ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
And now, the story of a superluminary of science, Edward Wilson, and the creature he's been studying for most of his 79 years - the mighty ant.
Dr. EDWARD WILSON (Department of Biology, Harvard University): Can you see her?
SEABROOK: Yeah, oh my goodness. She looks like a swollen tick.
Wilson and I are at the National Zoo peering into a busy colony of leafcutter ants and finding among them the queen. There she is.
Dr. WILSON: Oh yeah. Well, mother of the earth.
SEABROOK: I guess so. I've only had one, and listen, I feel for her.
Dr. WILSON: Believe me, she could produce a thousand offspring in an hour without batting an antenna.
SEABROOK: Edward Wilson is known in the scientific world as E.O. Wilson. He's a Harvard professor emeritus, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize twice, and the author of dozens of papers and books about his life's obsession. We've taken this field trip to talk about ants and Wilson's long life studying them. More on that in a minute.
Right now, he's pointing into a tank that appears to have nothing but a bush in it. But look closer. Down at the bottom, hundreds of tiny ants are marching in a neat, fine line. They look like a hundred little shark dorsal fins walking along the ground.
Dr. WILSON: Yeah.
SEABROOK: Because they're carrying sort of vertically - they're carrying these pieces of leaves.
Dr. WILSON: Well, they carry them in their jaws, pieces that they've cut off the leaves, which they do with great expertise and precision, and in the nest, they will be growing fungus - mushrooms so to speak.
SEABROOK: On the leaves?
Dr. WILSON: On the leaves, that's the base, I think. It's an assembly line process. It begins here.
SEABROOK: Thousands of ants skitter through a series of tubes and chambers the zoo has set up for them. Taken together, the colony is a massive swarm but works with the precision and coordination of an orchestra. And that is how they must be observed, says Wilson. Not as a bunch of individuals, but as one big unit, a superorganism.
Dr. WILSON: This particular kind of ant is the ultimate superorganism of the world. There is no ant more complex than this, no other animal in society more complex. A superorganism is a society of organisms so tightly organized with division of labor, and they serve only one individual. They're working for mom.
SEABROOK: Get up close to one of the tubes, and you see ants of different sizes. Their size determines their work. The big scary-looking ones are soldiers. They guard the queen. The medium-sized ants go on foraging missions, marching pieces of leaf back to the nest. Slightly smaller ants take those pieces and blade them into manageable chunks. Then even littler ants take those chunks and munch them up, creating a kind of wad of plant matter.
Dr. WILSON: Then the smallest of all swarm through these nests. If you look closely, you could see them. They are the true gardeners. They're the ones that look after the fungi and trim out alien fungus and move the little fungal strands around and take the fungus out when it's ready and give it to the others to eat. It's really something.
SEABROOK: What a complicated system. I think I just counted what, five or six different sizes of ant in one species - one colony?
Dr. WILSON: One colony, and that's just part of it. That's the assembly line.
SEABROOK: This idea of Wilson's, viewing the colony as one unit, is a product of his life's work. He's just published a new book called "Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies."
Dr. WILSON: In science and biology, this is an important thing because not only does it represent how on this planet - how far you can go in getting an organized troop, but we can get principles by studying these ants of the origin of a whole new level of biological organization.
SEABROOK: Much of what science knows, what humanity knows about these incredibly complex societies is because of E.O. Wilson's work. He has spent decades describing these colonies, figuring out how they function. He started an entirely new discipline of science called sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of social interaction.
Every Discovery or PBS special you've ever seen on ants, even the kids' movies "Ants" and "A Bug's Life," owe a lot to Wilson's work. And his obsession, it started here at the zoo and in Washington's Rock Creek Park. Let's go outside and take a look at the Rock Creek Park of your youth.
Dr. WILSON: Yeah, that'll be fine. That's where I started 70 years ago. See that big log up there?
Dr. WILSON: And see this stump right there?
Dr. WILSON: That's a good starting point. These very possibly were trees full blown when I was here. That's intriguing to me, you know. The forest has probably looked the same it did 70 years ago, but it certainly got a lot of different individual trees and shrubs, you know. And we didn't have any joggers like the ones going by.
SEABROOK: A new species in the park.
Dr. WILSON: It's a mutation.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SEABROOK: As we walk along this leaf-littered path, it's not hard to imagine this giant of science as a nine-year-old boy hunting through the trees, turning over rocks. One of his triumphs, he remembers, was breaking open an old rotted stump and finding a nest of bright yellow citronella ants.
Dr. WILSON: When the nest is disturbed, they let off an alarm and a defense substance which we now know is citronella. That's the stuff they spray out.
SEABROOK: Huh, smells lemony?
Dr. WILSON: And so when you encounter them and break into their nest, which I did when I broke open a stump right here not far from where we are standing in Rock Creek Park, and the ants poured out, there's then this strong odor of citronella that came through the air. And I was - I remember that as an exciting experience.
SEABROOK: For a nine-year-old, my goodness.
Dr. WILSON: Yeah, especially.
SEABROOK: You know, as I walk along this path in Rock Creek Park, I see the, you know, the trees, the colors of the fall, the leaves are almost gone now. What do you see when you walk along this path?
Dr. WILSON: What I've always seen - I have vision, you know, in one eye because I had an injury when I was six years old, but - so I had only - I have vision which makes it very difficult to track birds, but it's very sharp vision. Therefore, I started looking much more at little things as a kid.
SEABROOK: Little things.
Dr. WILSON: Yeah. I never changed. So when I walk through here, I'm conscious of the nature of the habitat. But basically, what I'm doing is I'm looking from about the level of my feet to out maybe five or ten yards. And I'm most conscious in seeing small things like ants in a trail and little butterflies fluttering along or a beetle that's sitting on top of a stump. And I grew up that way, and I'm still that way, and I've never been able to understand why people aren't that way, too.
SEABROOK: What happened to your eye when you were six?
Dr. WILSON: I was fishing and pulled up a fish called pinfish, which has a very sharp needle-like dorsal fin. And accidentally, I was just careless. I was a kid. And I was careless, and the fin hit the eye and pierced it. And I probably should've run and gotten help. The pain was terrible. But I couldn't stop fishing. I'd just bear the pain. I just stopped, kept fishing, and I didn't say anything to anybody because I didn't want to be interrupted.
SEABROOK: I see. You had an ability to concentrate and focus at a very young age, it sounds like.
Dr. WILSON: Yeah. I think that it's a good thing for scientists to be a little bit obsessive and not too bright.
SEABROOK: Oh, come now.
Dr. WILSON: Well, yes. You should be bright enough to see what needs to be done, but not so bright that you get bored doing it. And that's where obsessiveness comes in. You've got to know what's important. Bright enough for that. But then, you've got to be willing to go after a problem to solve it, to achieve something for long periods of time often, you know, repetition, constant searching.
And many people get bored doing that, especially extremely bright people. So people with IQs of, say 160 and 170, which I emphatically do not have, tend really not to become successful scientists.
SEABROOK: You've spent your entire career doing what you did when you were nine years old 70 years ago here in this park.
Dr. WILSON: In a sense, yes, I have. I haven't changed at all. And I get the same thrill.
SEABROOK: The same thrill?
Dr. WILSON: Because I'm going into a natural environment, that's why. I think most people have in them a hunter and gatherer and treasure hunter. Because natural history, especially when you are exploring and really going out to find something new, to find something which you've heard about or read about, and you want to see it live and hold in your hands, that is so basic to human nature.
And if we lose it, so that people don't want to go out with that spirit, then they have lost something extremely important from the potential of human nature, which is the enormous pleasure of confronting the full richness and the mystery of nature and becoming familiar with organisms that is wild and free and don't need human beings.
Think about it. There are these parts of the world that would go on as they have, in many cases for millions of years, if we all disappeared. They don't need us. They just don't care. And it's good to know that there's a world like that, that doesn't depend on us.
SEABROOK: Like those ants, E.O. Wilson has spent decades exploring, studying. What could be left for him and the hundreds of younger scientists he's taught and inspired to figure out?
Dr. WILSON: The mystery for biologists still to solve is why it's been so rare that you have organized groups arising. For really advanced societies, that's only occurred maybe on the order of say two dozen - that we know about - times. It's very rare. So, the question is, if it is so highly successful, why is it so rare? Because that's right at the heart of sociobiology. How does a society arise?
And then, how do very advanced societies arise from simple society. When we get the answers to that, then we'll be much closer to answering those great existential questions which Paul Gauguin wrote on the canvas of his Tahitian master work. Where did we come from? Who are we? And you will remember, there was a third one.
Dr. WILSON: Where are we going? We're not going to answer the last one, where are we going, until we ask and answer correctly who we are and where we came from. So the study of sociobiology and yeah verily down to the humble ant is one way to approach those fundamental questions.
SEABROOK: Well, like all great science, we'll end it with a question then. E.O. Wilson, he's a biologist, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and he co-authored the new book "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies." Thanks for coming along with me today.
Dr. WILSON: Thanks so much, Andrea.
SEABROOK: There's a slideshow of the leafcutter ants at npr.org.
E.O. Wilson has our parting words tonight. He said, you are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best. However hard the path, aim high, behave honorably, prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure, persist. The world needs all you can give. And that's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a good week.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.