As sheer luck would have it, I happened across an interesting development in the intersection of art and science:
In 1971, Edward O. Wilson published a remarkable monograph entitled, The Insect Societies. This book details the sociobiology of colony insects, mostly wasps, ants, bees, and some ground-dwelling beetles. I haven’t, to be honest read the whole thing. ‘Tis not a book to be read. It is a lengthy 460 pages of text, almost a hundred more of index and references.
-460 pages devoted entirely to the sociology of arthropods! Complete with Latin nomenclature and old-fashioned, visibly dot-matrixed graphs. No, this is not a book I read. It is, however, a book I keep in my living room. Occasionally I look at it and wish I understood more of what Edward O. Wilson was talking about.
Like this, for example: “In summary, although caste determination in Formica differs from that in Myrmica in several important details, there is a close resemblance in general pattern. Multiple controls exist; most, perhaps all, of the six factors of Myrmica also occur in Formica.”
I read this and think, “Hmmm, how much would I have to learn to truly grasp the meaning of that sentence?”
I then decide that it is best that I just go fold some laundry or something and quietly appreciate the brain of Edward O. Wilson.
I was sitting on the front porch, idly flipping through a rain-wrinkled New Yorker —
(these magazines continue to arrive at my house, at an alarmingly weekly rate, a subscription mysteriously renewed again and again. Perhaps by my ex-mother-in-law. This may be the last year!)
(I’d better start reading them…)
…when I happened upon the ‘FICTION‘ – a story entitled, “Trailhead” by one E.O. Wilson. It didn’t occur to me that it was The Insect Society genius, though the name did seem to ring a bell. I discounted the dim familiarity as false recognition and blamed E.L. Doctorow. T.C. Boyle, too.
The whole story is a fictionalized version of ant colony development! The Insect Societies chapters on ants! I didn’t realize this until I went upstairs and noted the Edward O. Wilson book in the living room. “Hmmm…”, I thought.
I skimmed several chapters and became suddenly aware of the brilliant ploy of Dr. Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus at Harvard…
This meticulous and micro-observant man built a career in academia via science, complicated and precise science. Ants are quite small, you know. They all look the same to most people.
However, they are not. Did you know that some ants cultivate specific fungi in their brood lairs, to feed emerging colonies. They provide a substrate ideal for the symbiotic fungal growth, some ants farm fungus with dead grasses, some with decomposing fecal matter.
However, perhaps not fascinating enough. Dramatize the ants, give them a sense of struggle that humans can relate to (biophilia!), toss with epic battles of invading colonies…
Now that’s a good story.
I hope E.O. Wilson, whose novel ‘Anthill’ is being released this April, reminds people to read The Insect Societies, by Edward O. Wilson. The story is even more amazing when you realize that not only is it true, but that someone took the time to notice it.
And then loved it.
If you are not aware of Dr. E.O. Wilson, you probably ought to investigate this champion of ant insight and sociobiological theory.
Here is a bit of his biography:
He began studying ants because they could be stored in vials. There was a shortage of mounting pins during World War II, making the collection of flies difficult.
Wilson went on to catalog ALL the ant species in Alabama.
Quote: “…humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies.” (From “Trailhead” in the January 25, 2010 New Yorker)
I cannot even deal with how resonant that statement is.
I think I might love this man!