MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. At the heart of E.O. Wilson's first novel are 70 pages that only he could've written. In those pages the characters are ants. Or more accurately, the characters are ant colonies. Professor Wilson, who's a distinguished Harvard biologist, has taught us over the years that an ant colony possesses a communal intelligence. Individuals serve limited, designated purposes.
The novel is called "Anthill," which is also used metaphorically to describe human society, for example, Harvard Law School. But it's the literal anthill that I confess I like the best and kept me most closely riveted.
Ed Wilson, welcome back...
Professor E.O. WILSON (Biology, Harvard University; Author, "Anthill"): Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: ...to the program. I want you to start by telling us about war among ant colonies. You describe a sequence of wars along the side of a lake in rural Southern Alabama. Well, why does an ant colony attack another ant colony?
Mr. WILSON: Because it is their nature. Ants are the most warlike of all creatures and most species, if they're not at least competing with each other fiercely for resources by first come, first serve, they are at war with one another. And it's quite natural in most species for one colony to wipe out the other if it possibly can.
SIEGEL: Your description of how a war breaks out between two ant colonies reminded me of the Central American soccer war of 1969 when football hooliganism led to all-out national conflict. What starts out as a kind of tournament, you describe, turns into wild violence.
Mr. WILSON: Yes, that's right. The tournaments of the ants are quite extraordinary because they come out - this is just in a small number of species that this has been described, but it is worth mentioning - and that is the soldiers come out. And some smaller workers accompany them and they strut about on stilt-like straightened legs and puffed-up bodies, puffed up with air, and walk around one another and bump each other.
And then counter ants from each colony goes through, sniffs each one in turn and then reports back to the colony how strong the soldier force is.
SIEGEL: By counter ants, you mean the ants would go out and count the...
Mr. WILSON: Ants - yeah, making count. That's right.
SIEGEL: Yeah. And once they get a sense of who the enemy is, they're constantly sending out more ants, or if they don't have enough, they're...
Mr. WILSON: When they encounter the enemy and during the tournaments, they send out more soldiers to bluff the other colony out. And the colony that gets bluffed out, very much like two competing human societies, retreats a little bit, and that's the payout of the game.
SIEGEL: A key difference between wars that nations fight and that anthills fight, you observe, is that we, people, send our young males to war. They send their old females to war.
Mr. WILSON: Exactly. All ants that you see, all the members of the colony that actually work with the queen are female. I think most people would say that's not bad, although others might say that's liberalism run amok.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: But the role of the male ants is like terminal permanent adolescence. Their only object is to have sex and after they do that once, they're finished.
Mr. WILSON: Not only that, they're only brought into existence, that is, raised up as males for a short season in most kinds of ants. And they don't do anything. They're taken care of by their sisters, and then they are released on the big day when they get a chance to mate with a virgin queen in the air and then they die.
SIEGEL: And good-bye. Now, the stories of the ant wars in your book "Anthill" are set within a story about the contemporary South. It actually spans three generations of southerners. Story about class distinction, but also about conservation and development. How do you see - I mean, you've written before about ants and about science. Now you've tried a novel. What role do the ants have in the broader story as you see it?
Mr. WILSON: I feel, as many of my fellow conservationists do, that we still haven't made as much of an imprint on public opinion as is deserved. And so I observed that whereas people respect nonfiction, they read novels. So this was one of the motivations I had for converting what I know and then having, I hope, not too obvious an environmental message in the form of a story.
So the ants in the novel join me in making this effort because ants are the most abundant of all insects, they are the most social. And they're also, I think, to most people, most humans the most interesting. So they are there to represent the ecosystem in an interesting and, I hope, compelling way.
SIEGEL: So here you have in the novel, there are people who are differing or struggling over how to develop a tract of land. And we as readers have been exposed to a whole civilization that unfolded in the course of months on the shore of that lake among ant colonies. The equivalent of a century full of continental war is taking place right there.
Mr. WILSON: Yes, it's the "Iliad" in four years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WILSON: Actually, the "Iliad" didn't take longer than that either, did it? That part didn't even occur to me actually until I was well into the writing that I was writing something of a six-legged "Iliad."
SIEGEL: Your protagonist, Raf Simms Cody, is from south Alabama, and he falls in love with nature as a little kid and never falls out of love with nature. You're from Mobile yourself. Is your fascination with ants today just a direct continuation of the little kid digging in the sand and looking at these creatures?
Mr. WILSON: Oh, yes, it is. Every kid has a bug period. I just never grew out of mine. But basically, I'd like people to strike some kind of a balance in between the poor urban kid that never knows what's going on in the real world outside of his computer and TV screen - that's one extreme - and then perhaps the person that becomes a virtual recluse in nature. We really need to have our kids getting out long enough for them to develop a deep interest in and perhaps love for the wild lands remaining to us.
SIEGEL: What was Mobile like when you first remember experiencing it and when was that?
Mr. WILSON: Mobile was a small city. And it was within easy reach where wonderful natural environments from marshland to pine forests relatively undisturbed and rivers and streams, and that's where I went out as a boy constantly exploring. And that's where I learned a lot on my own and became, I think, committed for a lifetime to studying the natural world in this manner. I started there.
SIEGEL: You've written about ants for many years and in "Anthill" once again. Now you're writing about people as well in this book. Which do you prefer? Are the people more interesting than the ants or vice versa?
Mr. WILSON: People, I will surprise you. But next to people, ants.
SIEGEL: Okay. E.O. Wilson, thank you very much...
Mr. WILSON: Thank you.
SIEGEL: ...for talking with us.
E.O. Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist and now the author of a novel. It is called "Anthill."