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In Love With Living Things : NATURALIST, By Edward O. Wilson (Island Press: $24.95; 352 pp.) : JOURNEY TO THE ANTS: A Story of Scientific Exploration, By Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson (Harvard University Press: $24.95; 224 pp.)

October 23, 1994|Jonathan Weiner | Jonathan Weiner's latest book, "The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time,"is the 1994 winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science

"If you're a storyteller," the filmmaker Howard Hawks is quoted in "Naturalist," "find a good story and tell it."

For more than 40 years, Edward O. Wilson, one of the preeminent evolutionary biologists of our time, has been finding and telling good stories in unlikely places, from fire ants in Alabama, to bulldog ants in Western Australia, to army ants in Costa Rica. ("Most children have a bug period," he says, "and I never grew out of mine.") His discoveries have excited other biologists and intrigued a widening circle of readers (most of whom outgrew their bug periods a long time ago). In four decades at Harvard University, he has won the National Medal of Science and two Pulitzer prizes (for "On Human Nature" in 1979, and "The Ants" in 1990). Now, in a wonderful new memoir, "Naturalist," he tells the story of his own evolution.

"My childhood was blessed," Wilson writes in the book's prelude; but not everyone would say so. Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1929. His parents divorced when he was 7, and he grew up in a series of homes and Southern boardinghouses, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the whims of his father, an alcoholic government accountant. By the time he graduated from high school, he had attended more than a dozen different public schools and one military academy. Then is father killed himself.

As a boy, he was shy, small, "always the runt of my class." In town after town he headed for the woods and swamps. There he collected ants, rattlesnakes, butterflies, Spanish moss. "Animals and plants I could count on; human relationships were more difficult."

"Strong father, weak son," Wilson writes; "weak father, strong son; either way, pain drives the son up or down in life." Pain drove Ed Wilson upward. Early on, he discovered an amazing capacity for hard labor. By the age of 13, he had become "a child workaholic," delivering 420 newspapers every dawn in Mobile. At the same time he began climbing toward Eagle Scout, and expanding the long woods-and-swamps adventures that would make him one of the great explorer-naturalists.

The year of his parents' divorce, he blinded his right eye in a fishing accident. His left eye happened to be unusually sharp at close range, and that helped push him toward entomology, toward "animals that can be picked up between thumb and forefinger and brought close for inspection." At 16, he resolved to choose a group of insects on which he could become a world authority. He considered flies: "I liked their clean looks, acrobatics, and insouciant manner." But to collect flies he needed long black pins that were made only in Czechoslovakia, and that country was not manufacturing any insect pins in 1945. Then Wilson thought of ants. "Of course, ants: my old acquaintances, the source of some of my earliest passions."

Very few scientists have written so candidly and evocatively about their early lives, and shown us how the career grew out of the childhood. And very few have the skill to make their work as clear and interesting as Wilson does here. In the second half of the book, he leads the reader on adventures in rain forests, deserts, mountains and South Pacific islands--wherever ants are to be found, which is almost everywhere. He gives us telling descriptions of many well-known figures in modern biology, including Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and James Watson, the cocky young co-discover of the double helix, who joined Harvard in 1956, the same year as Wilson, and became Wilson's nemesis.

Watson felt that the future of the life sciences lay at the level of molecules. The study of living animals and plants was history. Ecology was bunk. Thanks partly to Watson's agitations, the Harvard biology department, like biology departments almost everywhere, soon stopped looking for people like Wilson and began looking for people like Watson. This made life for a world authority on ants very uncomfortable, as Wilson describes in one of his memoir's liveliest chapters, "The Molecular Wars." He found Watson "the most unpleasant human being I had ever met."

Again, pain drove Wilson upward. He amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's ants, finding and naming new species everywhere. He also made himself a master at finding and naming new theories. He explains these clearly and gracefully in "Naturalist," and in another new book, "Journey to the Ants," written with longtime collaborator Bert Holldobler.

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