'Anthill' Profiles Struggles Of Ants

And Humans — Biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson discusses his first novel.Anthill is a portrait of conflict in the ant and human worlds of southern Alabama, from the rise and fall of battling ant colonies to a nature-loving boy's conviction to save the wilderness they inhabit.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

You know, the American South has yielded the great novelists. You have Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Margaret Mitchell, William Faulkner, to name a few. And now we're going to add to that list E.O. Wilson, the biologist, ant expert and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

He has written his first novel, and it's called, what you might expect, "Anthill." But it's not just about ants. It's not too surprising that considering its author, the book has a captivating section written on an ants'-eye view of the world, from the nuptial flight of a virgin queen ant to the foundation of a bustling colony. We have an ensuing war.

There's a great narration about the wars between ant empires. I didn't know that ant empires have all these wars, and it's done only like E.O. Wilson could really succeed at doing and bringing it to a literary life, and it's a really fun way to read and to learn about ants, too. But that's not all the book's about.

Joining me to talk about the rest of "Anthill" is E.O. Wilson, author. He's also a university research professor emeritus at Harvard, and he's here in our studios in New York. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. E.O. WILSON (Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University; Author, "Anthill"): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: How - this is a book about a Southern boy and ants. Now, how close is that to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Pretty close.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: It's actually the first years of his life, when he becomes bonded to that environment and starts to look at it carefully.

FLATOW: How difficult was it going from fact writing to fiction writing?

Mr. WILSON: Moderately difficult.

FLATOW: Moderately.

Mr. WILSON: Well, there are two reasons, Ira, if I could just quickly state them.

FLATOW: Sure.

Mr. WILSON: Scientists are not used to dialogue, whereas good novels turn on dialogue, and in fact, a lot of the action, if a well-written novel, is implicit in the dialogue. But the other thing that I found very difficult was you have to carry all that in your head. You have to build a whole other world with people, and then you have to let them change through time in your head and interact and...

CONAN: Create a conflict.

Mr. WILSON: And all these things, and you carry it in your head when you're writing non-fiction. Of course, you should be working off primary sources, databases and so on which are spread in front of you so you can write a while and think a while, and then go away for a week and come back and pick up right where you were. But not a novel. You can't afford to let those people be forgotten in your head.

FLATOW: And did you have a schedule, like novelists have, I'm going to have to write so many pages a day?

Mr. WILSON: Oh, I always do that anyway. I always write every day, and that made it a little easier.

FLATOW: So did you have the answer - did you have the ending in your head before the beginning?

Mr. WILSON: Only vaguely. I had it a little bit. I had a lot of it in my head as I started writing, but a lot of it really came as I wrote, and I think that's probably true of creative writing - commonly. I remember what Eudora Welty said. She said, how do I know what I think until I've written it?

FLATOW: Yeah, and that's true for you, too?

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, the ideas come as you write.

FLATOW: Let's talk about the novel. It's very well-written. It's very enjoyable to read and especially the middle section, for people who love to read your nature stuff, you've got it in there, that whole middle section about the ants and the wars and things like that. Did you decide you would have to have something like that in there?

Mr. WILSON: Oh, it was to be a principal feature of the novel, because if a scientist comes in to fiction, novel writing, they want to have -of course, there's all good novels eventually are fantasies, you know, openly and deliberately, fantasy.

They depend upon exactitude and description of detail of some aspect of the real world. People find that really interesting. I do. And you need to keep that straight, and it helps lose the reader in the trust of your writing.

But I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to write a new kind of novel, and that was one in which the environment, nature broadly, if you will, becomes a big part of it, a fine detail of it, as these otherwise normal Southerners work through their family crises and histories and ambitions and so on.

Of course, all characters in all novels implicitly are living in environments, and sometimes wild environments, but traditional novelists seldom pay any attention to them. Whereas, in this case, I wanted to immerse the people into the natural environment as a background and even make the ecosystems under threat. The central ecosystem is a character in the novel.

FLATOW: Of course, as you said, making nature a central part of a novel is unique, and I'm trying to think of a novel made into a movie that makes nature a central part, and that would be, I guess, "Jurassic Park." Right? I mean, (unintelligible) "Jurassic Park" concentrated on a lot of the nature that was going on around there and how it conflicted with the people's attempt at manipulating it.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, that's true. Of course, Michael Crichton made up most of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: I mean, there's a lot of fantasy there, whereas I've tried, I've tried to build a strong plot, evocative action...

FLATOW: You had good natural figures, the ants.

Mr. WILSON: Yes, I describe the environment in part of the South exactly as it is.

FLATOW: And your main character, Raff, the main character, develops an interest, as he explores around, in lizards and birds and butterflies and ants, the same sort of thing, as you say, that you started out life doing.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, it was good to have that as that autobiographical part. And Ira, you haven't asked why I did this.

FLATOW: Well, I'm going to get that, but...

Mr. WILSON: Well, okay, well, we'll get back to it, then, later.

FLATOW: No, give it to us now.

Mr. WILSON: I'll give it you now, exactly...

FLATOW: I don't want to be too predictable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: No, actually, that's what you want to do. If you ever want to write a novel, you want to be strikingly unpredictable. All right.

FLATOW: Okay, go ahead, tell us why you did it.

Mr. WILSON: Actually, that's the question I'm usually asked first, and...

FLATOW: I know, I'm sure you have been. You've been at thousands of interviews.

Mr. WILSON: Well, just ordinarily in conversation, too. Well, it's because I wanted to make the environment - you know, I've been attempting to bring the living environment more to public attention because that's really neglected, proportionately, to the non-living environment, which is what more people think about as the environment we're concerned with.

But the living environment is enormous and complicated, and it is in great threat, and it isn't getting the attention at all in the general public, and therefore in our political leadership, that it deserves, and so how to help bring it out and make people think - read and think about it.

And so that leads me to a principle that became obvious to me as time went on in all this non-fiction writing I have been doing -pardon me -which is people respect non-fiction, but they read novels.

FLATOW: Interesting. And then the natural progression of that is what? What happens to a good novel? They make it into a film, right?

Mr. WILSON: That is true.

FLATOW: Are you looking forward to that already?

Mr. WILSON: I think that might happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: And of course, people remember the characters. They remember what happened to the characters. And now if what happened to the characters is something they see important in their own lives or interesting to be part of their own lives, you've made a little bit of progress that way.

FLATOW: Yeah, I agree with you about the arts, you know, the arts - be it fiction or film or whatever - really being very influential in changing the course of history or whatever. You can point to lots of different factions, I think the "China Syndrome" film and nuclear power or whatever. But you're absolutely right, people pay attention.

Mr. WILSON: And, you know, it's also the logical middle ground between this approach between science and the humanities. People remember people, and they remember things people do. That's the way our brain is constructed. So that if you have people doing things that are interesting and important in a novel - even if it's not happening in real life yet - then it becomes more interesting and acceptable to consider doing that kind of thing in your life. That's the line of reasoning.

FLATOW: Is this out of some frustration with your non-fiction work, not being as widely influential or received as you thought it might be?

Mr. WILSON: As I wished it to be, yeah, that's true, and of course, not just my work but the work and the strong efforts of lots of gifted people, scientists and writers. Up until now, it's resulted in a lot of new attention to the living environment, you know, to the peril of ecosystems and species, but it's still not anywhere near what we should have.

Right now, we are in the early stages of the United Nations Year of Biodiversity. I hope that'll help a little bit. But generally speaking, we need to get - we need to realize that if we don't save the living environment, then saving the physical environment is not going to do that much good in the long run.

FLATOW: Yeah. Talking with E.O. Wilson, author of "Anthill." Our number - 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

It's interesting because there do seem to be many more fictions -nonfiction topics showing up in the arts these days, as if people are discovering or being - or rediscovering the power of it, you know? And even in films, not just - not just novels but in films, we're seeing science themes, we're seeing them on television, we're seeing many places.

Mr. WILSON: I think creative writers - you know, what we consider serious creative art - the most important authors of them have shortchanged themselves by overlooking the immense amount of material in it - metaphorical and real.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you think you might, maybe, do what a Jane Goodall has done and become a U.N. representative - go around the worlds, talk about these issues, things like that - an ambassador?

Mr. WILSON: I've been doing a lot of that - almost too much already.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: No, I'm going back to writing nonfiction, actually, and doing more research.

FLATOW: Was this an enjoyable experience, the writing? I know there are writers who say - you know, some very famous writers who say, I hate the writing process, but I love the have written feeling. (Unintelligible)...

Mr. WILSON: I think that's true. Someone once said that writing - of this nature, especially - is ecstatic agony.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILSON: And that's the part I like - I like writing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILSON: I like the ideas as they come in and getting them into form. But I have to admit, that I really like to see the first draft finished...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. WILSON: ...and then the editing. I love editing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILSON: Because in editing - especially something like this, you know, which it depends a lot upon the imagination and choice of phrasing and so on. In the editing, you really do a lot of creative work in getting it right.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And did you do a lot of the editing yourself, rewriting and - over and over again? Did it take a lot of drafts?

Mr. WILSON: Yes, it does.

FLATOW: You know...

Mr. WILSON: I mean, I usually take about three to five...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. WILSON: ...you know, rework it.

FLATOW: Right. And that was the pleasurable part of...

Mr. WILSON: I find it pleasurable...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: ...because you're always - you're seeing improvements you can make and you're always adding new ideas as you go along. So...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you said the dialogue was the hardest part that -how did you get through that hard part? Just...

Mr. WILSON: Well...

FLATOW: ...brute force?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Hard work, you know? It's - that's - science is hard work. So we scientists really are used to do that. But I also had the guidance of a really superb editor, Bob Weil...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILSON: ...at Norton. I owe him a great deal for having, sort of, coach me as I went along.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with E.O. Wilson, author of "Anthill" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Our number is 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk with Dr. Wilson.

Let's see if we can go to the phones. Terry(ph) in Delaware. Hi, Terry.

TERRY (Caller): Hi there.

FLATOW: Hi there.

TERRY: Thanks for taking my call. I'm a big, big fan of Mr. E.O. Wilson. The last time I saw you speak was in Washington. You were talking to a group of people, including science teachers, and advising us to make science exciting for the students. And it seems like in the years that have intervened, things have gotten much duller in the science classroom because of various No Child Left Behind strictures. And I'm wondering is what your updated advice is? And if it's the right novel, I will certainly try that.

Mr. WILSON: I think - yes, thank you for that. I think that actually -one lesson that perhaps I could bring out as a scientist, would be, from this book, is that the way to create or to bring kids up to maximum potential is to get them excited about an adventure, their personal adventure. And nature offers adventurer right at hand for a good teacher, and I'm sure you are. Again, bring them to the brink of it and let them loose.

FLATOW: Okay. That's one of the points you made with your main character is how much of - how much freedom he was allowed to go out and explore on his own, and discover nature on his own.

Mr. WILSON: I think one of the very best things that can happen to a child in finding himself is permissive parents.

FLATOW: Hmm. Thanks for calling.

TERRY: Thank you.

FLATOW: You - good luck.

TERRY: Rock on. Bye-bye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thanks so much. 1-800-989-8255. So how much else is autobiographical in the book, besides you as a youngster in there -anything?

Mr. WILSON: No. I think, really, (unintelligible) the youngster because Raphael Semmes Cody - Raphael Semmes, incidentally, is the naval hero of the Confederacy and his mother gives him that name because he's a - the descendant of a collateral line of Semmes and she's socially ambitious. Any rate, that is the part that's autobiographical. But young Raff goes to law school. And his main effort is to save a very important tract of old growth, long leaf pine woods, with one of the richest...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILSON: ...biodiversities in the world. And he does this by a rather complex, what, as it turns out, effective strategy of working himself right into the heart of the development's community.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is that based on anything real?

Mr. WILSON: It's based on what's actually happening in the South.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: Right now, I worked a lot with conservationists in South Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, directly, and I just got back from there. And I - so this is based upon what I see is - what truly is happening in the give and take between these two principal forces. The battles are fought in the boardroom. They're fought in the press. They're fought in the churches. And gradually, the South is catching up - the Southeast, especially - in environmental awareness. I think, particularly with reference to conservation, it was a little behind.

FLATOW: Well, we got to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more with E.O. Wilson, author of "Anthill," his first novel. He has two Pulitzer Prizes for non-fiction. Who knows? Who knows what can happen with this book? But it's a - we won't jinx it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

We're going to take a short break and come back and talk. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri, or go over and leave us a little - you can go and get into the Second Life Community and send us a note that way, too. We're also over there. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break with E.O. Wilson.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with E.O. Wilson, author of "Anthill," a novel. It has made in New York Times bestseller list. So it's moving on up there. We'll see if we can push it up a little higher today. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

I got to talk - we've got to talk ants a little bit, because I can't have you here and not talk ants. There are so many questions. And one of the things I thought I knew about ants but I didn't know a whole lot about until I read it in the book is the anthill chronicle section, which is terrific. Describe something called a super colony. What happens in a super colony? What is a super colony?

Mr. WILSON: There are actually super colonies in the world, and we spent a lot of time studying them. They are colonies in which the ordinary colony boundaries based on odor and the ant's ability to distinguish odor of different groups, is silenced if - we know in one case, that's in the fire ant, that it's silenced by a single gene. And also, frequently, the ability to count queens, so that only one queen is allowed at a time, is lost.

FLATOW: Yes, right.

Mr. WILSON: And we put those two together and you get colonies that just joined into a single sheet of ants with many, many - I call them queenlets, small queens that coexist with each other. And this monstrous conurbation is able to dominate the environment, if it's in the right kind of environment to be dominated. And I use it metaphorically -actually, I didn't know whether to make the metaphor obvious - to what happens when the species - you get one guess for what I had in mind.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: It's too successful...

FLATOW: Too successful.

Mr. WILSON: ...that they have taken over the environment, creating big tribes and coalitions and then can go ahead and wreck the environment.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILSON: This colony does. It comes to no good end as a result, and that's the end of that part of the chronicles.

FLATOW: Right. Right. There's a lot about ant warfare in this. Is that also a metaphor for people, too, I guess?

Mr. WILSON: Well, if you should make it so.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: Ants are the most warlike of all animals. War is something that can only originate when you have societies. You know, you can say that one snake was at war with another one in the swamp. But we mean it to be of group against group. And ants actually are a lot more violent and warlike than human beings.

FLATOW: Yeah. And the different kinds of wars and the different kinds of fights that they have, and the creation of the super colony, that makes up a wonderful part of that section - of the third - middle section of the book there.

And one point in your book, you write that, where humans send their young men to war, ants send their old ladies.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. That's one of the really strikingly...

FLATOW: It's amazing.

Mr. WILSON: ...original thing about ants and one that interests people the most. It's true. Ant societies are all female, incidentally.

FLATOW: All of them.

Mr. WILSON: Males are tolerated only during a brief period, in most cases, in the year, they're bred up by their sisters. They're anatomically incompetent, except in one role, and that's to mate with virgin queens. They have big eyes, tiny mandibles. They're unable to feed themselves. They're winged and they have large genitalia. They're flying sperm missiles that are released by the colony. And they have only one behavior that they're really any good at, and that's mate -finding a virgin queen - in the air, usually - and mating with her and then they die. That's what they're expected to do. They won't be allowed back in the colony. And then the colony goes on this ordinary life of sisterhood.

As the female ants get older, they tend to migrate outward from the queen where they start as, you know, an aid or consort, a supporter of the queen, feeding her and grooming her, or the brood, the young ones raising young ones, nursing function. And they move outward, gradually, to take over functions like repairing a nest, building a new nest. And then they're ready for a combat if the colony needs defense.

So it's the old ones. It's the ones that only have a short period of time to live that throw themselves into battle, and thus they are the -the old the females are the warriors.

FLATOW: Amazing. We have - we had a question, a tweet that came in, asking about a relationship that I wanted to ask you about, and that is the similarities and differences between ants and bees. Are - this question is: Are ants as crucial to the environment as bees are? Do they have similar cultures?

Dr. WILSON: Well, they are quite similar. And it's interesting, because they have social bees, like the honeybees, and none more advanced than that one. And the most advanced ant colonies are basically similar the way they're organized, particularly when they're hymenopterans. You know, bees have their(ph) - also, are all female.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WILSON: But they each are vital to the environment in their own way. Bees, of course, are key - they're key pollinators. If you took away all the bees - you know, we almost did it in the case of the honeybees. I mean, the honeybees have...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. WILSON: ...has gone down drastically. Then you start getting into big problems for the flowering plant. Ants are the premier predators of little arthropods. They're the premier soil turners around the world. They are the cemetery squads that remove most of the small, dead animals. And what most people don't realize about ants is how extraordinarily abundant they are.

They make up - we know from just particularly one major count made in the Amazon, but this appears to be the case worldwide - over half, maybe as much as two-thirds of the biomass of all the insects. That's how dominant they are. Social life pays off once it's attained. And as a result, if we took away all the ants, then we'd all be in trouble.

FLATOW: What is the evolutionary history of ants? You mentioned that they came from wasps.

Dr. WILSON: Yes. They're a descended from wasp. I don't think we have the precise wasp yet back when the Mesozoic that gave rise to them. But we can get a pretty good idea from existing lines of ants, a great deal of work on which has been done in the last 10 years.

The earliest ants are about 100 (unintelligible), for about 100 to 110 million years old from fossils. But projections beyond that, using divergent - apparent divergent rates of geologic time of existing lines puts it back as far 150 million years. So that is an ancient lineage. Ants, however, like some other groups of insects, didn't really start getting abundant and very diverse until the flowering plants came along, and the angiosperm of flowering plant forest, which are far richer in species and far more complex in structure.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. WILSON: Now, this gave ants - in my interpretation of it, anyway - a much more complicated environment in which to divide among species different niches. And also, it gave them, very likely, a greater abundance of insects that they could prey on.

FLATOW: Hmm. But 150 million years would, if I'm thinking correctly, put them back where dinosaurs were still around.

Dr. WILSON: Oh, yes, well back.

FLATOW: Well back.

Dr. WILSON: We found, incidentally, way back in 1967 that the first Mesozoic ant came to Harvard. It was collected, of all places, in the amber of the Middle Cretaceous from New Jersey. And it was beautifully preserved ants. It was a great day when I got them and we - then several of us started looking at them. And we saw what an ancestral ant first look like. It was extraordinary. Because we'd - in the previous years, we had - from living ants, you know...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. WILSON: ...studying their apparent relationships, we predicted what a really primitive ant would look like if an ant had ever been found in the age of dinosaurs in the Mesozoic era. And we were right on many counts, but we had surprises on other, some...

FLATOW: Did - yeah.

Dr. WILSON: ...you know, some traits were - they'd already acquired that looks like ant - modern ant traits. And others, they were still extremely primitive.

FLATOW: So if you saw a Mesozoic ant around today, would you recognize it as an ant?

Dr. WILSON: Of course.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. WILSON: Yeah. There were characteristics that make it unmistakable as to whether it's an ant or not.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with E.O. Wilson, author of "Anthill," his first novel. He's already won two Pulitzer Prizes for a nonfiction.

Let's see if we can go to the phones, get some other interesting questions, because lots of folks want to talk to you. Let's go to Marklin(ph). Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MARKLIN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

MARKLIN: Hi. I just wanted to first say that I've been a fan of Dr. Wilson's for many years, reading his scientific literature for, you know, classes, to get some of the science background, or for some just for my own education and information. So I would just like to say to thank you for all your work you've done in working conservation and everything.

And I don't know if he was aware or you are aware that there was this -one of his books, a science book, had a (technical difficulties) influence on a larger community. (technical difficulties) He put out a book a while ago "The Ants," which is like this definitive treatise on ants and such. And there was this, in the early 1990s, a large comic book company, Dark Horse Comics, an independent comic book company, one of their editors wrote a book called "Cyberantics," it's a graphic novel.

And it's about a scientist that basically was a cyberneticist in the future and had some (technical difficulties) theories and stuff so they kind of like scoffed(ph) back at him a little bit. He wrote his findings - his research findings in the form of like a (unintelligible). And his research is about making a little tiny cybernetic ant and sending it to an anthill. And in order to get his facts straight and everything, he used Dr. Wilson's book, "The Ants," as his source book.

And he actually, in the end, he made up a lot of sources of fictitious cybernetic papers, but he also listed in the sources at the end of the graphic novel "The Ants" by E.O. Wilson and - I forgot the other author's name now. But...

FLATOW: Interesting.

MARKLIN: ...probably the most interesting was any time it went through -and it had information like - information about like, type of beetle that was like (unintelligible) with and lived within the ant colony...

FLATOW: All right. All right.

MARKLIN: ...that this little ant would encounter or slaver(ph) ants or anything that these little ant named Ari - which is Japanese for ant -would need. He would make a little footnote and reference over in the column over to the side of the drawings and everything else an actual quote with a - sometimes a picture lifted right from the book. So I'm thinking...

FLATOW: All right. Let me get a reaction. Let me remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with E.O. Wilson, author of "Anthill." Even comic book writers are - you're familiar with that reference?

Dr. WILSON: I'm - you know, I'm actually not.

FLATOW: You talked about your influence in the (unintelligible).

Dr. WILSON: Yeah. I'm pleased to hear that. But the book, "The Ants," did appear on "CSI" one episode, and that was for one of that(ph), and opened up to help solve a case on "CSI." Now, that's big time.

FLATOW: That's big time. Well, we were on the "Big Bang Theory" a few months ago.

Dr. WILSON: Oh. That's good.

FLATOW: So - we were big time, too.

Dr. WILSON: We're beginning to infiltrate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I do think science - I mean, we can talk about that. I do think science is percolating...

Dr. WILSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...going up, from the bottom up, you know?

Dr. WILSON: We've a kind of a dry period in the way we've been talked about for the last eight years or so. But I think that signs are very favorable now in terms of interest in and appreciation for and, you know, a desire to participate.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. WILSON: And I believe we're going to find more and more ways, as science gets sophisticated enough, to open gates of new inquiry. It might sound like a contradiction, but it's not...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. WILSON: ...to a general public. And we're going to find ways of having the public actually participate in scientific research, adding data, getting into the discussions of the issues.

FLATOW: Do you think the social communities will aid in that, having people participate? Do you think this...

Dr. WILSON: Oh, yeah, right. Well, (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Yeah? Tweeting and things like that?

Dr. WILSON: Yes. Well, one of the areas that that is beginning to happen, as we speak, is in mapping of biological diversity, the -another thing I've...

FLATOW: Very close to your heart.

Dr. WILSON: Yeah. Very close to my heart. The Encyclopedia of Life is going strong, and it's now set up so that new data can be added by people who can prove that they, you know, by a photograph or specimen, that they have a new locality record, or new species and so on. And this has sparked a lot of attention in the public - particularly those who have already had some interest in natural history - so that the exploration of the diversity of life and discovery of new species and the like is one of the true sciences in which citizen science can be done, the other being astronomy.

FLATOW: Yeah. Oh, well, they've been doing at for years.

Dr. WILSON: Many years, and it's paid off.

FLATOW: Comets and things like that.

Dr. WILSON: You know, it's going to pay off in studies for biodiversity. And also, it'll get, I think, a much larger group of people, more direct and personally concerned in knowing about biodiversity and participating in saving it.

FLATOW: And it's much more exciting to do it than to just read about it in a book or at school.

Dr. WILSON: We have (unintelligible). Sure. We have to make people feel that they have a proprietary stake in it and that they can contribute their part of it. You know, that brings us full circle back to my novel, because maybe the next best thing before a person becomes directly involved as a participant and a collaborator in science is to read about people...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. WILSON: ...who have that kind of an adventure.

FLATOW: And you can read about those people who have that kind of adventure in E.O. Wilson's new book, "Anthill." And it's a novel. It's not - I read this in two days. It is so interesting. And I - especially when you - the characters are well-drawn out. You can relate to them. There's a section in the middle part that you - for everybody who wants to know about ants. Congratulations and good luck to you on this book.

Dr. WILSON: Thank you so much, Ira.

FLATOW: And I know you're going to go back to writing fiction, which we love to read. But, you know, you never know. Maybe you'll have another idea in your head and write another novel. Thank you for taking time to be with us today, Dr. Wilson.

E.O. Wilson is the author of "Anthill." He's also university research professor emeritus at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That's about all the time we have for today.

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