them as immature (perhaps because Raff is the self-insert of an old man with, from what I can tell, basic center-left politics).

The reason for Raff’s conflict with the radicals is that he’s already set on the pragmatic (and renumerative) course of seeking legal solutions, focusing on things like arbitration. The pursuit of win-win solutions is common in real life, but when it comes to fiction that sort of thing isn’t as popular with most people as it is with Robin Hanson. The plan he came up with when he agreed with a wealthy relative to go to Harvard Law ultimately works, almost as if the author had already told him how that plotline would end. His opponent within the development firm is an accountant/religious conservative who dismisses any value in preserving nature, but it occurred to me modern environmentalism pits “Boomer environmentalism” manifesting as anti-development NIMBYism against YIMBY advocates of abundance & clean energy as the most important environmental issue. It also occurred to me that the more seriously one takes the analogy (explicitly made in the book) between humans & ants as each constantly seeking to expand, one should expect that (without natural predators or a check like the super-colony of ants receives from human exterminators) humans will eventually clear all the wilderness and hence any conservation will only be temporary.

The most seemingly out-of-place element of the book is where it briefly shifts into action movie territory. Perhaps that was to make up for the lack of conflict in how the main plot was resolved. Perhaps it was also to make Millenarian evangelical whackos into the ultimate villains rather than developers or even politicians (since someone of Wilson’s centrist politics doesn’t want to alienate people with actual power). Or perhaps that just reflects Wilson’s frustration with some people back home who justify their indifference to the environment via scriptural “dominionism” (though not necessarily the theocratic fringe associated with that term). Perhaps it also helped the book appeal to numbskulls like the author of that aforementioned op-ed.

My plan had been to go from this book to another scifi novel mentioned in my last review, or Wilson’s Sociobiology, but since both are currently checked out from my local library I’m likely to next review a book-length critique of the latter.