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“Anthill” is first novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E. O. Wilson. It’s the story of a boy transformed by an improbable love of ants. He risks everything, even his life, to save their pristine habitat in the wetlands of Alabama.
- Edward O. Wilson Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and author of "The Ants," "The Naturalist," and a "Nature Revealed: Selected Writings 1949-2006" (Johns Hopkins Press)
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Novelist and trained biologist Barbara Kingsolver calls E. O. Wilson one of the most important biological theorists since Darwin. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction has now written his first novel. It combines his scholarship on ants with the struggle to preserve an ecosystem in his native Alabama. It's quickly disappearing. His new novel is titled, "Anthill." And on this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, E.O. Wilson joins me in the studio. And we will, of course, take your calls between now and the top of the hour. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir. It's good to see you again.
PROF. EDWARD WILSONThank you so much for having me.
REHMWell, it's my pleasure. Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. How relevant do you see that to be, even today?
WILSONI'm glad to see that it's still widely recognized. And I think more and more Americans, in particular, understand the overall compelling importance of having the environment recognized by a special day.
REHMAnd do you believe, we, in this country, and people around the world are thinking more and more about the environment these days?
WILSONWell, actually, they are. I think we are in the process of becoming green. I think at this point, we're pastel green, but we're going greener. I've often thought in recent months though that we're very good on the physical environment to this point, like climate change and pollution. But we haven't given nearly enough thought to the living environment and how it's going to be conserved, why it's important to us, and why we should be caring about it right down to the last little species.
REHMWe'll -- and we're going to talk about that last little species in just a moment. But Earth Day has kind of been overshadowed by this Icelandic volcano -- certainly reminds us of nature's power.
WILSONYes, that's right. It has the power to literally destroy pieces of our land and people. I think we've seen it also in devastating earthquakes here and in Chile -- I mean, in the -- in Haiti, rather, and in Chile, and know how vulnerable even we are in the United States. Those have come along periodically. In Chile, for example, in 1835 or thereabouts, there was a devastating earthquake that leveled the city of Concepción. And Darwin actually describes that in some detail in his memoir.
REHMHave you studied earthquakes yourself?
WILSONNo. That hasn't been of -- an interest of mine. I've just hoped to avoid them.
REHMIndeed. Your new novel, of course, focuses on the interconnectedness of human beings and nature. Tell us about your fascination with ants, when it began and why.
WILSONThis is actually a novel. You could call it a Southern novel. It's a people novel that covers three generations of people involved in what I consider to be the crisis that now faces the South. It's not as serious as the one -- socially anyway -- that we faced 50 years ago at the beginning of the '60s with civil rights. But it's very serious, and that's the vanishing wildlands that are -- and actual resources that are still in the South, more than any other part of the country, being recklessly diminished. So the novel is about people, how they interact and struggle, that are ongoing as the environment movement begins to grow down there and become affected.
WILSONAnd in doing that, I brought up the -- into play, rather, an actual environment, I think, in a way that no novelist ever has in that detail anyway, making one of the threatened ecosystems almost a character in the narrative. And the story then is of a young boy becomes a young man and becomes bonded to this part of the environment to the extent that he devotes his career, his young career, to saving that particular one. In the environment, in the natural system, this longleaf pine forest that he's focused on are many, many creatures that could be selected as being representatives. But I took ants partly because I know them so intimately, but also because ants are so important.
WILSONYou know, two-thirds -- upwards of two-thirds of all the insects in the world, at least the weight of all insects consists of ants, are the most socially complicated creatures on Earth next to humans. And they are worthy representatives of almost any reserve and threatened part of the environment in the world we also think about.
REHMAnd you started studying ants, what, when you were a little boy?
WILSONI did. You know, at the age of 9 and 10, the ants and butterflies, I guess, no more than a mile from here. I was living here with my parents while my father came up on a temporary job with the Rural Electrification Administration. This was the late '30s because we were still in the Roosevelt era of recovery, economic recovery in this country. And as a little boy, I had the great good fortune of living in a place that was within easy walking distance of the National Zoo...
WILSON...and Rock Creek Park. And, I'll tell you, that experience, I wish I could grant to every child or something comparable to it because that's what turned me into a naturalist for the rest of my life.
REHMBut, you know, it's interesting. You've written a great many books. You've done a lot of studying about what our Earth is made of and all the creatures that inhabit it. Why did you decide to approach this as a novel instead of another nonfiction story?
WILSONWell, there's one rule that I've learned as an author -- appearing on wonderful shows like yours is part of it -- is people respect nonfiction, but they read novels.
WILSONPeople are basically storytellers and listeners to stories. That's how they like to find out about how the world works. They will read nonfiction, but they have to have already some interest and commitment to learning from it. No matter how beautifully written it is, they will still be inclined to close the covers after chapter two in order to get back to that good novel they're working their way through. So this was one of the main motivations I had. I thought this was one more channel that I might be able to open to talk about the issues that most concern me and I feel should most concern everybody.
REHMNow, the young boy we call Raff is born in Birmingham, Ala. in 1929. The question is how much of his story reflects your own story?
WILSONFirst 10 years, I guess, that's pretty much me. I had similar family background. I had similar -- went through similar divorce difficulties with my parents. And I had similar bonding with some of the splendid remnant of environments left in the south after we moved back to Alabama, including especially my ancestral home of Mobile. But then Raphael Semmes Cody -- he's named after Raphael Semmes, a confederate naval hero, of course, by a socially ambitious mother -- he has a very different course of -- in his life.
WILSONHe -- as a teenager, he realizes that this piece of land he loves so much he spends half -- most of his time, actually, in it, becoming familiar with all of the amazing plants and animals of it, is under the gun from developers and in the part of the country where developers just buy land and go ahead and clear everything off.
REHMWhich is happening in a fair number of parts of this country.
WILSONIt is. If there's any area where it is most rampant, though, it would be the Southeastern United States. Maybe a few of the Western states, but here it's pretty rampant. But it's also rapidly changing. Well, Raff decides on a very interesting strategy as a young man, especially since he is under pressure from his family and from the patriarch, his uncle, to carry on the Semmes' tradition of succeeding in business or in politics. So he does end up going through law school, but it is in law school that he contrives this brilliant plan to save the tract of land and have -- actually get the developer on his side in doing it.
REHMAnd that was such a fascinating twist that he does become a lawyer, not really because he wants to initially, but because he sees the law eventually as a way to do exactly what he feels needs to be done.
REHME.O. Wilson, he's emeritus professor of biology at Harvard University. He has authored more than 20 books. His new novel, "Anthill."
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Prof. E.O. Wilson of Harvard University is here with me. And for the first time in his long career, he's written a novel. Its title, "Anthill," all about an area in Alabama that a young man is trying to preserve because of the creatures who live there, among them, ants. If you'd like to join us, call us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't forget, you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. You might just talk a little, Prof. Wilson, about how and why ants became of such interest to you.
WILSONI guess that it was their instant availability. And, furthermore, I was blinded in one eye as a 7-year-old, by accident, when I pulled up a fish in the Gulf of Mexico that had spines that penetrated. I had a traumatic cataract, so I had only one eye.
WILSONAnd (unintelligible) vision in that eye, so I found that I'm no good at birds. Everybody who's interested in natural history, it seems, starts with birds, unless it's flowering plant. And I'm no good with that, and -- but I was very good with the little things around me, the creepy crawlies. And soon I discovered that, in fact, they are the -- by far, the most abundant things. Ants, for example, outweigh -- at least in one study shown -- done in the Amazon, they outweigh all the land vertebrates -- birds, mammals, amphibians and birds four-to-one.
REHMThat just takes my breath away.
WILSONYeah, they took over the world in the Mesozoic Era. They've been in control for, you know -- at least beginning to be in control as far back as 90 million years.
REHMWere they always small?
WILSONAlways. And -- but, you see, there's so many of them. I think the estimate -- the best estimate I've made it is 10 trillion -- 10,000 trillion ants alive at any given time. And if you weighed them all, remarkably, very roughly, all the ants alive at any given moment, very roughly, weigh about the same as all the human beings weigh.
REHMWow. That's quite a figure.
REHMAnd Prof. Wilson has just drawn me a depiction of an ant, and he says my 10,000 trillion...
REHM...constituents, living ants. And he has signed this, and I shall keep this forever. And I'm sure many of you would like to join us. Talk about "The Anthill Chronicles," which you wrote and are at the center of this book.
WILSONYes, that's right. The ants here are chosen to represent this glorious array of plant and animal species in that particular plot that young Raff is trying to save. It's a part of the great longleaf pine savanna, which, before people came along, covered 60 percent of the entire South. But people don't know that, how important that is, and it's so rich. It's the richest part of the United States. In one acre of this forest, in the ground floor, growing, you know, in shrubs and herbaceous plants around the great pines themselves, can be found over -- typically, over 100 different kinds of plants found only in that system. So this is the sort of thing, I think, that we would automatically, with any interest in conservation of this country, give high priority to.
REHMNow, one of the things I've always heard about ants and have been fascinated by is the amount of weight that they can carry far, far above their own weight. How do they manage that?
WILSONIt's exoskeletons. It's the way they're built. You know, their skeleton is on the outside. Also -- and their muscles pull the joints together in a highly efficient way, but substantially, too. It's because they are so small, they can generate more power in lifting objects than we can with our fleshy, fragile bodies.
REHMDo you -- they have clearly organized themselves into communities with responsibilities, with various activities, and you've watched them do that.
WILSONIt's been the subject of my -- much of my lifetime research. I work out, for example, with a few others, the chemical communication they use. They communicate by many smells and tastes they pass back and forth among them.
REHMHow do they do that?
WILSONWell, they're called pheromones, and they have glands all over the body. If you dissect an ant, you'd find that they are a battery. The ant is a walking battery of glands that have little openings to the outside. They release these substances that they can smell with extraordinary acuity. Ants are like six-legged bloodhounds. And they have...
REHMAnd why do they do that?
WILSON...different messages in each of these glands. They can...
WILSON...combine them, almost, to make sentences. And that's how they organize themselves. They have evolved that over tens of millions of years, and that's -- we weren't aware of that because, of course, we don't -- we're very peculiar as audio-visual creatures. Not very many kinds of creatures on the planet communicate or orient themselves by sight and sound. The vast majority do it with smell and taste, and so ants are in that great majority.
REHMWhat are ants communicating to one another?
WILSONThey are communicating almost everything you can imagine. There are various pheromones in combination -- sometimes, say, come this way. And then maybe with another signal, they'll say, come this way, I found food. Come this way. There is an enemy. Quick. Alarm, alarm. Spread the alarm. Or come this way, check it out with me. There's a new nest site out there. And so on.
REHMSo who decides whether an anthill is going to be constructed? And how is that done?
WILSONNone at all. There is no command center. The queen is -- basically, after she makes her first flight and gets herself inseminated by a male and a lair, typically then she does nothing except lay eggs and make new workers. The workers individually decide what needs to be done by what they encounter and what they feel, say, through hunger or fear from pheromone transmission or meeting of enemies and so on. They make the decisions. It all fits together into a beautifully working system. But, mind you, before you start making comparisons with human societies in your mind, that this is done because ants are almost entirely governed by instinct that is automatic responses to a certain stimuli. So it fits together, but it fits together in a pretty constant and inflexible way.
REHMWhat comes first? The anthill or the queen having been inseminated?
WILSONWell, you know, it's a question very much like, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? And I'll tell you right now, it's the egg. And so the queen, for reasons I'll -- if I'm challenged by a member of our listening audience, I'll explain that. But the queen getting herself inseminated is the beginning. And let me add quickly before anyone brings up -- listening, brings up, what do we learn from ants of moral value? I'll just quickly say, nothing. It's -- the colony is entirely female.
WILSONNow, I'm a feminist, certainly, but that's carrying liberalism -- it's liberalism run amok. Males are tolerated. They're created by the colony and just tolerated for a very brief period of time. They're helpless. They have tiny mandibles. They have to be fed. They have usually big eyes, big genitalia. They really are flying sperm missiles. They don't do anything except leave at the appointed hour in time, go into the air, usually, find the queen or young virgin queen, mate and die. And the queen then starts the new colony.
REHMAnd the new colony consists of mostly females?
WILSONTotally female society. Males are like -- well, they're just guests for a very short period of time.
REHMUnder a microscope, can you see these tiny glands and the genitalia -- everything that the ant is?
WILSONYes, everything. That's what we do. We -- a lot of what I did, I could do with a dissecting stage microscope with magnifications up to 50 and with very fine forceps. I managed a lot of the early work that way. But more recently, it's been necessary to use automatic micromanipulators that can take it down to a much finer level of resolution. And, of course, many other techniques are used by scientists, right up to electron microscopy of the gland structure but also the chemistry. We've done a lot of work on the chemistry of these pheromones in order to actually duplicate the signals. And we've been able, in fact, to be -- to talk to the ants. We can actually get them to do what we want them to do.
REHMOh, come on. Tell me how.
WILSONWell, all you have to do is find out exactly what the pheromones are. You can create many of these pheromones as we have done. That is we -- you know, the chemists and biologists working together -- and we know with measurement techniques, the kind of things you have on CSI -- may I use that as a comparison -- and modern forensic medicine -- we've been using it for good part of 50 years -- and we then take the exact amount we know each ant has and/or the amount that it releases. And it may be as little as a millionth of a gram -- you know, just trace amount -- and we then present that to the colony. And, sure enough, it's possible from chemicals that we -- that were synthesized and we took off the shell, to talk with them and to get them to do what we want them to do.
REHMGive me an example of what you might want them to do.
WILSONIn 1959, for example, I was working with fire ants. This was the first time a gland like this...
REHMOoh, nasty, little fire ants.
WILSONYeah, in the laboratory. And -- well, one reason we're working on them is that they breed so easily, and they're wonderful laboratory animals. Anyway, I was considering working on the trail substance. That is, I wanted to find out what they were following when they went out on the trail. So I tried a variety of glands. All, you know, very painstakingly taken out and isolated and then took the contents, and I made trails one after the other. I got no response. I came to a very small gland that no one has ever studied before. We barely knew it existed. I tried that, and it was an explosive reaction. And we found -- I found then that I could get them to come out anytime I wanted, lead them to any place I wanted. And that was the beginning of our talking with the ants.
REHME.O. Wilson, emeritus professor of biology at Harvard University. He's authored more than 20 books, including the Pulitzer Prize winning, "The Ants." "Anthill" is his first novel, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. I'm going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Miami, Fla. Good morning, Lloyd. You're on the air.
LLOYDGood morning. Thanks a lot for having me on the show, Diane.
LLOYDI wanted to thank you, Prof. Wilson. I just want to comment that Prof. Wilson is my hero, and I admire him very much. And I remember the first time I watched him -- he also has a -- I know of at least one movie, the "Lord of the Ants." And after I watched that video and watched him stick his hand in the ant's nest to experience what the -- how the ants react to invaders, I thought it was so admirable. And I hold him in very high -- with very high regard, and I'm so excited about telling stories about my -- to my children about you.
LLOYDAnd I remember when I was young, I had that same fascination with ants, and my first experience was with fire ants myself, my first science experiment. And I just want to thank you, Prof. Wilson, for everything you've done. And thank you, Diane, for having him on the show today. I'm so excited about listening.
REHMOh, Lloyd, I'm glad you called.
WILSONWell, thanks so much for that. And you certainly live in a great state for ants and for a lot else, too.
REHMTell me what happened when you put your hand...
WILSONWell, I knew those fire ants were going to sting me. I've been working on them since I was a 19-year-old at the University of Alabama when the Department of Conservation of that state hired me. I had a reputation as the leading ant -- well, I might as well confess -- the only ant expert in Alabama. So I got to do the first survey. And, incidentally, a side story is that that experience was -- made me the person that Rachel Carson approached when she was working on the book "Silent Spring." But any rate, I had experienced many ant stings, and I thought that I wouldn't mind too much. But I wanted to make a dramatic entrance to the movie to show and talk about why they're called fire ants.
WILSONSo I went and did the reckless thing of putting my hand in, and by count later -- because each sting makes a little welt on your -- you know, on your skin -- I got stung 54 times within a few seconds. And I brushed them all off. And I had never experienced anything like my -- and I've found out the hard way why they call them fire ants because it felt just like someone poured gasoline on my hand and lit it for a while.
WILSONWell, I guess, what I'm saying is, don't try this...
REHMDon't do that.
REHMKeep your distance. Would one fire ant ever travel by itself?
WILSONTravel? You mean, leave...
WILSON...and go away from home?
WILSONNo. And we have a saying about -- in the study of social -- advanced social organisms like that. One ant is no ant.
REHME.O. Wilson of Harvard University, his first novel is titled "Anthill." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd we're back, talking to Prof. E.O. Wilson of Harvard University. He's written 20 books, including the Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Ants." But now he has his first novel titled, "Anthill." And here's an e-mail from Virginia. "Please ask Dr. Wilson something we all need to know. What do we do ethically about the ants which invade our kitchens? I've heard him talk passionately about ants. I despise killing them and think of him every time I have to."
WILSONThe most common question I've asked -- I'm asked is, what do I do about the ones in my kitchen? Well, here is my answer. Watch where you step, be careful of little lives, put down bits of honey and tuna -- they particularly like those -- then get down close, preferably with a magnifying glass, and watch what happens. And you will see the unfolding of a social order -- part of it anyway -- that is so alien to human beings that it might be on another planet. But to be -- I mean that. But to be realistic, you've got to get rid of them if they are doing damage to you or they're in the way. So I'm not going to tell how to destroy my constituents. I realize you may have to, but I'm going to leave that to professional exterminators.
REHMCould you simply put down a piece of paper or put the honey on there, draw them to that paper and deposit that out in the garden?
WILSONOh, if it only were that simple.
WILSONWell, now, you've got me in a corner. So I'll tell you the best thing that I know to do...
WILSON...that might result in not killing off a colony for -- if that's what you really -- you would like to do. And it's admirable if you have that love for life. Try boric acid, quite harmless, and just find out where the ants are coming from. And that you could do, of course, by putting that to a bit of honey on the paper. And when you find out where they're -- how they're coming in to the kitchen, you'll just line that and other possible exits and entries with a thin line of boric acid. And that tends to repel them and stop them from coming in.
REHMWhat is it that creates a colony separate from another colony? Do they have different ways of being? Do they have different rules of order? What is it?
WILSONThey operate mainly by, you know, identical rules and communication signal. What makes them differ and why they can -- how they can distinguish one another and why ants, in general, are the most warlike of all creatures -- they're always at war. And that, you know, in the -- in my ant chronicles, this central novel of the book "Anthill," I've got the history of the unrolling of four of these wars among competing colonies. They tell one another by what's called the colony odor. That's a distinctive odor each colony has on its body. It's kind of partly from little hereditary differences. It comes partly from what they eat and so on, different from one species to the next. But each one has its own distinct odor.
WILSONAnd the young ants, as they emerge into the adult stage with six legs, learn that odor in the first several days. They become imprinted on it, and you can't change them from it. You could train them, as we have done in the lab, but that means to identify with even a different species of ant. And that becomes -- those ants become their sisters, and they will attack their own real sisters if you put them near the nest.
REHMOh, my heavens.
REHMReally fascinating. To Greenville, N.C. Good morning, Jerry. You're on the air.
JERRYGood morning, Diane. And good morning, Dr. Wilson.
JERRYI'd just like to say briefly that, as a young undergraduate studying philosophy, we actually used one of Dr. Wilson's books called "On Human Nature" in a class called the philosophy of evolution. And I found it the most revolting book I have ever had to read, which is kind of funny, so I think I'll have to go back and read it again. But in support of Dr. Wilson, too, in the Southeast, the amount development and the destruction of biodiverse environment has been enormous in North Carolina.
WILSONYes, I know. And I hope that, within just a matter of a small number of years, we really all pull together. And I mean everybody because this is for everybody. It's not -- we're not against one group against another. It's a commonality of purpose that we should have in the Southeast, at this time especially, to get things under control and make our part of the country sustainable.
REHMJerry, thanks for calling. Here is a message from Mindy. She says, "I'd be honored to hear your response to the following question. I was asked recently by an acquaintance to give him an elevator speech as to why biodiversity is so important. He told me I had 45 seconds to convince him that he should care about this and that humans indeed have an impact on the earth. I was dumbfounded by the request. I've asked a number of ecologists the same questions. I don't feel I've received a satisfactory answer. Can you help?" And Dr. Wilson is timing himself.
WILSONI am timing myself. Because humanity is a biological species living in a biological environment, because, like all species, we are exquisitely adapted in everything, from our behavior to our genetics, to our physiology, to that particular environment in which we live. The earth is our home. The rest of life is the critical part of that home. Unless we preserve the rest of life as a sacred duty, we will be endangering ourselves by destroying a home in which we evolved and on which we completely depend. Exactly 45 seconds.
REHMAnd, Mindy, you can take that one to the bank. Thank you so much, Dr. Wilson. Let's go now to Georgetown, Colo. Hi there, Kathy. You're on the air.
KATHYHi. Thank you, Diane and Dr. Wilson. PBS last night had a program on Rachel Carson -- the last year of her life before she died -- and she mentioned you, Dr. Wilson. And to change the subject from nonfiction to fiction, I'm off to the library to order your book right away. I was probably one of the first -- I'm a PhD environmental scientist. I was probably one of the first environmental activists in Tennessee in the early '70s. And I'm just so looking forward to reading your story about this young man who became a lawyer as I did became environmental scientist because what I saw -- I worked in occupational health for years -- in worker exposures before, really, there was much of an environmental movement.
KATHYBut I can't thank you enough. And I also appreciate, Dr. Wilson, all the time that you spend on the radio because I'm an Internet radio fan, and I thoroughly enjoy listening to you on the radio every time. So thank you, Diane, for your guest. And I'm off to order your book from the library.
REHMAll right, Kathy, thank you for calling.
WILSONOh, well, thank you very much. And, you know, I realize that, like me -- when I've spent more than a day or two back in Alabama -- you do not speak with an accent, therefore I knew you were from the South. And it was a joy to hear you, even though you're exiled as I am in a far off part of America.
REHMAll right. To St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, T.J.
T.J.Good morning. Thank you, Diane. Prof. Wilson, it's an extreme honor. I have a very quick question. My question is about the role of pheromones in other animals, especially -- I guess specifically social animals and even more specifically in humans. That's basically it.
WILSONBasically, the answer to that is that one of the reasons for our being so peculiar is that we evolved from primates that were adapted to the -- to arboreal life and life in the open savanna, and in the course of which we became primarily visual and auditory in the way we orient, on the way we hunt and find food and the way we communicate with another. And that makes us very peculiar to -- in a world that -- as I mentioned earlier -- is, in fact, organized by pheromone, by smell and taste.
REHMAll right. To Joyce in North Florida. I gather, Joyce, you're trying to help with the environment there?
JOYCEYes, ma'am. I want to make a request of Dr. Wilson after he can speak about how much land is being clear cut and developed to the detriment of biological diversity. Here in Florida, we've worked six years to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November, which will give people the ability to veto land use changes that they don't think are beneficial to their communities, their way of life. And I wondered if Dr. Wilson would give us a supporting statement for Florida Hometown Democracy Amendment 4. And if he would be so kind as to give us his support, he can send his statement to our website, floridahometowndemocracy.com. And I thank you so much for having Dr. Wilson on your show on Earth Day. It's so appropriate.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling.
WILSONAll right. Thank you very much. And I will do it as I'm now recording the address to send it to. And I also will look it up and learn more because I'm doing a lot of work right now with conservation groups in the Florida Panhandle. As you know, we still got a lot of wonderful land there, but it's been degraded so much by lumbering -- logging, but, nonetheless, a lot of wonderful, beautiful ecosystems there, which now it's very timely to protect.
REHMI want to take you back for a moment to the novel itself. And you talk a little about how the ant microcosm actually reflects the human environment in which our hero, Raff, grows up.
WILSONYes. I made it as explicit -- pardon me. I made it as explicit as possible without stepping over the line, I hope, of that ant's society and the problem that ant societies have and their tiny six-legged way are a metaphor of human societies. To this extent, one, their advanced social organization has caused -- or allowed them to dominate the earth, in this case, the dirt -- the earth of little things, little things that run the world, as I call them, where -- and precisely so ours has allowed us to dominate the earth.
WILSONAnts did do it gradually with millions of years of evolution which they co-adapted, you know, with the rest of the life adapted to them as they adapted to the rest of life. We have appeared -- burst on the scene so suddenly that there -- we've developed no controls, and that's part of the -- that's part of our problem. There is in the novella -- and all of the ant novella, incidentally, is based on fact. This was the first time, I think, that you can read about exactly how ants are and how they talk to one another and how they get through life.
WILSONBut there is in that novella a description of a super colony. And this is one in which a single mutation -- again, based on fact -- has lost -- the colonies have lost the ability to distinguish one another. So they fuse into a giant colony, and they start spreading all over the place. They dominate the environment, and pretty soon they've exhausted -- they're starting to exhaust the environment. And it -- the super colony's not stable. Well, metaphor, analogy of -- I scarcely need to elaborate on -- but there are a lot of things there in which we can fruitfully compare. And I hope people in literature will do so as only they can do.
REHMAnd you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Strongsville, Ohio. Elaine, you're on the air.
ELAINEHi, Prof. Wilson. I read a few years ago some intriguing thing about a group selection that, I think, you advocated. And I'm wondering if that's something you could explain. I -- it seems to me that you are using the ants and the social nature of the ants to promote that theory.
WILSONActually, what we've been doing, I have been working into this in five years of theoretical -- and other work, and I won't have time to go into it in detail. But we are essentially -- and I noticed we'd done a great -- on the nerves of some of colleagues who defend it -- but we are simply dismissing the traditional theory that has been, you know, the dominant central theory of the last 40 years, that so-called kin selection theory. And we are replacing it with a much better theory after showing how it is foundationally unsound.
WILSONI've been able to do that with two colleagues who are mathematicians of the first rank. The first time we've had the basic theory down as a foundation examined by people who could do that. And the explanation of the latest formulation will, I think, be in Nature. We have an invited paper in Nature magazine. It's under review right now, so stay tuned.
REHMCan you tell me just a little more about that?
WILSONYes. In a phrase, I can do it as follows. It appears that kinship, genetic kinship, pedigree is not nearly as important as the old theory had postulated. And, in fact, it turns out that close kinship does not have the effects in evolution that were supposed and cannot have them except in very specialized unlikely conditions. What count is that somehow by steps of preliminary evolution leading up to the threshold over which species once in a great step while step, lead -- this leads to advance states of altruism and cooperation, the kind found in social insect colonies. That this then involves two levels of selection, one, working -- natural selection -- one working at the level of the group versus group, and the other running counter to it, individual in colony versus individual colony. I'm seeing your eyes glazing over.
WILSONSo maybe we should move over.
REHMYou're seeing my hand go up because we are out of time. I could sit and listen to you for hours. Thank you so much for joining.
WILSONI thank you tremendously, too.
REHMHarvard Prof. E.O. Wilson. His new book, his first novel is titled "Anthill." Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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